PERSONALLY, I BLAME IT ALL ON BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA.
In the 1977 Newbery award-winning classic I read as a child, Jesse, a lonely boy heading to fifth grade, befriends new girl Leslie, and together they fabricate a fantastic imaginary kingdom in the woods near their homes. Then tragedy descends (spoiler alert): Swinging across a gulley, Leslie slips from a rope, bonks her head, and abruptly dies.
My take-aways from this tale — the woods are dangerous! life is fragile! — must have burrowed deep into my psyche. Thirty years later, the thought of letting my own two daughters, now 6 and 10, wander unsupervised in the woods behind our suburban South Shore home fills me with dread. Perhaps worse, I’ve imbued them with my fears about the dangers lurking there: ticks, poison ivy, the occasional coyote (to say nothing of the darker ones I don’t voice aloud: heroin addicts, vagrants, child molesters). Now I’ve quashed their natural impulse to explore. They hardly ask anymore.
Despite the eye-rolling of our elders and psychologists bemoaning that we are raising “a nation of wimps,” I belong to a cohort of parents ruled by fear. Every mother I ask can recall with pinpoint accuracy a moment of stomach-churning panic when her child went momentarily missing — at a mall, in a hotel lobby, up an elevator, in the Children’s Museum.
Rather than abating with time, the checklist of parental worries has only lengthened as our children have aged, like pencil marks ticking up their growth chart: from SIDS to chemicals in sippy cups, arsenic in apple juice to hormone-laden milk, Lyme disease and meningitis and measles outbreaks, vaccinating, not vaccinating, concussions and trampolines, whole grapes and popcorn, school shootings and cancer-causing sunscreen, overheated cars and negligent nannies, boogeymen kidnappers and friendly neighborhood molesters, and always, above all, the judgment of our fellow parents for failing to be as hypervigilant as they are.
(Of course, it must be noted that all this hand-wringing falls under the hashtag #middleclassproblems. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, he describes a West Baltimore upbringing where “everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns.” Many don’t have the luxury of obsessing whether their children’s bug repellent is DEET-free.)
Anyone who has spent the last decade of bedtimes revisiting classics in children’s literature can’t help but be struck by this evolution in parental oversight. In the Little House on the Prairie series, Laura and Mary trek miles to reach their one-room schoolhouse. In 1968’s Ramona the Pest, Ramona and her friend Howie walk themselves to kindergarten alone. A sequel, Ramona the Brave, begins with Ramona and her older sister Beezus, now 6 and 11, returning from a solo trip to the park — an act that earlier this year practically caused a national panic attack and got Maryland parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv slapped with charges of neglect.
As Hanna Rosen wrote in her 2014 Atlantic story, “The Overprotected Kid”: “It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s — walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap — are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting.”
So what, I want to know, has caused this change? Has all our hovering made things any safer? And what is it doing to our kids?