Photo by Laura Kriegel

The Taming of the American Child
Micromanaging and making kids’ lives risk-free makes them unhappy and unhealthy, and it’s not good for the planet either. Parents can give kids their lives back by refocusing on their own, making everyone more well-adjusted and joyful.

Over the last 40 years, many Americans have seen advancement in their enjoyment of freedom, though some more than others. These include women, gay people, African Americans and other Black people, and the disabled, among others. As a society, we’ve come to respect independence and self-determination as more and more necessary to a decent quality of life.

But over the same time period, incredibly, one very large group of Americans has gone completely in the opposite direction, experiencing a dramatic decline in its enjoyment of independence and self-determination. That group is children.

To help illustrate what kids have lost since the late 1970s, here is a partial list of things that the young of my generation did that kids can’t do anymore:

Photo by Laura Kriegel
Photo by Laura Kriegel
  • Climb trees and other objects
  • Take off on their bikes for hours, alone or with other kids
  • Use adult implements and tools instead of dumbed-down versions like kid scissors, sippy cups, lunchboxes, dishes, furniture, etc.
  • Spend time outdoors, hours of it, much of it alone or with other kids; even go camping without adults
  • Cook, use regular or power tools, build things, play with fire, tinker with electrical appliances and gadgets, without adults standing over them
  • Walk real distances and use public transit, go into stores, restaurants and other public places and buy things, eat or hang out, without adults monitoring, much less child-proofing the place or making a “teachable” moment of it
  • Come home from school and decide what to do. No soccer practice, no music lessons, no supervised arts and crafts. This was unscheduled time, alone or with friends, which allowed children to actually do something that has been 100% usurped by adults: make decisions

Kids have had whatever independence they enjoyed 40 years ago taken from them. Stolen. They’ve had their environment — home, school, the playground — made so safe, so risk-free you’d think they’re mentally defective or suicidal. They’re followed by a security detail everywhere they go. Every minute of their day is scheduled by adults who are “looking out for their future,” and literally none of that time permits them to be away from the watchful eyes of adults unless they’re sleeping. None. (Exceptions may be made starting in the teen years, but on a cellular leash.) They’re told what to do, how to do it, and when. (I’ve seen a dad tell his young daughter how to climb a set of easy steps: “Hands and feet!”) They’re expected to believe that a “family concert” with balloon animals is a fair replacement for hours spent exploring and learning about the world on their own terms, unmediated and unsupervised.

In short, American children have been tamed; domesticated and brought into captivity. They had their wildness and sovereignty taken from them and were given light-up shoes and junk food as compensation (electronics these days). Children today, like our young neighbor, don’t proudly tell you what they can do, like previous generations — “I can draw, and tie my shoes, and tell time” — but rather what they own — “These are my magic markers, my new shoes, my clock.” This was a very lousy deal indeed.

The Taming of the American Child

Society-wide there is an ignorant and reckless disregard for children’s native intelligence, resourcefulness and drive for independence, not to mention capacity for mature behavior when not treated like glass figurines.

In the contemporary U.S. we have eliminated a child’s right to move from place to place unaccompanied because of paranoia about “stranger danger,” even though riding in the family car is more dangerous for kids than playing at the park without an adult hovering nearby. Bizarrely, we’ve replaced allowing children to take time-honored risks with paranoid smothering on the basis of a deeply distorted assessment of what the risks are in their lives.

While it’s reasonable to believe that the killing of Etan Patz in New York City in 1979 helped usher in the era of seeing children as hopelessly vulnerable, other factors have done even more to promote it. One of these is the shift from an economy in which workers might expect loyalty from their employers to the nickel-and-diming they now face at every turn, causing large numbers of us to be stressed out and chronically insecure. Part of our compensation for this is an explosion of choices in our selection of stuff — food, sneakers, cell phones — compensation for less and less choice in where we work, how we survive on shrinking wages, and how our taxes and political system are managed (or violated), which is somehow never to our benefit the way taxes are used to the benefit of the French, Swedes, Canadians, etc. Like children, poor, working, and middle-class Americans have been distracted from the erosion of our self-determination by the dangling of trinkets in front of us, but these trinkets, the fruits of made-in-China consumerism, are tacky and ephemeral. They leave us needing something more, something to help us feel important and needed again.

superhero parents
Cartoon vector created by Freepik

So our other compensation is being mom and dad superheroes. Thanks to our political and economic disenfranchisement, Americans of today are much more likely to derive part or all of our self-worth from parenting, from being knights in shining armor to our children. But strong, confident people don’t need rescuing, so we now — unconsciously — require children to be helpless long past the age they have historically been so.

