In a fascinating article in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin reveals how much parenting, and therefore also the childhood experience, have changed since we were kids.
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. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. 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.
Walking to school by the third grade? We were walking ourselves to school by the first grade. To be sure that we remembered correctly, we checked with mom, who confirmed it.
Another change is that the parents we know seem to spend a lot more time with their kids than our parents spent with us. Rosin confirms that parental contact hours have in fact increased, even though parents work more than they used to. So parents both work more, and spend more time with their kids. That can only imply that the adults have less time to themselves. The life of a parent has gotten tougher, which perhaps explains in part why fewer people these days want to do it.
Rosin’s own experience is typical of modern practice.
My mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me, either. She didn’t arrange my playdates or drive me to swimming lessons or introduce me to cool music she liked. On weekdays after school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. 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.
Not 10 minutes without adult supervision? That’s just sad.
When you ask today’s parents why they are so much more protective, they reply that today’s world is more dangerous, and in particular, that children today face an increased risk of being abducted. The problem with that view is that it simply does not square with the facts.
David Finkelhor is the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the most reliable authority on sexual-abuse and abduction statistics for children. In his research, Finkelhor singles out a category of crime called the “stereotypical abduction,” by which he means the kind of abduction that’s likely to make the news, during which the victim disappears overnight, or is taken more than 50 miles away, or is killed. Finkelhor says these cases remain exceedingly rare and do not appear to have increased since at least the mid‑’80s, and he guesses the ’70s, although he was not keeping track then. Overall, crimes against children have been declining, in keeping with the general crime drop since the ’90s.
All of this extra time that parents spend with their children is supposedly for the benefit of the children. So children must be doing better than they used to, right? Well, not so much.
[Kyung-Hee] Kim has analyzed results from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking and found that American children’s scores have declined steadily across the past decade or more. The data show that children have become:
“less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.”
The largest drop, Kim noted, has been in the measure of “elaboration,” or the ability to take an idea and expand on it in a novel way.
We wonder if this generation, when it reaches adulthood, will be able to match the achievements of previous generations.
Finally, Rosin writes about a research study from the 1970s that filmed children playing unsupervised in ways that today seem unthinkable.
Andrew and Jenny, a brother and sister who are 6 and 4, respectively, explore a patch of woods to find the best ferns to make a bed with. Jenny walks around in her knee-high white socks, her braids swinging, looking for the biggest fronds. Her big brother tries to arrange them just so. The sun is shining through the dense trees and the camera stays on the children for a long time. When they are satisfied with their bed, they lie down next to each other. “Don’t take any of my ferns,” Jenny scolds, and Andrew sticks his tongue out. At this point, I could hear in my head the parent intervening: “Come on, kids, share. There’s plenty to go around.” But no parents are there; the kids have been out of their sight for several hours now. I teared up while watching the film, and it was only a few days later that I understood why. In all my years as a parent, I have never come upon children who are so inwardly focused, so in tune with each other, so utterly absorbed by the world they’ve created, and I think that’s because in all my years as a parent, I’ve mostly met children who take it for granted that they are always being watched. (Emphasis in original.)
Exit question, and a chilling one: Will people who grow up accustomed to constantly being watched feel comfortable with, or complacent about, being watched by a Big Brother surveillance state? Can human freedom survive overprotective modern parenting?