Oct 5, 2023
The very first time my mom said I could ride my bike by myself to the local shopping center (about a mile away along a bike path with few streets to cross), she made me wear a helmet, wrist guards, and pack a first aid kit. She also gave me a quarter and told me to call her from the payphone as soon as I got there. She wanted me to “be safe.”
I was 12 years old.
At the time, I probably just rolled my eyes and went along with it. I was the first born daughter of three, I knew my mom meant well, and it was a route I’d taken dozens of times with my family before. (Also, for the record, I arrived without issue, no scraped knees, and called her, as instructed.)
But at the same time, I lived in a safe neighborhood, I always wore a helmet when I rode my bike, it was a car-free trail, and I was in middle school! In many ways, this experience could not have been safer, in spite of my mom’s anxieties.
Over the years, parenting styles have shifted. In the 80s and 90s, “helicopter” parents hovered– bringing left-behind lunch or homework to school, swooping in to resolve a social conflict, padding children both literally and figuratively to “keep children safe.”
In the 2000s and later, we saw a shift towards “lawnmower” or “snowplow” parenting– where parental anxiety about the state of the world drove parents to mow away obstacles before children experienced hardship or adversity– again, to “keep them safe” and set them up for success.
These parenting approaches are rooted in good intentions. However, when we prevent our children from experiencing difficult moments, are we really ensuring their safety? While it might keep them physically safe, what about their emotional and mental well-being?
Just this year, the U.S. Surgeon General warned that teen mental health, especially among girls, had reached deeply worrisome levels. While there are many factors contributing to this (social media being a huge one), I see a connection between these troubling mental health statistics and a helicopter- or snowplow-parented childhood, one in which kids were not given the freedom to play, wander, get lost and then found, explore, or solve problems.
This is no shade to my parents or parents of earlier generations. I know parents were (and are) well-meaning. But one of the big challenges I see in today’s parenting approach is our inflated sense of danger and risk compared to reality. Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids and founder of the Let Grow Movement, is a thought-leader on this and I’ve learned so much from her (and got to meet her in NYC in April!).
As Lenore succinctly puts it, “A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own eventually can’t.”
And the only way children gain confidence in their ability to do things on their own…is by doing things on their own.
Today, 97% of American adults own smartphones, and we average somewhere between 4-6 hours per day using them. (We may worry about kids’ screentime, but, adults– come on…) And since we are using them so much of the day, we are also bombarded with notifications and news alerts and bottomless social media feeds–a constant stream of click-bait content in the form of scary and anxiety-producing headlines.
In my talks, I often ask this question: What is scarier: a shark or a bathtub?
No one is afraid of bathtubs, of course. Everyone says shark. But we are 400 times more likely to die in our bathtub than in a shark attack. So why are we so afraid of sharks, but not bathtubs?
Because we read the scary– albeit rare– news headlines about shark attacks. We have terrifying movies like Jaws that reinforce our fears. We watch “Shark Week” on TV.
No one would watch something called “Bathtub Week.”
Today, parenting in the digital age, we as parents are susceptible to far more marketing and news messages than any previous generation. The constant bombardment of these signals hijacks the part of our reptile brains responsible for fight-or-flight - the amygdala - and we feel the same kind of fear that would make sense in a life-or-death situation.
Through a combination of biology and technology, we have learned to be afraid of the sharks, without a thought to the bathtubs. So it is understandable that our fear about what is scary (but not actually dangerous) is heightened.
But in reality, and in spite of what we read and hear, we live in a far safer time period in history than ever before. What is scary about screentime is not those frightening news headlines about kids getting kidnapped; what is scary is how seeing those frightening headlines over and over again reinforce our fears about something that is statistically very rare. Then, as a result, our parental anxiety about the real world is heightened, and this affects how we parent.
We then shelter and monitor and hover and pad and protect them in such a way that we actually rob them of critical learning experiences that, when they are allowed to occur, would paradoxically make them safer in the world.
It is hard to avoid sounding calloused here– of course I care about the children who are kidnapped. One kidnapped child is one child too many. But the challenge for parents here is to set aside our own hijacked amygdalas and take the long view. And that is going to be very difficult.
Let me offer one other story. Psychologists routinely confirm that many young teen clients experience severe and debilitating anxiety. I recently heard about one psychologist who shared that for two of her clients in particular, the anxiety was not coming from social media or excessive phone use, as we might expect.
Instead, these two teens were crippled by feelings of anxiety and self-doubt as a result of their parent’s use of parental controls, monitoring software, and constant text check-ins! This hyper-surveillance and a lack of trust from their own parents, who were constantly watching and texting the teen when the teen wasn’t where she said she’d be or somehow strayed from where the parents expected her to be, drove these young people to feel deeply insecure, untrustworthy, and full of self-doubt.
Parents, this requires a very serious mindset shift on our part. I hear constantly from parents that with just the right parental controls or monitoring software they can keep their kids safe, but as with so much of this, it is so nuanced. The intention to keep creepy people out of our kids’ social media accounts is only a few steps away from us over-monitoring their every move.
How do we find the happy middle ground? What constitutes keeping a tab on things versus micro-managing our child’s every move?
It’s what I come back to over and over again: relationships rooted in values, intentionality, and ongoing conversations. What kids need is not increased surveillance in the form of monitoring software or intense oversight (without the mentoring). Children instead need more opportunities in the real world to do things independently of their parents, to make mistakes that they have to learn to correct, to get lost and find their way again. It is in these experiences that they learn to not only trust the world around them (because remember, it’s actually safer!), they learn to trust themselves.
If we want to raise our children to be resilient, confident adults, they are going to need lots of time and opportunities to practice these skills as children. Which means that we, as parents, are going to have to take a hard look at how we’re doing things.
One final story: a friend recently reached out to ask my opinion. She said her 5th grade son would be walking home alone from school and should she consider a phone or watch for him to contact her. Here is what I wrote:
Note that none of this shift in mindset is a cold turkey approach. We have to talk about it, model it, explain it, practice it, role play, and tell our kids, “I believe in your ability to do hard things.”
Parents: This. Is. Hard. I don’t want to pretend that the world doesn’t feel scary, even if it isn’t actually dangerous. But if what we really want is to keep our kids safe and help them grow into confident adults, we need to surveil less, connect frequently, and trust more.
You can do this!