The result is an era in which we do not raise or teach our children so as to promote mastery and individuation, as humans have always done; rather, we raise and teach them to need us and to look in our direction before making a move, to deeply internalize our approval and guidance so that they will go on needing us. Needy parents promote neediness in their children.

This has not been done without justification. In eliminating children’s freedom and rehearsals for independence, adults have embraced an antiquated and otherwise discredited doctrine: an adults’ version of “White Man’s Burden.” Grown-ups’ Burden is the attitude toward the young that sees them as so delicate and mentally undeveloped that they cannot be trusted with real scissors, time alone or intellectual challenge, necessitating extensive adult help and praise for even banal tasks (“Good job!”). But the real, unconscious goal of much of our “help” is the proving of how necessary we are. Like past rationales for colonialism, this is paternalism, and if you doubt that paternalism has much to do with adult-child relations, you have not observed contemporary parenting or studied the education industry.

We’ve created a society where children have a hard time getting hurt, but our paranoid eradication of even the hint of danger (and liability?) has also stolen from them many of the timeless rites of young passage. This has changed the experience of growing up from an irreplaceable adventure — historically an excellent preparation for adulthood — to a prosaic plod through a maze built by others with tall walls and nary a peek at the outside world (i.e., anything outside the daycare to high school/college pipeline).

We have turned childhood into a job that, if not joyless, has certainly been robbed of the thrill and terror of straying from the script, taking risks, standing on shaky ground, and finding out, under pressure, what one is made of. That thrill and terror are not lamentable accidents of growing up, to be rightly eliminated by parents, lawyers, teachers and social workers; rather, they are indelible features of a stage of life that loses richness and wisdom in direct proportion to the loss of risk-taking.

This abolition of childhood risk helps to explain the dumbing down we see in the American classroom. Young people prevented from climbing trees are not likely to feel up to the task of doing calculus or understanding great literature, much less producing any. Children who’ve been told how to go up steps or been given calculators for arithmetic are unlikely to blaze creative or intellectual trails. Indeed, lack of trust goes a long way toward explaining what’s wrong with our school system.

Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto, New Society Publishers, cover artist, Diane McIntosh
Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto, New Society Publishers, cover artist, Diane McIntosh

We’ve contributed immeasurably to the dumbing down of American education and culture by child-proofing childhood, for most of children’s learning traditionally occurred through their free play, exploration of nature, real work, and time spent alone, which have, insanely, been all but eliminated, and sometimes even criminalized, in the contemporary U.S. These activities were for children the factories of self-knowledge and self-confidence that made possible their mature and creative behavior throughout history until the helicopter gang flew into town.

By contrast, young people raised indoors, on electronic stimulation and adult-chosen activities, and in the constant presence of those adults, lack the independence, openness to challenge, and resilience that is their birthright. They are bored and psychologically dependent on us and on electronics and general materialism. They lack initiative (which has been systematically discouraged out of them), and they make decisions awkwardly because they so rarely get to do it. (God help them in an emergency with no adults able to help.) This is, of course, the fault of adults who, at some mediocre and particularly unimaginative point in our recent history, began to see the risks of young people’s natural wildness as a problem to be solved. (It should surprise no one that any such solution would bring money and jobs to the adult world.) And solve it we did, by eliminating any and all activities, and anything children touched, that might lead to injury, failure, or a circuitous path to maturity. While this was not a grand conspiracy, it should not be believed that it was done altruistically, as every step of this process has, conveniently, promoted adult systems of management and control of children; with these systems have come huge numbers of jobs and financial rewards to adults, not to mention permission to see themselves as heroes who are “rescuing” children from the big bad world, an attitude frequently seen as the racism and classism it is when applied to many efforts “on behalf of” people of color and the poor.

We have made children strangers to adventure, which is extraordinary, but we don’t feel guilty because we’re deluded about our responsibility for it. Instead of admitting that we get a nice ego massage from “guiding” children through life and doing for them what they can do for themselves; instead of admitting that it’s less complicated and stressful to have them in sight instead of allowing them to explore on their own; and instead of admitting that we want children’s cheerful and constant company because they’re generally cute and eager to please, and our adult relationships so often messy and disappointing; instead of admitting these things, we tell ourselves that we parent this way because we are keeping our children safe and helping them to get ahead in the world. We couch our behavior in terms so correct, so redolent of safekeeping that we’ve thoroughly deluded ourselves about how much our “caretaking” actually diminishes their resourcefulness and self-confidence and increases their vulnerability in the short and long term.

