Overprotective parents aren’t getting much support these days. The evidence is stacking up that this pattern of parenting may have serious consequences for children’s physical, psychological and social wellbeing. A recently released position paper on active play in the outdoors draws together the research from numerous studies concerned with both risky play and outside activity. While it’s impossible to say with certainty that overprotective parenting is causing problems for children, there is a lot to think about.
First, let me offer a carrot to parents who may be worried that their children will get hurt outside. When children are under the age of 11, supervision of children’s play can reduce injuries, especially on playgrounds. There is less evidence it is helpful (and may actually be harmful) when children are in less structured settings. Older children, however, tend to prefer and need less supervision in order to develop the critical thinking skills they’ll require throughout their lives. Those skills will keep them safe in dangerous situations. Supervision may also be necessary if your child (no matter what her age) is at risk because the neighbourhood where you live is especially dangerous or if your child is likely to be singled out because of racism, bullies, and other problems that require adults to solve.
But in cases where your community is reasonably predictable, the best way to parent children is to push them out the front door and tell them to go play. Monitoring a child is crucial. As parents, we raise better children when we know our children’s friends and where they are roaming, but close supervision beyond playgrounds is not likely going to make children safe. In fact, excessively following your child around or limiting his access to the outdoors can have long term consequences.
Let me summarize some of the key evidence. According to the position paper, children who are outside “move more, sit less and play longer,” all of which improves children’s physical health and helps them develop social skills. If you’re worried about your child being abducted, don’t be. She has far greater chances of dying in your car being driven to school each day than of being kidnapped walking to school. Indeed, the research shows that children are eight times more likely to die as a passenger in a car than being hit and killed by a car while they are walking or biking. Add to all this the dangers associated with poor quality air inside many of our homes, and the long term effects of sedentary lifestyles started during childhood, and keeping kids “safe indoors” begins to look like an oxymoron. It can’t be done.
The positive impact of outdoor play seems, according to the research, to increase with less structured activities. Children move more when they are not in programmed sporting activities, and they may even, some research shows, experience fewer injuries when playing on their own.
Where the real dangers lie is indoors. Excessive screen time, often occurring while children snack on unhealthy foods, combined with low levels of activity and few opportunities to learn responsibility or social skills, leave children terribly unhealthy.
All of this is, of course, based on evidence that suggests trends not causality. No one has, or likely ever will, run a randomized control trial in which 500 children are cloistered away with video games and never let outside to play, and 500 children are shooed outside and told to come home when it gets dark. In the meantime, we can simply observe the patterns in the data.
In a previous blog I mentioned a recent study that showed dramatically increasing levels of anxiety disorders being seen in our emergency room departments and as the cause for hospitalization of our children. Add to this systematic review of the benefits and costs of outdoor play and one sees that we may be denying children what I’ve called “the risk-taker’s advantage.” At some point, as parents, we’re going to have to stop thinking about the unlikely event that our child will be hit by a car riding his bike on the street, and think much more about the danger we are exposing our child to when we keep him at home and off his bicycle.
This problem isn’t just for parents to solve alone. As the position paper shows, we need schools to encourage children to spend more time outdoors (shouldn’t we insist children go out in the rain and the cold, and remind parents to send appropriate clothing?), governments to set reasonable limits on liability so that lawyers stop benefitting from excessive regulation of our children’s normal exposure to risk, and we need good information in the media that truthfully balances the dangers our children face outside with the dangers they face inside and under our supervision.
Continuing to argue “my child needs to be protected” is only going to leave the children of the most protected children the most at risk. Ironically, and sadly, we can expect that one generation out, overprotective parents are going to have the least healthy, least successful children who grow up to become failed adults. I hate to put it so bluntly, but as the evidence stacks up, overprotective parenting is beginning to look as antiquated as telling children to duck and cover during a nuclear attack. There is no good science to make us think children will survive with such bad advice.