Should parents let their kids take more risks?


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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now: how we watch over our children and whether the balance has tipped.

It’s the last installment in our series on Parenting Now. Throughout the week, we have looked at a wide variety of issues that mothers and fathers contend with, including their changing roles, the way we raise kids, and the costs of child care.

Judy taped this conversation earlier in the week about how we deal with risks and safety concerns when it comes to our children.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A generation ago, children walked to school by themselves and enjoyed hours of unsupervised play. Well, times have changed considerably, and so have attitudes about the way we raise our children.

Journalist and author Hanna Rosin explored these issues in a recent cover story for “The Atlantic,” “The Overprotected Kid.” It has sparked a wide conversation about how we keep our children safe, perhaps too safe.

And Hanna joins me.

Welcome to the program.

HANNA ROSIN, The Atlantic: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, overprotected kid, I think I know what you mean by that, but what — what did you mean?

HANNA ROSIN: What I mean, is that we have become so preoccupied with safety, that we’re basically robbing our children of the chance to take risks, the kind of physical risks, emotional risks, the kind of risks they need to become independent adults, basically. And so I tried to explore why. Why did that happen? How did we change in one generation so drastically the norms of childhood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you start out visiting this really extraordinary — it’s a playground, but it’s kind of a non-playground in England, which is — it’s dirt, and mud. It’s all tires. It’s on a creek. The kids can build fires. Why did you go to this place?

HANNA ROSIN: I heard about it. And I was so excited because it’s so different than the kinds of playgrounds we have today in the U.S.

It is basically a junkyard. And it really looks like a junkyard. Kids build fires. That’s the most shocking thing. They play with tools. They play with sharp things. And they’re supervised by these people called play workers who are hired by the government.

But, basically, the idea is to let them learn on their own how to manage things that feel dangerous to them, not that are dangerous, but that feel dangerous, so that they can feel mastery over them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But this was all part of point of saying that we had gotten too far, we have gone too far in trying to keep kids  safe, and this is an effort to pull back.

HANNA ROSIN: Yes, the playgrounds are meant for people just to read as a shock to the system, to think, oh, my gosh, there are places like this and children are allowed to do such things? So, I started the story that way just so people could see there’s an alternative way that feels so far that children adore. I mean, they can’t wait for this place.

I took my own son and he still talks about it every day, when can we go back there, because there really is no place like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But this was a reaction to what? What’s happened?

HANNA ROSIN: This was a reaction to how fearful we are of letting children take physical risks.

So, take playgrounds. Over the last 30 years, I describe how playgrounds have shifted towards the norm of safety, almost to an extreme, the rubber padding. Everything’s been lowered. Everything’s been homogenized. So there’s no sense from the children that they are doing things which are a little bit scary and which they can master.

They can pretty much already do everything even before they have gotten there. And the same thing for emotional risks. We like to protect our children. To kind of basically intervene before anything bad happens, I think, is what’s considered a good parent these days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as you write, of course, it wasn’t always like this. My generation, we went out in the afternoon after school and we didn’t come back for hours. What happened along the way? Why did it turn out the way it has been lately?

HANNA ROSIN: Well, that was the impetus for me writing this story is just thinking, how is it that my daughter’s life is so different from mine? I have three children, but all of them.

How is that I used to do things like most parents my age, play in the streets, play cops and robbers? My mom didn’t really know where I was. I just had to be home for dinner. And that would be shocking and unthinkable now for children of this generation.

I think it’s because we have this sense that the world has become a dangerous place. That’s what people say when you ask them. Are you crazy? Why would I let my kid be out on the street on his or her own? They might get abducted.

So we have this feeling that the world is a more dangerous place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is it really more dangerous? You looked at some statistics on what’s happened to kids.

HANNA ROSIN: Yes.

In 2004, the world is definitely not a more dangerous place, because our crime rates are so incredibly low. But thing we are most afraid of, which is child abduction, those terrible, horrible stories — we read about it in the news — is just as rare now as it was in the 1970s.

Telling your kids not to talk to strangers is in some ways a funny thing to do, even though it has become the norm, because it’s not a common crime. If abductions have increased, it’s because of divorce. So neighborhoods have changed. The world has become a different place, but not a more dangerous place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You go on to write about that this overprotectiveness has had consequences for kids and that they’re growing up to be people who can’t cope in some ways.

HANNA ROSIN: That’s some of them. That’s what I want people to think about after reading this story.

We all go along with the tide. We do what other parents do. We think of it as, oh, we’re being a good parent. But, in fact, there are consequences to protecting your children in this way. There’s a lot of psychologists and sociologists doing research that show the benefits of taking risk and mastering risk.

It’s basically used to be thought of as going through the stages of childhood. I am going to do this thing I’m afraid of, and then I’m going to master this thing, and that’s where confidence comes from, and also the ability to take risks, think outside the box.

There are measures, for example, of creativity which have gone down in this generation, and creativity, what they mean by that is being able to think in ways that are different, that are not necessarily accepted, that are not approved necessarily by the people around you, to be an independent thinker, essentially.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what do you say to — I can just hear some parents out there listening to this and saying, but I really do have to be careful. I can’t imagine letting my child go off on his or her own for a long time unsupervised.

HANNA ROSIN: Yes. And that’s common sense.

You should keep your kids safe, but you shouldn’t optimize — every single decision you make shouldn’t be in order to optimize safety. That’s what I’m saying. I also don’t think we should go back to the ’70s. I think a lot of people might say, I was unhappy, my parents never paid any attention to me. And I really sympathize with that.

That’s not what I’m advocating for, because people felt neglected in the ’70s. And I think it’s really nice that people have close relationships with their children now, so that’s not what I would want parents to take from this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is there advice that parents should think about? That’s a heavy burden to put on you, but what should parents think today?

HANNA ROSIN: In my mind, I think of it as slightly shifting the definition of what it means to be a good parent.

So, instead of saying, what a good parent is keep your child safe, add to that job description what a good parent does is create opportunities for your child to think independently, or take risks, or what we used to call in the old-fashioned days build character, you know, that failing will build their character, and think to yourself, that’s part of being a great parent.

I’m not failing or neglecting my child by doing that. I’m actually doing something great for their future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a remarkable article. I recommend it to everybody, “Overprotected Kid.”

Hanna Rosin, thank you very much.

HANNA ROSIN: Thank you so much.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We continue the discussion online, where we asked three experts to weigh in on how to discipline your child, from toddler to teenager. Find the story on our home page. We’d love to hear your advice as well, which you can leave in the comments section.

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