I recently read an article in The Atlantic Magazine that I just can’t get out of my head.  It’s haunting me the way a good book does.  It’s taken over my thoughts when playing with my kids or watching them in various activities.  It was the cover story that caught my attention:

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I often think, as perhaps many of you do, about how my childhood was so vastly different from the one my kids have.  When I was a kid, I would play outside on my bike or build “forts” in the woods for hours, unsupervised, with the neighborhood kids.

I grew-up in a very rural, small town on a practically deserted street with (what I thought) was an overprotective mother.  Except, the only time I really saw my mom during those playful days, was when she called me in for dinner.  My brother and I are only 16 months apart (and nothing like twins!) and in my mom’s mind, if I was with him, I was ok.  This was the general consensus of all the neighbors and, I used the term “neighbors” very lightly since the five houses on my street were spread out over a mile.  We were also permitted, by the age of 8, to ride our bikes “around the block” which was 3.5 miles around, and even less populated.

What happened between then and now?

The Atlantic magazine article takes an amazing look into why we overprotect our kids, and if we’re doing them harm by our constant hovering. I strongly encourage you to read the full article HERE but I’ve highlighted some pretty impressive points below:

THE LAND:  The article opens with this scary looking “playground” the author (who is a woman by the way) visited in North Wales with her son Gideon.  It looks mostly like a dangerous junkyard – filled with pallets, fires, discarded tires and old mattresses.  It’s a place that was developed in the 1940s by Lady Marjory Allen of Hurtwood because she wanted to encourage “a free and permissive atmosphere.”  Take a look:

Check out the kid doing backflips on the mattress!

Check out the kid doing backflips on the mattress! (far right)

Most of the kids go there alone.  There are attendants to make sure there are no serious injuries (and there haven’t been) but mostly, they leave the kids to explore.

The author of the article, Hanna Rosin, showed a video of kids burning fires there, to her friends back in the states who all had the same reaction: “This is insane!”

Rosin notes that “If a 10 year-old American kid started a fire in a playground, someone would call the police and the kid would be taken for counseling.”

Why the fires?  “It can be a social experience to sit around with friends, make friends, to sing songs to dance around, to stare at, it can be a co-operative experience where everyone has jobs. It can be something to experiment with, to take risks, to test its properties, its heat, its power, to re-live our evolutionary past.”  What a concept!

The author's son, playing with fire, in The Land.

The author’s son, playing with fire, in The Land.

Think about the playgrounds our kids go to.  Think about all the different ones you’ve visited with them.  Are they all pretty much the same?  There’s a reason for that:

“In 1978 a toddler named Frank Nelson made his way to the top of a 12-foot slide in Hamlin Park in Chicago, with his mother, Debra, a few steps behind him. The structure, installed three years earlier, was known as a “tornado slide” because it twisted on the way down, but the boy never made it that far. He fell through the gap between the handrail and the steps and landed on his head on the asphalt. A year later, his parents sued the Chicago Park District and the two companies that had manufactured and installed the slide. Frank had fractured his skull in the fall and suffered permanent brain damage. He was paralyzed on his left side and had speech and vision problems. His attorneys noted that he was forced to wear a helmet all the time to protect his fragile skull.”

In January 1985, the Chicago Park District settled the suit with the Nelsons and Frank Nelson was guaranteed a minimum of $9.5 million.  Our parks have never been the same.

At the time of the incident, a reader wrote to the local paper…

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The article goes into a lot of detail about what happened after that incident.  Basically, the country lost it’s mind and wanted to protect kids everywhere from the accident that happened to little Frank.  The truth is, it was an accident and the chances of that happening to any kid, any where at any time, are pretty much the same (very small) and have remained that way since 1978.  Again – – what are we so afraid of?  Is rubber mulch really the answer?

DISCOVERY:  Do you remember having a childhood secret hideout that only you and your very best friend knew about?  I do.  I’m sure, to this day, my parents had no idea that me and Mary Riley would sneak down and explore the giant drainage pipes beneath our road, for hours on end.  My first thought today, as a parent, is “Oh my God that was so dangerous!”  But, was it?

According to Rosin, in 1971, 80 percent of third graders walked to school alone.  In 1990 it dropped to 9 percent and is even lower today.  The most common reason given by parents?  It’s too dangerous.  But is it?  Turns out that kids today have the same chance of being abducted by a stranger (very slim) as they did a decade ago.

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PARENTAL INTERFERENCE  I admit it.  I’m a smotherer.  Not to the extent of some parents I’ve seen, but pretty bad.  I always jump to the worst possible conclusion in a given scenario with my kids.  If they disappear for seconds at a park?  They’ve been abducted!  They grow silent upstairs in their room at home?  One or both of them is unconscious.  Where did this fear come from?

Think about this:  Even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers—and fathers—of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to.

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How much time do you spend with your kids when they’re home?  I spend a TON of time with mine at home, in the car, taking them to playdates and activities, listening to the Frozen soundtrack ad nauseam – all things my mother certainly did not do, even though she was also a stay-at-home-mom.

The author makes the astounding discovery that:

“I might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.”

Whoa.

The children studied by Roger Hart in the 1970s spent much of their free time out of sight of parents, in secret places all their own. (Roger Hart)

The children studied by Roger Hart in the 1970s spent much of their free time out of sight of parents, in secret places all their own. (Roger Hart)

TRUST:  If the chances of an accident, like the one little Frank Nelson had, have remained the same, as well as the chances of being abducted by a stranger – what kind of crime has increased?  Family abduction.  Remember Gossip Girl’s Kelly Rutherford and her very public custody battle to get her kids home from her husband in Monaco?  What about David Goldman whose wife abducted their son to her native Brazil?  One Google search on “family abduction” yielded thousands of links!

According to The Atlantic article:

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The author goes on to say that the change of culture in America –  with the rise of divorce, more single-parenting and working moms – creates less of a community and breeds more fear, which leads to parents trying to control what they can and love most.  At the top of that list, for sure, is our children.

Reading this article has been freeing for me.  All the points being made about how important it is for kids to learn, discover and take risks on their own, were overwhelming.  I’m not saying I’m going to start letting the boys light fires in the backyard, but I’ve stopped keeping such close tabs on them as well (and a closer one on my husband :-).  Like most things in life and parenting, there needs to be a healthy balance.

“Reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development,” says 

Joe Frost, an influential safety crusader.

 

How closely do you watch your kids?

Would you want them to play in a space like “The Land?”

If you’re not a parent – – what was your play like as a kid?