Utah has passed a law stating that it would no longer be a crime to let kids play unsupervised in a park or walk home from school at reasonable ages. Known as the "free-range" parenting law, after the parent-initiated movement of the same name, it is considered the first such law, although other states are considering following suit, or have been asked to vote on similar laws.
While I was heartened to see such action, I fear that such laws alone will do little to counteract the helicopter parent tendencies sweeping our nation, which among middle- and upper-middle-class parents are only getting worse.
Even in the face of books such as Julie Lythcott-Haims's "How to Raise an Adult," which presents a rash of studies suggesting that helicopter parenting is doing children harm, I see parenting among my friends, acquaintances and in my clinical speech pathology practice as increasingly focused on exactly that.
Whether it's packing a child's schedule so tightly that weekend lunches have to be squeezed into the commute, or talking incessantly on the playground, naming everything in sight, so as to enhance a child's vocabulary, I increasingly see parents who are too anxious about their children's futures to be present with them — or to enjoy their own lives.
I've seen this play out in my own life. After all, it's easy to fall into the anxious, harried tendencies of the culture at large. Unstructured time, from that perspective, can feel like wasted time, in which nothing is being learned, and in which boredom can seem like a curse. It doesn't help that parenting decisions are constantly scrutinized in the media, and by other parents — whether it's what to give at snack time, or what movie to watch, there is a sense that everything, especially for one's own child, has to be "right."
Such a process makes parenting all the more exhausting than it already is — and ironically, keeps a child from learning as deeply as he or she could, and from building creative skills through play. Our daily existence becomes more about reaching goals and hitting targets than interacting and enriching our lives. The end result is a family culture of heightened stress, which impacts both us and our kids, and ironically keeps kids in a cycle of anxiety and fear, rather than of growth and success.
We need more than a law to let kids roam free.
Take the example of vocabulary. What we know is that children benefit most from the opportunity to hear words in a range of contexts. For instance, a young child could be learning that a stick is something you find on the ground, but also a verb, and also part of the word "stickers," which get their name by sticking. They benefit from hearing these words used naturally, as they come up in the course of their play, and from making connections from the words that arise. They benefit, that is, from a good dose of downtime in order to hear and process these words.
Yet, all too often, the tendency of the helicopter parent is to try to teach words from the top down, as a list that will be used in the curriculum, or in a frantic talking-to, with the idea that more is more. Rather than a back-and-forth conversation, these exchanges all too often become a sort of linguistic firehose.
When parents are too wrapped up in children's successes, they become more anxious and stressed, and that anxiety, as study after study shows, has a negative impact on the quality of the parent-child relationship. And it's precisely this relationship, and ones like it, that are critical to a child developing emotional bonds, and to their health and well-being long-term. If children feel distant from parents, or judged by them (think: yet another attempt to ski perfectly, to master reading at a time when they're not ready for it), it's not only a negative in the short term.
Such a pattern actually constrains a child's success over the long term. The New York Times recently examined why more teens than ever are suffering from severe anxiety. The real stresses of modern life, it found, are in part to blame — but more and more, clinicians are seeing that the underlying parental culture, including a fear of mistakes and a constant striving to be productive, contributes to the teens' paralysis. Ironically, in trying to get more "right" and help kids, we're unintentionally getting more and more wrong.
We need more than a law to let kids roam free. That's a start, of course, but what we need more deeply is a psychological shift, in which we stop fantasizing about making our kids into someone "successful," and start helping them engage with their environment, create, and develop skills primarily through play.
As I've seen more clearly than ever with my 15-month-old, removing the obvious dangers — knives, open plugs — is the critical thing. After that, all bets are off, as they should be. The goal, in his mind, seems to be pulling everything out of every drawer, and putting it back again, and seeing what every Ziplock bag and Tupperware container does.
Creativity means mess, for kids and adults, and means standing off as parents and giving space. It's a lesson we could take from toddlers, but one that, in the end, would benefit all of us.