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Why Have Trustful Parenting & Children’s Freedom Declined?

A pedagogical model of child development interferes with parental trust.

In recent posts, I have been discussing the decline of trustful parenting and the rise of directive-protective parenting. Trustful parents are those who trust their children to play and explore on their own, to make their own decisions, and to make and learn from their own mistakes. Trustful parenting predominated through the long stretch of human history when we were all hunter-gatherers, and it served well the hunter-gatherers’ needs for people who were independent, responsible, and assertive, and who maintained an ethos of equality and personal freedom. With agriculture and land ownership, and subsequently with industry, social systems based on equality and freedom succumbed to those based on hierarchical power structures and servitude. The predominant parenting style shifted from trustful to directive-domineering, aimed at forcing children to labor in fields or factories and training them to be obedient to lords and masters. (See July 16, 2009, post for a summary of this history).

In relatively recent times, with the decline in the need for child labor and the renaissance of democratic values, the directive-domineering style of parenting, with its regular beating of children to drive the willfulness out of them, has declined. For a while—-peaking around the 1950s and ‘60s—-trustful parenting seemed to experience a rebirth, but the decades since then have seen trustful parenting swamped out by a new kind of directive parenting, which I have been calling directive-protective parenting.

Directive-protective parenting

Directive-protective parents direct their children’s activities and limit their freedom not to force them to labor in fields or factories, or to make them servile, as directive-domineering parents did. Rather, they do so because they fear for their children’s safety and for their futures, and they believe they can make better decisions for their children than their children can themselves.

While trustful parents view children as resilient and competent, directive-protective parents view children as fragile and incompetent. While trustful parents believe that children develop best when allowed to play and explore on their own, directive-protective parents believe that children develop best when they follow a path that has been carefully laid out for them by adults.

In last week’s post, I quoted Hillary Clinton on the freedom that she experienced as a child in the 1950s, and I described the freedom and trust that my friends and I enjoyed during that same period in our grade-school years. Clinton and I are not the only adults today who regret the decline in children’s freedom over the past few decades—-a decline that has been accompanied by a sharp rise in childhood obesity, depression, and suicides. Several surveys conducted in the UK and the United States in recent times reveal that many adults today express sadness that their own children are growing up with less freedom than they themselves enjoyed when they were growing up.[1] Yet, most feel that they cannot allow their children such freedom. They feel that the world has changed and that children today need more protection and adult direction than they needed when they were children.

What societal changes have occurred over the past several decades to create the perception that children today need more adult-direction and protection than they did in the past? I’m sure that a full answer to this question would describe a large number of interconnected changes in the social world. Here are a few of them that seem to me most relevant:

The decline of neighborhoods and loss of children’s outdoor playgroups

In the 1950s, when I was a child, most people—-adults as well as children—-knew their neighbors. This was partly because many women were home during the day and formed friendship networks with others, but men too tended to be home more then than now. Workdays were not as long, on average, and people were home on weekends. Nowadays, out-of-home work has come to dominate adult life for both men and women, and most adult friendships are formed at work rather than in the neighborhood. Since children are not part of that work world, they are not part of the same friendship networks as their parents. The result of all this is that parents are uncertain about the character of other people in the neighborhood, and other people in the neighborhood, even when they are home, typically don’t know or keep an eye out for children who are not their own. The neighborhood therefore seems less safe, and maybe really is less safe, than it was in times past.

When some parents stop allowing their children to play freely in the neighborhood, the neighborhood becomes less inviting for those children who are still allowed to play outdoors. Few children want to play alone. The biggest attraction of children to the outdoors, or to any place, always, is other children. The neighborhood also becomes less safe when fewer children are outdoors. There is always safety in numbers. It’s a vicious cycle: Fewer children outdoors playing means that the outdoors is less inviting and less safe than before, which means that there will be still fewer children outdoors playing. To make neighborhoods once again inviting and safe for children’s outdoor free play, something has to be done to break that cycle.

The decline of local common sense about parenting and the rise of a worldwide network of fear

In times past, most adults had more familiarity with and understanding of children than they do today. Families tended to be larger than today, and extended families tended to live in the same town and share time together. By the time adults had their own children, they already had lots of experience with children. They knew, firsthand, something about child development. They knew something about children’s competencies and the value of play and adventure to children, and so they tended to be trustful of their own children when they had them. They also were often parenting in the context of a network of other parents, who were their friends and who shared stories about their children. They could see that the children of neighbors, who were allowed to play freely, were growing up well and doing just fine. Neighborhoods and extended families were places of shared common sense about children and parenting

With the decline in family size and in the closeness of extended families, and with the decline of neighborhoods, adults today often start their families with little firsthand or even secondhand experience with real children. The ideas and information that they have about children, often, come from what they read or hear from experts and the media, and that is biased information.

Experts commonly write to warn people of dangers. Danger is their field of expertise, and the news every day reports on some terrible thing that has happened to some child somewhere. The fact that millions of children went outdoors today and played without adult supervision and came home healthier, wiser, and more responsible as a result is not news, but the fact that one child somewhere was abducted today, or drowned, or was run over by an automobile is spread quickly by the media throughout the state, or even throughout the nation or world depending on how lurid the story. The information that parents get does not reflect statistical reality and it feeds into every parent’s worst nightmares.

The increased uncertainty about the future

The world seems less stable now than it did a few decades ago. Many of the old ways of making a living have disappeared. It is impossible to predict what jobs will be available in the future or what job skills will be required. A result of this is that parents worry about their children’s futures far more than they did in times past. Many parents today see childhood as a time of résumé building. Children can’t just go out and play and explore on their own, because that doesn’t count on a résumé. Somehow, parents believe, if they can get their children to develop impressive résumés, get them to score high on various tests, and get them into the most prestigious schools, they can protect their children’s futures. They are wrong, of course; but the perception persists.

