is raising children a low-risk business?

Growing up, I lived on a quiet and affluent street where the houses were spaced at least an acre apart.  The houses were nestled in the woods and each backed up to a park.  So when I made best friends at the tender age of 5 with the little girl up the street, I knew I’d spend much of my childhood trekking back and forth between our houses.  And when we weren’t walking back and forth between our houses (a good .25 mile), we were hiding out in the woods, building forts – complete with a “tree” – named in honor of my large yellow labrador retriever.  We would walk down to the stream behind my house, and even when we were a little bit older (10 and 12  – maybe) cross a rather large street to go buy candy at the gas station a good mile away from either of our houses.

No parental supervision involved.  I know – SHOCKING!

Now, I know what you must be thinking: negligent parents. Didn’t someone call social services? Am I right?

Or perhaps, this sounds something like your childhood, too?

It is hard to understand how much childhood norms have shifted in one generation.  The Atlantic recently published an excellent article on the subject, The Overprotected Kid.  “Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One…study…conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower.”

Why have we gotten so risk-adverse when it comes to parenting that we won’t even let our kids walk to school by them selves?  It’s no longer socially acceptable, and potentially illegal? And why has is seemed (especially recently) that the government has something to say in every situation?  A few examples: working mom arrested for letting her chid play at the park and a woman whose kids were taken away by the state (and subsequently returned) after she let them stay at home.

This has really started to bother me since I view a large part of my job as a parent to teach my children to be independent, resilient and ultimately strong little people.  You fall down; brush yourself off and get back up.   No one has given you anything to do; make your own fun.   You see there is work to do; pitch in and help.  As a kid playing in the woods, I had massive freedom at a young age and learned responsibility.  I didn’t depend on my parents for fun nor were they apt to sit around and provide it for me.

Last week I took A., C. and our dog to my parents house.  I convinced them to go on a “walk” around the house with me (basically amounts to tromping around the woods).   We all took a big step and stood on a cliff that looks down towards a ravine into the aforementioned stream.   A. shouted “MOMMY!! LOOK OUT!! YOU ARE GOING TO FALL!”  I calmly reminded her that I wasn’t going to fall, and if I did, it would only be about 4 feet.   I also pointed out the stream to her, and told her when I was a little girl I used to walk down there.

“How did you get there?!”

“I walked”

“But HOW??” Incredulous.

“I just went through those trees in the woods” (there was clearly no path)

“Oh.” pause. “Who did you go with?”


Silence. As if contemplating how I would dare to make such a treacherous journey with friends.

We walk a fine line between over-parenting our children and teaching them to be independent self-reliant individuals.   At the playground, I let my kids fall.  I let my almost-2 year old climb to the top and follow her sister down the big slide. And I don’t hesitate to let my children go un-watched in our house (parents, of course, still in the house – just not actively watching).    By allowing my children to take reasonable risks, I allow them to gain experience that builds confidence (C. doesn’t even let me help her any more) and instills resilience which is essential later in life.

My parents allowed me to take those same reasonable risks as a child.   No one called social services on my parents because they lived in a nice house on a nice street.  And  it was a different time in parenting.  Kids could play outside for hours at a time unsupervised at a reasonably young age.  Many parents don’t have options for quality child-care in the summer; and they have to work. Period.

State law in South Carolina – where the mother was arrested for leaving her 9-year-old unsupervised on a playground – criminalized leaving a child at “unreasonable risk of harm affecting the child’s life, physical or mental health, or safety.”  But the law doesn’t say what unreasonable risk is.  Is that risk leaving a child unsupervised at a playground? Letting a child eat three big Macs a day at a McDonald’s? Letting the child drink a super-large soda in New York city? Letting her ride in a car?   

Has parenting gotten too risk-adverse?  And who is to decide what a reasonable risk is for a child?  Me or my government?

What do you think?  What was your childhood like and how do you, did you or will you raise your kids?  I’d love to hear your comments below.



8 thoughts on “is raising children a low-risk business?

  1. This is something I struggle with, although I mostly trouped all over the neighborhood largely unsupervised throughout my own childhood.
    There are a couple of reasons I see for the change, and probably more that I didn’t think of. First, as a society we are much less likely to accept something as just an accident. There is almost always something to blame. For example, if someone falls in a ravine, people call for more signs warning of the danger. It often comes from a good place- a desire not to see someone else injured the same way. But the result is that we are much less accepting of just an accident as an accident. And it also often puts the locust of safety outside of the individual and on external factors. We can’t just trust our kids when there are so many things out there that might hurt them.

    The second reason is because of all of the information that is now available. Thanks to social media, I can tell you if there is a crime anywhere in my community, as soon as I look at my phone. I can tell you the harmful effects of GMOs. I can tell you all of the risk factors for SIDS, even though it seemingly has no cause. Again, this is great because we are helping others avoid injury, but it is difficult to cognitively reconcile the information with the actual risk. The likelihood of having a side effect from a drug might be .0001%, but it is listed on the commercial with all of the other side effects so you don’t know how little the risk is. As a result, we perceive all of the risks as large.

    So, I strive to teach my children independence, but I’m bombarded in my life, and in my thoughts with messages about all if the bad things that can happen to them.


  2. Excellent commentary, K.

    I agree with H’s point that it is now commonplace in our society to assign blame to external factors . I personally see this as a loss of individual accountability, which we are failing to expect in the public space…of our politicians, our sports heros, or our pop culture icons, which of course then translates to our the next generation of young Americans. Furthermore, we collectively have a poor understanding of risk or statistical probability in general. See book, Fooled by Randomness.

    With regards to the question of whether I want parents or government to define acceptable risks, I defer to parents in all but the most extreme cases where direct risk to child’s life or limb.


  3. Pingback: eating crow on helicopter parenting | Princesses, Passports and Punditry

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