It is our job to support and guide children only to the extent that they need it in order to fulfill and express their true nature, not to be their best friends or life coaches. We should show children sincere affection, get to know who they really are, and protect them when truly necessary, but should not otherwise put our stamp on every inch of their lives. Yet we continue to engage in patronizing and harmful interference in their daily routines, and part of the reason is because we can.

Indeed, it is unfortunate for American children that there are more adults per child these days, and so much money, so many kinds of careers, and so many warm and fuzzy feelings attendant with giving children the attention and other “help” we’ve convinced ourselves they need, the way it was once universally believed that people of color needed and would benefit from the “help” of missionaries and imperialists.

The good news is that many parents without a tangible stake in keeping kids in captivity see through much of this absurdity. Although they remain vulnerable to paranoid and powerful social workers and nosy neighbors, many parents subvert the helicopter culture by promoting genuine resourcefulness and self-trust in their own and other children in dozens of ways. These include:

  • Allowing children to engage in free play that is also free of adult intervention and direction. (They don’t come to your office and tell you how to do data entry; don’t tell them how to play, go up stairs, or solve their conflicts with others. They’ve got this.);
  • Allowing young people hours at a time, regularly, to explore their environment independently or with other young people. When this requires crossing streets or taking public transit, these are taught and practice allowed, but once the skills are acquired, they are trusted to use them alone;
  • Requiring their children to walk, bike or take public transit to the places they need and want to go to, unaccompanied (sometimes even without cell phones, so they can learn to find trustworthy older humans and talk to them, just like adults do every day);
  • Encouraging children to make decisions — real ones, like whether or not school is right for them — and to tackle problems that may arise from them without jumping in to solve them, which will enable them to once again learn how to solve problems without help (this is a good thing, folks). This goes hand in hand with allowing failure to once again be an option for young people;
  • Allowing and encouraging children to do real work, like that of the eleven year-old reporter in Pennsylvania who broke the story of a murder in her small town. Children should be allowed to participate in the building of houses and the running of households and businesses; they should be asked how they would solve chronic community problems, and then be allowed to do it. (They may be slow and uncertain at first, but they will be the ones who go on to do it for a living, and win prizes for it.);
  • Declining to schedule every minute of their day, resting assured that, far from ruining their future, this will give them the space and time to develop exactly those qualities that will help them most. The young years should be much messier and more self-directed than they currently are, and much scarier for parents while being frequently exhilarating for the ones making the journey;
  • Recognizing the incremental (but sometimes dramatic) advances in competence and pride that follow from children being trusted to explore their world and take chances. We will all be more sensitive to these advances when we understand that setting children on an adult-ordained, no-option-for-detour path for 18 years has lead not to more safety, but more anxiety.
Photo by play:groundNYC
Photo by play:groundNYC

Prevent a child from tackling challenging problems (from real life, not a worksheet) until age 18 and you will guarantee that she becomes an adult who’s not very good at it or eager to do it. There is a whole generation, and another coming up, of which this is true, and the consequences are far-reaching for their quality of life. They range from a dramatically reduced physical and psychological comfort zone to a permanently troubled relationship with food. After all, years ago we replaced whatever independence remained to children with empty calories and kiddie merchandise. It should not surprise us that, in the continuing absence of a far more satisfying diet of adventure and meaningful challenge, children have continued to rely on junk food, and now smart phones, to console themselves and drown their boredom. I believe childhood obesity will not cease to be a problem until the right of the young to strive toward independence and mastery of their world on their own terms is restored. Eliminate their loss and boredom and you will largely curb their need to use food the way millions of adults do.

Until then, the other victim of this hapless experimenting with children’s lives will be the planet, which will one day need them to tackle real, daunting problems without the help of a previous, more resourceful generation. These problems include global warming, perhaps the mother of all problems, and I for one do not want to be dependent in surviving such a calamity upon a generation that was prevented from figuring out how to climb stairs or trees. Complex problem solving later in life requires the experience and confidence gained from tackling earlier, seemingly simpler difficulties, and we lead children through life, step by tiny step, like halfwits, at our own and the planet’s significant peril.

For this reason, it is past time adults stopped hovering over children, found meaning outside of their relationships with them, and began encouraging the renaissance of accomplishment, purposefulness and adventure that are inherent features of the youthful years lived out as they were meant to be.