The reality is that the best protection against unemployment in uncertain times are precisely those qualities that people develop through their own self-directed experiences, not through the prodding of parents or teachers. Uncertain times require personal responsibility, independence of thought, self-initiative, self-assertion, flexibility, creativity, and imagination. These are the characteristics that are fostered by a trusting style of parenting and are inhibited by the directive-protective style.

The continuous rise in the power of school systems, and the need to conform to schools’ ever-more restrictive requirements

Perhaps the most significant of all of the contributors to the rise of directive-protective parenting and the decline in children’s freedom has been the continuous rise in the power of schools to interfere with the lives of children and families.

Schools are places where children are confined, against their wills, and are required to perform tasks that often seem meaningless to them and often really are meaningless. Schools are and always have been places where children are, for a good share of the day, not allowed to explore or play. How ironic: Exploration and play, which came about in our biological evolution for the purpose of education, are outlawed at school, which is supposed to be the place for education.

School was an inhibitor of freedom in the 1950s, but not so much as it is today. Our school day started at 9:00 and ended at 2:30 or 3:00 in the afternoon, and we were free after that. We did not have homework, at least not when we were in grade school. Even during the school day, we were freer than grade-school children are today. We had a full hour at lunch, during which some of us walked or bicycled home and others of us played freely, without supervision, in the schoolyard or nearby neighborhoods. We also had morning recess; and some teachers gave us extra recess time in the classroom when they could see that we were restless, during which we could play whatever games we wished as long as we weren’t too rough or noisy. Teachers were not judged by their students’ scores on standardized tests, so they were relatively free to modify what happened in the classroom to suit what they perceived to be our needs and wishes; but, of course, some teachers were not as wise or kind as others, and there was little we could do about that.

Today the school year is longer, the sanctions for missing days of school are greater, and the activities conducted within school are more rigidly controlled than in times past. Children are constantly tested and whole families get into trouble if the children don’t perform up to par.

The school system today is not just confined to the school buildings and the hours spent in classrooms; it reaches into people’s homes to control life there as well. There are summer reading lists, for example, and parents are supposed to make sure that their children get those books and read them. Homework is given, and parents are often required to sign homework sheets so that teachers can see that the parents are involved as enforcers. Parents are regularly called in for conferences when their children misbehave in school or don’t do well on tests. Parents are expected to play the role at home that teachers play at school, pushing and directing their children to do the things that the school system has decided they should do. Family trips and other adventures that would be fun and educational for all are often curtailed because the child has too much homework or must participate in one or another formal activity at school, conducted outside of regular school hours. It is hard to be a trustful parent in these conditions; you have to fight the school system to do so.

The rise of a pedagogical model of child development and parenting

As schooling increasingly dominates the lives of children and families, it increasingly dominates people’s mental conceptions of child development and parenting. In schools learning is adult-directed, not child-directed. In schools learning is considered to be sequential, along established pathways; you have to learn A before you learn B. In schools children’s companions are all the same age; there is no learning of skills through play with older kids, no learning to be responsible through play with younger kids. In schools self-initiated play and exploration are disruptions and need to be controlled. Most psychological research on children is conducted in schools and centers on school-related problems. That is one reason why there is very little psychological study of children’s play or self-directed learning and almost no study of children’s age-mixed interactions. Not surprisingly, the theories and models of child development that such research generates fit well with the assumptions that underlie our formal system of schooling.

The dominance of schooling has led child psychologists and society at large, including parents, to develop and hold to models of child development that distort human nature. Throughout the whole history of humankind, children have learned primarily from other children, in age-mixed play and exploration (as I have discussed in many previous posts). Throughout the whole history of humankind, children have learned what they want to learn, not what is next on somebody’s list of what they should learn. But now we have this conception that learning is sequential and adult-directed; that the proper companions for children are other children who are all of the same age (and from whom they have the least to learn); and that self-directed play and exploration are largely wastes of time, especially for children who have reached school age. Some developmental psychology textbooks refer to the unit on preschool kids as “The Play Years;” the implicit assumption being that play stops at age 5.

The pedagogical model of childhood has taken hold in many out-of-school settings and in many homes. Playgrounds are no longer places where children go and play freely with one another, but are places of coaching and teaching, led by adults; and children are sorted there into age-segregated groups, just as they are in school. In the home many parents today, in implicit acceptance of the pedagogical model, define themselves as teachers of their children. They look for “teaching moments,” buy educational toys, and “play” and talk with their children in ways designed to impart specific lessons. No wonder parent-child interactions these days are often accompanied by lots of eyeball rolling and “whatevers” on the parts of the children!

As the school system becomes ever-more entrenched and powerful, people’s implicit conceptions of child development grow ever-more to fit the schooling model; and children, out of school as well as in school, become ever-less free, ever-more controlled, and ever-more deprived of self-initiated adventures. Children who refuse to be molded in ways that fit the model are given a diagnosis, such as ADHD, and are drugged into compliance.

How can enlightened parents—-who believe in the values of freedom, exploration, and play, and who would like to raise their children in a trusting way—-buck this trend that has become a torrent? Given all of the forces working against the trust of children, how can anyone today raise children in a trusting way? If you have been bucking this trend, please clue us in, in the comments section below. Next week I’ll offer some of my own thoughts about routes to trustful parenting in our time.


[1] For examples of such surveys, see: Clements, R. (2004), "An investigation of the status of outdoor play," in Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 5, 68-80; and see O'Brien, J., & Smith, J. (2002), "Childhood transformed? Risk perceptions and the decline of free play," in British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65 (3), 123-128.