Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

To Hover or Hope – Tough Calls in a World of Risk

Are we raising "soft kids"?

By today’s standards, social services should have taken most us baby boomers away from our parents.

We were raised in a world of lawn darts, BB guns and second-hand smoke; without car seats, airbags or bicycle helmets. We gobbled sugar, swilled fats and consumed mushy white bread with the nutrients pounded out in processing.  We roamed our world freely, gone for hours, told only to be home when the streetlights come on. As a friend said: “I’m pretty sure my parents were trying to kill me.”

Yet: here we are. Aside from a few mended bones and some fading scars from stitches, most of us are little the worse for wear from growing up in a world before dodge ball became organized bullying.

Helmets, car seats and smoke-free homes are the logical outcomes of a smarter society. But for parents today: has common-sense protection crossed a divide to irrational obsession with driving risk from young lives?

That question, of course, must be asked in the chilling context of a very different world.  In the most normal of places on the most normal of days, 20 children went happily off to school in Newtown, Connecticut. They did not come home.

Threats are real. Fears are justified. And the instinct to protect our children is one of the crossbeams in our human architecture. But are those realities combining  to cause us to raise kids so emotionally and physically bubble-wrapped that they are paying a cost in confidence and, ironically, the well-being that we are working so hard to create? Have we lost our sense of the difference between risk’s reality and its mere possibility?

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They are questions without easy answers.

A recent study from Norway concluded that playgrounds have become so low, slow and bouncy that kids have lost interest – to the point that there is a causal connection to childhood obesity. Is a slide still a slide if you don’t go flying off the end?

It’s yet another easy addition to the catalog of evidence that “we’re raising soft kids.”

It becomes less easy when you also consider CDC reports that, every year, 200,000 kids under age 14 suffer playground injuries serious enough to send them to the emergency room. A third of them are severe – fractures, concussions, internal injuries and dislocations. Approximately 15 of these injured children die.

How many of those casualties are worth a trade-off in a more formative playground experience?

Reaction to risk plays out everywhere parents gather with children to play. When a child falls, some will race to them like a lifeguard to a drowning swimmer. Others will watch, allowing the drama to play out, allowing the child to find his or her own resolution.

I’ve seen that choice – especially in emotional risk -- from an interesting perspective in my work with single and two-mother families; where mothers know that their children start the day outside the norm.

As one lesbian mother told me: “At first, I would charge in to school to do battle every time there was a hint that my child was being taunted or bullied because of the makeup of our family. But I realized, I can’t be doing this when he’s 20 years old. So I started to think more about how to help him deal with it himself. I tried to give him the confidence and perspective to make the decision about when to walk away, when to laugh, and when to push back. He’s very funny, so that was his way in. The fact that he had two mothers became a non-issue. It would have taken a lot longer for kids to get him if they always had to get past me.”

So what’s a parent to do: try to banish risk, or learn to accept it?  Most of us in the mental health field suggest a mix of both. The question is whether a given situation carries a high risk of physical or emotional harm; or whether it is a bump – figuratively or literally – that is part of the invaluable life lessons that come from the  pain of hitting the ground hard, and the thrill of getting back up.

Like anything else in the complex and situational world of protecting the most precious thing the universe has ever created, distinguishing between the two may take a little practice.

 Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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