Are we over-protecting our kids?

Recent piece by Judith Warner ( used the example of a mom, a professor, getting in trouble with the law for leaving her bikingtwelve-year-old and another twelve-year-old in charge of three younger kids ages eight, seven and three.  This mom told the older kids to keep watch on the younger kids, keep the three-year-old in the stroller and call on the cell if they needed her; then she went home to get some rest.  She was subsequently called back to the mall and charged with endangering her children.  Judith used the treatment this woman received (i.e. not a slap on the wrist) as an example of “the fact that our country’s resentment, and even hatred, of well-educated, apparently affluent women is spiraling out of control.”

Her article drew a lot of commentary, much of it negative, and although Judith expressly chose not to explore the issue of under and over-parenting (as it has been discussed with “much gusto” in other places, she pointed out), I though we might nevertheless take it up here.  Firstly, however, I would say that while it may be true that some sectors of our country might have problems with strong women, educated women, etc., I think this is a poor example to illustrate that particular issue.  I think it is a good example to raise the question of whether we are over-protecting our kids, and from what?

Given that this mom could have kept the kids at home and, whether or not this would have been good parenting, reduced her risk greatly of getting publicly castigated, much less charged with a crime, a few questions come to mind:  1) was this an unconscious “cry for help” from a mom who just need a break from her kids? Or, 2) did she reason that a public area such as a mall, with it’s communal crowds and the unlikely ability of a lone perpetrator to wrangle five children, including a stroller into danger was, in fact, a safe place for them?  Finally, 3) how did our world get to be so dangerous (or at least become so dangerous in our parental perceptions)?

I’m not saying that it’s not a dangerous world, in a sense I’m saying I’m not even sure anymore.  When those of my generation were kids, we’d ride our bikes all over Chicago without any supervision when we were eight or nine… and my New York friends did the same.  Sure there were different places you ought not go, and sometimes you learned the hard way where those were, but it seemed like you might get beat up or get your bike stolen, not that you’d be abducted by serial killers.

In our parenting times we go on our computers and map the sex-offenders in our neighborhood, but does this ultimately make us safer or more paranoid?  I’ve dealt with a lot of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in my clinical work and almost all of it was perpetrated by people intimately known to the victims.  This is not to say we mustn’t carefully protect our young kids, and educate them on how to stay safe (more on this in coming blogs) but also to say that we have some communal obligation to think about what sort of society we co-create—and how we might drift back toward a world where kids could safely play outside, stroll the mall without mortal danger—a country where we looked out for each other’s kids rather than pointing fingers, judging, projecting the “bad parent” all over the place and fearing villains around every turn.  If there is a prevailing theme it may be the need to recognize our own Shadow if we are to more effectively differentiate the actual dangers of the world from our own dark, frustrated and unconsciously angry selves.

While I’m not at all sure on this one, it strikes me that many men (who may now not care for educated powerful women) were once boys unable to sit still and listen in early elementary school while the girls were the standard bearers at circle time.  The authority figures who told these boys that they couldn’t go out for recess were most of the time female, and so there may be many a long-simmering resentment of “brainy” female authority figures (and this could indeed be a factor in the male cops and attorneys going so hard on that neglectful mom).  It may also be due to the communal pressure that these men, tasked with “serving and protecting,” may feel if the concerned and law-abiding hordes get out their torches and go swarming after some projected monster (i.e. the “bad parent” within each of us).

This is not to say that both men and women don’t have a right to be angry about a lot of things, just that consciousness creates dialogue—and that may help us begin to constructively figure out a more compassionate sort of society— one less fraught with projection of our individual and collective Shadows.

I notice that many kids these days are rather over-protected.  And as I say, I’m not at all sure that this isn’t necessary; however, greater consciousness tends to enhance our ability to be our best Selves as parents.  Therefore, if we are a bit over-protective, we need to ask ourselves if we were hurt, neglected or left vulnerable in our own childhoods, and if so, whether we might now be projecting our wounded kid-self onto our own child and trying unconsciously to prevent a wound from occurring that in fact already occurred—to us?

As parents we all fall short of our ideals, but keeping kids safe is a huge area of concern from cabinet locks for toddlers to warning about strangers as kids develop—and most of us are clear about trying our best to protect our kids (while we’re more quick to find other parents “wrong,” disinterested and inadequate).  When it comes to knowing when to give children more freedom, however, we all tend to get a little confused (especially because we may be judged so quickly and so harshly if we don’t just tow the line of “protect them like crazy because there are bad guys everywhere”).  If we trend away from judging others, we might reconsider over-protection and under-protection in the context of individual children.  Kids who are precocious may chomp at the bit for freedom and appear under-protected when we make the conscious choice to allow them to experiment with independence; while late-blooming, or socially introverted, kids, on the other hand, may resist all attempts to prod them to go to the mall with friends even as teenagers, and thus they may appear over-protected.

The last thing I seek to offer is a cook-book style list about how to know when junior is ready for an unsupervised bike-ride, but rather the encouragement to join with me, and other parents, in considering how our shifting sense of safety (from headlines about child predators to our “war on terror”) might be affecting our parenting.

Perhaps what parents actually need is compassion, support and the encouragement to question what is and isn’t safe, to think deeply (and for themselves) about how to empower as well as protect children, as well as be given the opportunity to talk with each other at a real and authentic level, not just about what works and what doesn’t, but to ask for help (be it a ride home for a kid, someone to step up and watch our kids when we need a break, or a shoulder to cry on because it all can be overwhelming and frightening sometimes).

So, let’s dedicate today to thinking a bit about how much we are protecting vs. smothering our kids—in the service of all our kids (especially the vast number of kids whose parents might not be reading parenting blogs and who may truly be at risk and under-protected; maybe “those kids” are some of the ones who grow up into the very people we fear will hurt our kids at the mall).  When we realize that they are all our kids, we will figure out a way to keep not just our own kids, but all kids, safe—then we will truly have a less dangerous and alienating world in which to raise them.

Namaste, Bruce



3 Responses to “Are we over-protecting our kids?”

  1. Michael Says:

    Are we over-protecting our kids? I’d say ‘yes’. We occupy their time with little league and lessons. We become ‘helicopter parents’ when they go to college. And we tell each other stories of ‘stranger danger’. Fear is infectious, and it has infected our parenting.

  2. mark johnson Says:

    This topic interests me since it brings up two underappreciated points that are slowly getting buried by societal acceptance. One is, I believe that parents and families are the only ones that should be making decisions on their own child safety issues. (obviously short of an abusive situation which laws already exist to prosecute abuse). Secondly, it is very difficult to measure the impact on the human development of our kids that this overprotective trend is causing. I don’t believe that people can effectively learn natural cost/benefit risk taking decisionmaking if one waits until they are high school or college age to face situations on their own and figure out what to do when faced with challenges. It is much easier for parents today to be overprotective and “know” that their kid is safe than to measure the unintended consequence of this action on the kid’s development into an independent young adult. The risk could be so great as to create a generation of urban “sheep” waiting for society (surrogate parents) to take care of them and make their decisions for them because they never learned to do so themselves when they were young.

  3. krk Says:

    My children had much more freedom than I allow my grandchild. Communities
    have changed. Traffic has changed, and dangers have become more real.
    Although I hold a fatalistic view for myself I do not hold one for my grandchild, or any other child. I doubt if anyone does.
    Peace and love to all.

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