Many children learn best through imaginative play, but for more than a decade now unscheduled free play time for children has been declining. Over at the Atlantic, Hanna Rosin has an excellent piece exploring why children are over-watched and over-managed, and how that affects their development. Compared to thirty or forty years ago, they do fewer activities on their own, spend less time playing and exploring with friends, and are more shielded from even minor risks. More:
When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine…One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower.
Rosin suggests that parents are more protective now than they once were because they think the world is a more dangerous place. But the statistics don’t actually bear that out: abduction and other crimes against children are as rare as ever. Rosin quotes David Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, who says that crimes against children have fallen alongside the overall decrease in crime rates, and were never very high to begin with.There might be another factor at work here that Rosin overlooks, one so ingrained in the elite, creative class culture that it’s invisible in some ways to the representatives of that culture. Yesterday’s larger families and autonomous childhoods have given way to small, carefully planned families with closely managed children. Marriage and childbearing are both delayed into one’s thirties. Having a child is so expensive that it is weighed against the lifestyle losses parenthood brings. These and other factors combine to make younger Americans treat children almost as consumer products or status symbols, the capstone to a successful career and marriage. Parents not only try to live through their children, but also seem to see them as a kind of lifestyle accoutrement. In turn, then, children come to exist more and more for the sake of the parents, and are anxiously watched and fretted over.Rosin is completely correct that parents ought to give children more room to play and explore, to test boundaries and face some degree of risk on their own. But doing so might require more than convincing parents that the world is safer than they think. It should involve re-opening a debate into the meaning of having children in the first place—weaning our elites away from treating children as consumer luxuries and instead bringing children into the world for their own sake.