In previous generations, parents weren’t so concerned with what their kids were doing every second of the day. Why are today’s city parents considered terrible if they let their children ride their bike around the neighborhood or walk to school? Journalist Lenore Skenazy continues her battle against the disastrous trend of helicopter parenting.
Question: Are parents different today than they were in previous generations?
Lenore Skenazy: I think they’re really different. I think we are much more preoccupied with our children every second of the day. Are they safe, are they learning, are they getting enough out of this moment, this class, this instant, when we’re supposed to be bonding, and we’re really afraid for them all the time. And it’s not just me thinking this. You know, you get to a certain age and everybody thinks, "Oh, the good ol' days, we stayed out, we had fun, we played outside until the streetlights came on."
But the proof that things really have changed in just about one generation is that if you go get the DVD of Sesame Street Old School, it’s a two-DVD set of the early days of Sesame Street, 1969-1974, and you see all the stuff that we sort of associate with childhood. You see kids on trikes, you see kids playing follow-the-leader and there’s no accredited PhD trained follow-the-leader leader, it’s just kids. You see them playing in a vacant lot and balancing on the beams and climbing through the pipes and stuff, and before you see any of that, what I consider “normal childhood”, my childhood, a warning appears on the screen at the very beginning, this is not a joke. It says, “The following is intended for adult viewing only.” Adult viewing only, they cannot endorse a normal childhood the way they did back in 1970. That is now considered radical, crazy, dangerous, and I have a friend who’s a lawyer there and frankly they debated it and they were afraid of getting sued. What if, God forbid, somebody goes out and plays by himself? They weren’t willing to take that "risk" anymore.
And what I’m interested in is, why is that considered risky, considering the crime rate back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when most parents today were growing up and playing outside 'til the street lights came on, that crime rate was higher than it is now. So if it wasn’t risky then, or wasn’t crazy-risky, wasn’t nutty parents who didn’t care at all about their kids, sending their kids out and never caring whether they came home or not. If they weren’t terrible, if our parents weren’t terrible, why are we considered terrible if we let our children ride their bike around the neighborhood or walk to school? Really, people will scream at you if you do that with your kids.
Question: Why are parents more afraid than they used to be?
Lenore Skenazy: I think there are four reasons that we’re more afraid, today, than our parents were, or more concerned. The first is that the media has changed. My parents were watching Marcus Welby, the people lived, they didn’t sue. It was a cheerfuller time, in terms of television. You didn’t have Nancy Grace, you didn’t have "CSI," you didn’t have anything as disgusting and revolting and scary as "Law & Order: SVU," because the old "Law & Order" just wasn’t scary enough. The children weren’t small enough and cute enough. So, media changed, and it also became 24-hours and ubiquitous. So you were always seeing, now, a child being snatched off the street. That’s just the number one story, that television has figured to put on, whether it’s a drama or news.
Another thing that’s changed is that we are in a much more litigious society. I’m sure this doesn’t come as a shock to you, but so many things in childhood are considered too dangerous because, God forbid, what if—we’re always what-iffing—and what if a child fell off a teeter totter? Well, let’s just get rid of them, say the park districts, and what if, my kids were going on a fifth grade field trip, the overnight field trip, the one trip they take into nature all year, and the assistant principal had us in the auditorium, and he was explaining the trip, and when he said, “And at the end, there’s this,” everybody was asking him for phone numbers or how to get in touch with them, etc., and he was trying to deflect everybody’s worries. "How close is the hospital?" He said, “Hey, hey, hey, look, on the last day, on the overnight stay, we make a big bonfire.” And everybody was like, "Bonfire?!" You could just see them speed-dialing their lawyers and he said, “Wait, no, let me explain, the bonfire, the children will be 20 feet from the fire and there will be a row of benches,” and I’m assuming these are non-flammable benches, “between them and the fire.”
So that’s childhood today, preparing for any kind of a terrible eventuality, the way lawyers always think back and say, “Why was she so close to the fire?” So we’re always thinking to the courtroom and stopping something, even a bonfire with kids around, roasting marshmallows, before it begins. And I just have to tell you one roasting marshmallow story. Girls in Girl Scouts are not allowed to roast marshmallows unless they have one knee on the ground.
Recorded August 17, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont