Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Case for Free-Range Parenting

A German-American parent writes a NY Times op-ed in defense of Free-Range parenting:
A study by the University of California, Los Angeles, has found that American kids spend 90 percent of their leisure time at home, often in front of the TV or playing video games. Even when kids are physically active, they are watched closely by adults, either in school, at home, at afternoon activities or in the car, shuttling them from place to place.

Such narrowing of the child’s world has happened across the developed world. But Germany is generally much more accepting of letting children take some risks. To this German parent, it seems that America’s middle class has taken overprotective parenting to a new level, with the government acting as a super nanny.

Just take the case of 10-year-old Rafi and 6-year-old Dvora Meitiv, siblings in Silver Spring, Md., who were picked up in December by the police because their parents had dared to allow them to walk home from the park alone. For trying to make them more independent, their parents were found guilty by the state’s Child Protective Services of “unsubstantiated child neglect.”
I mentioned that Meitiv case here and here.
What had been the norm a generation ago, that kids would enjoy a measure of autonomy after school, is now seen as almost a crime.

Today’s parents enjoyed a completely different American childhood. Recently, researchers at the University of Virginia conducted interviews with 100 parents. “Nearly all respondents remember childhoods of nearly unlimited freedom, when they could ride bicycles and wander through woods, streets, parks, unmonitored by their parents,” writes Jeffrey Dill, one of the researchers.

But when it comes to their own children, the same respondents were terrified by the idea of giving them only a fraction of the freedom they once enjoyed. Many cited fear of abduction, even though crime rates have declined significantly. The most recent in-depth study found that, in 1999, only 115 children nationwide were victims of a “stereotypical kidnapping” by a stranger; the overwhelming majority were abducted by a family member. That same year, 2,931 children under 15 died as passengers in car accidents. Driving children around is statistically more dangerous than letting them roam freely.

Motor development suffers when most of a child’s leisure time is spent sitting at home instead of running outside. Emotional development suffers, too.

“We are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives,” writes Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College. He argues that this increases “the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and various other mental disorders,” which have gone up dramatically in recent decades. He sees risky, outside play of children among themselves without adult supervision as a way of learning to control strong emotions like anger and fear.

I am no psychologist like Professor Gray, but I know I won’t be around forever to protect my girls from the challenges life holds in store for them, so the earlier they develop the intellectual maturity to navigate the world, the better. And by giving kids more control over their lives, they learn to have more confidence in their own capabilities.
Philip Greenspun points out some of modern risk distortions:
At the same time I have been poking around to find a new car seat for our son (will be 16 months old when the seat arrives). I’m discovering that the goal of safety advocates is to keep children rear-facing until they are age 4 or 5. All of the articles talk about how this makes children 50 or 75 percent “safer” but there is no mention of the actual statistical risk. Is the risk of injury in an accident being reduced from 10%/year or from 0.0001%/year? None of the articles include this information. Nor do any say “You could cut your child’s risk to zero by leaving him or her at home, buying a house that is walking distance to school (and where no streets need to be crossed), not signing up for Russian Math or Kumon unless those are offered within walking distance from your house, etc. You could also cut the risk in half by getting a minivan instead of a compact sedan. You could cut the risk by at least another fact[or] of two avoiding driving at night, in the rain, or when you’re tired.”
I agree with the comment saying, "We have gone totally bonkers with parenting."

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