The Overprotected Kid

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation, Hanna Rosin says:

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 very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” 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. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost — and gained — as we’ve succumbed to them?

The irony is that our close attention to safety has not in fact made a tremendous difference in the number of accidents children have:

According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in 1980 was 156,000, or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans. The number of deaths hasn’t changed much either. From 2001 through 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 100 deaths associated with playground equipment — an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980. Head injuries, runaway motorcycles, a fatal fall onto a rock — most of the horrors Sweeney and Frost described all those years ago turn out to be freakishly rare, unexpected tragedies that no amount of safety-proofing can prevent.

Even rubber surfacing doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference in the real world. David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, analyzed U.K. injury statistics and found that as in the U.S., there was no clear trend over time. “The advent of all these special surfaces for playgrounds has contributed very little, if anything at all, to the safety of children,” he told me. Ball has found some evidence that long-bone injuries, which are far more common than head injuries, are actually increasing. The best theory for that is “risk compensation” — kids don’t worry as much about falling on rubber, so they’re not as careful, and end up hurting themselves more often. The problem, says Ball, is that “we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.”

There’s much, much more.


  1. Mike in Boston says:

    See also Lenore Skenazy’s excellent Free Range Kids. She celebrates an annual “Take Our Children to the Park And Leave Them There” Day.

  2. Hanna Rosin back to writing something useful for once instead of feminist triumphalism.

  3. B. Adam says:

    I don’t have any answers to offer, but have noticed that families have become much smaller. Perhaps there is a different attitude toward safety when one has five kids, versus when there is only one.

  4. Grasspunk says:

    According to his autobiography, Richard Branson’s mom used to kick him out of the car miles from home in country UK and make him find his own way back. He was a little kid.

    There’s another force at play when legislation makes public playgrounds adopt more safety equipment — they become more expensive and some councils close down playgrounds rather than paying for the upgrades. Kids then play on the streets, more of them hit by cars…

    B. Adam may have a point. More kids and you have to switch from man-on-man to zone coverage. They end up all over the place.

  5. Aretae says:

    I’ve done the transition from 1 to (almost) 5 kids, and B. Adam and Grasspunk have a good line. It’s partially too, an experience thing. Young parents with one kid haven’t seen something happen and say, oh that might be bad. Experienced parents on kid 5 say: “Little Bobby did that. Hurt for a week. Never did it again. He’s fine now.”

    Also, putting on my heartless evo-psych hat, with one kid, one has all one’s eggs in one basket, and is more risk averse. With more kids, a less risk-averse, more value-focused strategy is more appropriate.

  6. Buckethead says:

    I have five kids. I’ve got spares…

    I find that I grow more callous as the family grows — but still, I was an only child in the 70s and my mom was not even remotely a helicopter parent. It is hard, sometimes, to resist the prevailing mode of parenting, not least because you get tired of the looks from other, let’s be nice and say, “more cautious” parents.

    Because calling them obsessive-compulsive, smothering, paranoid safety-Nazis will not get your kids invited back for the next birthday party. Or lead to someone making an anonymous tip to your friendly neighborhood Child Protective Services agency.

  7. Kevin M. says:

    Anti-helicopter guy here. We take the kids to the middle of a thousand-acre pasture. Rules are no crossing the fence and no teasing the bulls. We fix BBQ, and they can pick some up if they’re hungry. We supply them with matches, fireworks, squirt guns, and a go-kart.

    Several parents have stormed off in a fury, little precious in tow, after seeing the parameters of our day on the pasture, but the kids like it.

  8. Sam says:

    When I was in the first grade I used to walk 10 blocks home from the first grade in Atlanta near Emory University. No way would I let a kid do that today.
    I believe it’s TV. TV shows bad things happening for drama. Adds up in the brain to bad things everywhere.

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