Helicopter Parents Won't Let Their Kids Be Kids

I was nine years old when my mom gave me a key to the house and let me walk or ride my bike home from school, a little less than a mile away.

My mom was in graduate school and my dad was a college professor, and they were usually home by 5:15, so I couldn't get into too much trouble. I could watch TV, play with my friends, or read a book. I was even encouraged to do my homework, but that literally never happened.

Someone told me this made me a latchkey kid, and I got a little irritated. I was never a latchkey kid, I was allowed to be by myself for two hours on a school day, because my parents knew I could take care of myself. Nowadays, if you let a 12 year old stay by themselves for more than 15 minutes, some busybody will call the police.

There was a field and woods at the end of my street, and some friends and I would spend most days playing there. We knew where all the trails led, and knew the location of the two large holes we called the Giant's Footsteps. We had our favorite spots where we would build forts and hang out all day eating candy. We would make campfires and roast hot dogs and eat sandwiches from home.

In the field, there was also an almost-abandoned broken-down step van (like a UPS truck) complete with old construction supplies, like rebar, sacks of concrete, and pieces of lumber.

I say "almost-abandoned" because whenever we would play in it, some old guy at the end of the street would yell at us to get out of his truck.

It was like waving flies away from a candy bar. We would run into the woods, wait for a few minutes and then swarm all over the truck again. The guy would run out of the house again, and we would tear off again.

He finally caught us by sneaking out and cornering us in the truck. But instead of yelling at us, he told us he didn't mind if we played in there, he just didn't want us to throw his stuff out of the truck anymore. (We used to pretend the rebar was phaser fire.)

There was never any discussion about us getting hurt or insurance and lawsuits. He had left the truck there when he retired from his contracting business and just didn't like cleaning up after us.

That actually made the truck less fun for us and we quit playing there soon after.

But we don't let kids do any of that today. Instead, they have to be protected and hovered over, so we can make sure they succeed at everything.

Whatever happened to kids being allowed to play on their own? Why don't we let kids do things by themselves anymore?

Kids are smothered by helicopter and snowplow parents who not only hover protectively over their children, they clear the way for them. These kids eventually go to college as overly-sensitive helpless reactionaries who demand trigger warnings in their Ancient History classes and call for safe spaces from ideas and new ways of thinking.

A recent story on NPR talked about the "new trend" of free-range parenting, a technique everybody was doing in the 1970s and '80s. Only then it was just called "parenting."

But then it got ruined by helicopter parents who forgot what it was like when they were kids. Now, they arrange play dates for their children at indoor play parks with foam rubber floors, put them in organized sports and camps, and don't let them out of their sight until they go to college. And even then, they don't completely let go.

Back in May, Utah passed the nation's first free-range parenting law, which changed the state's definition of neglect, and said parents could allow children of "sufficient age and maturity" to do things on their own, like walking to school or walking the dog around the block without the kids being picked up by Child Protective Services.

In Plas Madoc, Wales, there's a playground filled with junk called The Land. It's a place where kids get to do whatever they want. There are piles of wooden pallets, tires, wheelbarrows, and even hammers and punching bags.

There's a brook running through the place, and kids will sometimes start small fires to burn up broken pallets and debris. Adults aren't allowed, but kids rarely get hurt, apart from the occasional twisted ankle. Kids are allowed to use saws and hammers to build whatever they want, and nothing is discouraged. In fact, the kids police themselves and know not to do anything that might hurt them.

If only today's parents were half as relaxed about letting their kids play on their own. Free-range kids learn to solve their own problems, they're more confident in the classroom, and they have stronger leadership skills and initiative when they're older. If we could all just unclench a little bit, I'm sure our kids will grow up to be normal, healthy adults who can handle the problems and issues we all face in life.

Now if you'll excuse me, my parents aren't around, so I'm going to build a fort in my backyard.

Photo credit - Adventure Park in Berkeley, California: Rhododendrites (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 4.0)

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