I am a 21st century parent and I know too much. Google diagnoses my kids’ symptoms, my phone tells me every time there is an Amber Alert, I know that lead in the paint in old houses and in the lining of our water hose can harm my kids’ brains, and I know within minutes if there is a terrorist attack on the other side of the globe. I can use my computer to find out what sex offenders are in my neighborhood, summer news feeds warn me of the dangers of summertime swimming and drowning (which scares me to death because my husband is determined to have a pool when we move to Texas), and I know that no amount of security can protect my children from a determined armed mad man or angry classmate when they are supposed to be safely at school or watching a movie at the local movie theater.
My parents didn’t know any of that and I think I’m better off because of it.
Because I am a 21st century parent I am well-informed. I have access to all sorts of information to make my children safer and smarter. But because I am a well-informed 21st century parent, I have too much to worry about. The world is no more dangerous now than it was 30 years ago; we just know more and we know it more quickly.
We lived in Detroit until I was nine. Not in the suburbs. IN Detroit. I played in the backyard without my parents. We played on our metal swingset, swinging until we lifted it off of the ground, without parental supervision. Today we know that the swingset was most likely a backyard hazard and in some places today my parents would have been investigated by CPS if one of us had gotten seriously injured while playing on that hazardous playset without parental supervision.
When I was four and five I would ride my big wheel up and down our long block, spinning around corners, while my mother stayed at home with my younger sisters. She knew I was outside. She knew that I knew our block and that I knew enough people up and down the block that if I fell and hurt myself I would be able to go to them for help. She didn’t worry about me getting kidnapped. She was worried about taking care of the needs of my sisters. I crossed our busy street by myself when I was six so that I could visit my neighbor friend. My dad taught at a high school and from the moment we would show up at football and basketball games they wouldn’t see me until it was time to go or I wanted to beg for something from the concession stand. I was too busy playing with the other faculty kids.
When we moved from Detroit, my independence grew. When I was 10, I would walk to the mall or downtown with my friends in our large town in Illinois. We didn’t get kicked out of stores and we didn’t have our parents with us. When I was 12 and we lived in Wyoming, I would walk downtown by myself with my friends, even going to movies without a parental escort anywhere near us.
I remember one time when my search for independence should have gotten me grounded. I was 15 and determined to spend the whole day at a wrestling tournament at my high school (I might have had a HUGE crush on one of the wrestlers). That probably would have been fine, except I forgot to make sure my parents were fully aware of my plans for the day. I think my mom actually panicked that time, and remember, this was before everyone had cell phones. When I was 16 I ventured into the mountains with my friends as part of a farewell get-together before we moved to Michigan. When I was 17, I drove with a friend a couple hours away to a youth gathering. We got lost, we learned how to read maps, and we eventually got there, without phone calls to parents and a GPS. When I was 20, I spent two weeks backpacking Europe with two college classmates before our London semester started. We had no cell phones, limited Internet access, and we had no idea where we were going to be staying from one night to the next. It terrified our parents but nothing was going to stop us from seeing Paris, Rome, Florence, Munich, and Lucerne.
As a child, my parents just let me be a kid. Some of that was due to my being the oldest of four girls. They were too distracted by my younger sisters to be overly concerned with my outdoor play. I came in when called and I didn’t come home hurt. That seemed to be good enough for them. While I still wish I had been able to take dance, my parents didn’t over schedule me with too many activities to fill my day. It was piano lessons and activities that I chose on my own that filled my schedule from a young age. My parents didn’t monitor my grades. I was pretty self motivated and they were mostly pleasantly surprised when my report cards came out every quarter. They didn’t monitor what classes I was taking (although now, as an over informed teacher I kind of wish that they had) and somehow I graduated in the top ten of my class and made it into college. They didn’t force me to take AP and college prep classes. I put that pressure on myself. Although there are times I wish they had been a little more attentive to what was going on in my life (I’m a serious bottler and I dealt with some levels of depression when we moved in both 6th grade and the summer before my junior year of high school), I’m pretty self-sufficient and I am thankful that I am.
But as a parent myself, I’m really struggling with it. I don’t want my kids to get hurt, so I watch them like a hawk when at the playground. I don’t want my daughter to forget to turn things in to her teacher, so I send emails to make sure her teacher knows that I sent it. I don’t want them to get run over by cars, so I follow them around while they are on their bikes, reminding them to constantly look for vehicles. I see other parents investigated for being “free range” parents and I feel a heightened need to keep an eye on my kids. But all that is doing is stressing me out and teaching my kids to be overly dependent on me. Just because I watch them like a hawk doesn’t mean my kids aren’t going to fall off of playground equipment and hurt themselves. If I’m constantly checking in with my daughter’s teacher, it doesn’t teach her to ask for herself and take responsibility for her own forms. Yes, I can teach them to watch for cars, but I have to believe that they will remember the lessons that I have taught them while they are exploring our neighborhood.
And then I see an article discussing how “helicopter parenting” is crippling college students. I see it all the time as a high school teacher, and it’s getting worse. My students don’t know how to cope. More and more have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. They cut themselves, participate in high risk behaviors, and take prescribed medication to deal with the pressure. They’ve been taught to believe that a “B” is a failure, an imperfect score on a paper means they will never get into the college of their choice, and that they must take as many AP and dual-credit courses as they can. When they have a conflict they involve their parents, and their parents come in and rescue them. I once had one issue with a senior and her mother reminded me that they were still children. As a parent I completely understand that sentiment but as a teacher that comment worried me to no end. Here her daughter was heading off to college, where her mother has NO legal rights to ANY information about her child, and I was seriously concerned about the need for independence.
And so in the last couple weeks I have taken tiny baby steps. I let our 6-year-old daughter ride her bike around the block by herself for the first time. It was hard for me, but I did it. She took a little bit longer than she should have so I jumped on my bike to look for her. By the time I got on my bike and met up with her, she had a huge grin on her face from both newfound freedom and the pleasure of riding her bike. She had just taken “a break under a tree where (she) had shade.” When we were camping last weekend we allowed her to go down to the playground by herself so she could play with her new friend, a girl a couple sites down. We camped for five days and the girls played together a lot. We would ride our bikes down on occasion to make sure they were still there and we watched for them as they rode around the campground in circles. It was a huge growing experience for her and us. For me they were tiny steps, but they were necessary steps.
I don’t know how I feel about “free range” parenting but I also know that the way we are doing it right now isn’t working. We’re too scared to let our kids grow up and we are crippling them. We’re also crippling ourselves because we leaving the door open for them to move back in once they are supposedly grown up. Yes, we are charged with getting our kids safely to adulthood, but if they can’t function once they are adults, what have we done to them? I don’t believe there is a single answer, but as a parent and as a teacher, I’m determined to keep looking for one.