How is parenting today different than it was a few decades ago? A thought-provoking article, “The Fragile Generation,” recently popped up in my parents’ group on Facebook, and it offered some disturbing examples of how overprotective parenting is negatively impacting kids. Modern children are far too sheltered, the article argues, and are missing critical opportunities to build independence, resilience, and problem-solving skills through “free play.” After-school activities like biking around the neighborhood or playing at the park have largely been replaced by structured, adult-supervised activities: team sports practices, dance or piano lessons. Kids today are far less likely to wait for the bus by themselves or walk to school without an adult chaperone.
Even trick-or-treating on Halloween is now a choreographed affair. Trick-or-treat was yesterday in our community, and it took place specifically between the hours of four and seven o’clock in the evening. Once it got dark, we saw very few people out. By contrast, growing up, I remember heading out the door once the sun went down, returning home only when my bucket was too heavy to carry.
The authors of “The Fragile Generation” note that crime is actually down to 1963 levels; statistically, our children are growing up in a safer environment than we did. So if the world is truly safer today, why do we as modern parents feel so anxious?
There’s no doubt that the parents who raised our generation worried less than we do now, and I think one major reason is that they were not constantly bombarded by information via social media and other online sources. Personally, I know that my anxiety increased significantly when I became the proud owner of a smart phone back in 2008. Suddenly, I could instantly Google terrifying and stress-inducing things like, “will arsenic in rice cause cancer?” or “is my child getting enough fluoride?” or “how to raise a child genius.”
No matter how conscientious you are as a parent, the Internet – notwithstanding all of ways it’s positively impacted our lives – can provide a million examples of how you’re getting it wrong. It’s no wonder that we often worry that we’re not doing enough to keep our children safe.
For this reason, if we don’t want our children to grow up as the “fragile” generation, we will have to consciously fight harder against the tendency to worry, to overprotect and overreact, a tendency that’s unfortunately well-fueled by a society that is wired and used to having information at its fingertips 24/7. I know I can model better behavior in this arena – whether that means stepping away from my laptop, putting away my phone, or simply biting my tongue more often when I want to blurt out things like, “Be careful!” or “Someone’s going to get hurt!”
Just as we did growing up, our kids will face dangers and risks in life. But if we can avoid transferring our anxiety to them, they’ll ultimately feel more free to explore the world and learn positive coping strategies on their own. That doesn’t mean we won’t be there for them when they need us. It does mean we’ll make sure they know we believe in them, no matter what.
There’s a wonderfully insightful scene from The Simpsons that I still remember (season 17, episode 14, “Two Mommies”). Ten-year-old Bart, who has a tendency to attract trouble, finds himself stuck on top of a building with a gorilla who has mistaken him for her son. Neighbor kid Rod Flanders bravely starts climbing up to rescue Bart, until his overprotective dad, Ned Flanders, shrieks, “Roddy, get down! You’re gonna fall!”
It’s only then that Rod starts to doubt himself, trembling and nervously looking down.
Bart’s mom, Marge Simpson, always the voice of reason, then wisely offers this, “Ned, Rod needs to know you believe he can be okay on his own. You’d be surprised what he could do if you just gave him a chance.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself, Marge.
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