Are We Overprotecting Our Kids?

How did we survive without all the molly-codding kids today get?

Doug Ross laments the loss of freedom that has come from a culture that over-protects its children.

I am one of the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. I sometimes wonder how we survived our childhoods. Consider:

Our mothers smoked and/or drank while pregnant.

They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can and didn’t get tested for diabetes.

Then after that trauma, we were put to sleep on our tummies in baby cribs covered with brightly colored, lead-based paints.

There were no childproof lids on medicine or special locks on cabinet doors.

We we rode bikes, we wore baseball caps, not specially engineered helmets.

As infants, we rode in cars without car seats or booster seats, no seat belts and no air bags. Sometimes, as tots, we rode in small moving boxes packed with blankets and toys.

We rode in the back of pickup trucks and no one was arrested or cited.

We drank water from garden hoses, not from plastic bottles.

We shared a single bottle of Coca-Cola with three friends — and no one died.

We ate cupcakes with food coloring, white bread, real butter and bacon. In fact, we drank Kool-Aid mixed with tablespoons of real sugar.

Yet we weren’t overweight, because we were always outside playing.

We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when dusk fell. And no one was able to reach us all day. And: we were okay.

We’d spend hours in the forest with Daisy rifles, or building go-carts without brakes, or sledding with wooden and steel monstrosities that could sever a limb.

We did not have Playstations, Nintendo’s and X-Boxes. There were no video games, no cable television, no DVD players. There were no computers, no web, no Facebook, no Twitter.

We had friends and we went outside and found them… without cell phones or text messages.

We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits resulting from these accidents. We ate worms and mud pies made from dirt, and the worms did not live in us forever.

We were given BB guns and knives for our birthdays, made up games with sticks and tennis balls, played lawn darts and, although we were told it would happen, we did not put out many eyes.

We rode bikes or walked to a friend’s house and knocked on the door or rang the bell, or just walked in and talked to them.

Little League had tryouts and not everyone made the team. Those who didn’t had to learn to deal with disappointment.

The boomers and their parents have produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers, inventors and entrepreneurs ever.

The last 50 years have seen an explosion of innovation and new ideas.

We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned how to deal with it all.

We had the good fortune to grow up as kids in America, before the government regulated so much of our lives “for our own good”.

Give thanks, for such an age will never occur again.

I’m at the front end of Generation X, born in 1965, and have often made similar observations. As a kid in the 1970s, there were no bicycle helmets, car booster seats, or parent-organized-and-supervised play dates. Almost all of the changes Doug alludes to came after I reached adulthood.

Because of media saturation and sensationalism, every tragedy that befalls every kid in America becomes national news. That skews our sense of reality, making people think the world is much more dangerous than it really is. In most neighborhoods, letting your kids go out and play is just as safe as it was when Doug and I were growing up.

Like Doug, I worry that we’re coddling our kids, robbing them of the joys of childhood as well as the earned confidence that comes with taking risks and succeeding.

Yet, while I lament the Nanny State more than the next guy, we shouldn’t kid ourselves, either. The cost of the more carefree existence of that bygone age was more than some cuts, bruises, and chipped teeth. More kids died, were permanently maimed and paralyzed, and had birth defects when Doug and I were growing up than now.

It’s true that women routinely smoked and consumed alcohol while pregnant. My mother did both and I turned out fine! But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk.The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (“Tobacco, Alcohol, Drugs, and Pregnancy“):

If a woman smokes when she is pregnant, her baby is exposed to harmful chemicals such as tar, nicotine, and carbon monoxide. Nicotine causes blood vessels to constrict, so less oxygen and nutrients reach the fetus. Carbon monoxide lowers the amount of oxygen the baby receives. Also, women who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to have certain problems:

  • An ectopic pregnancy
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Problems with the way the placenta attaches to the uterus
  • A stillbirth
  • A low-birth-weight baby (weighing less than 5 ½ pounds)

[…]

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it quickly reaches her fetus. The same amount of alcohol that is in her blood is in her baby’s blood. In an adult, the liver breaks down the alcohol. But a baby’s liver is not yet able to do this. Thus, alcohol is much more harmful to a fetus than it is to an adult. The more a pregnant woman drinks, the greater the danger to her baby.

[…]

Drinking at any time during pregnancy can cause problems. Alcohol increases the chance of having a miscarriage or a preterm baby. Alcohol abuse during pregnancy is a leading cause of mental retardation.

Heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome. This is a pattern of major physical, mental, and behavior problems in babies who were exposed to alcohol during pregnancy.

Similarly, I didn’t ride in a car seat, much less a booster seat. And I rode in the front seat from a very early age when just one parent was in the car. And I emerged unscathed! Does that mean car seats are a bad idea? Some statistics from the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (“Traffic Safety Facts – 2008 DataPDF):

  • Among passenger vehicle occupants over age 4, seat belts saved an estimated 13,250 lives in 2008. If all passenger vehicle occupants over age 4 had worn seat belts, 17,402 lives (that is an additional 4,152) could have been saved in 2008.
  • Research on the effectiveness of child safety seats has found them to reduce fatal injury by 71 percent for infants (younger than 1 year old) and by 54 percent for toddlers (1 to 4 years old) in passenger cars. For infants and toddlers in light trucks, the corresponding reductions are 58 percent and 59 percent, respectively
  • From 1975 through 2008, an estimated 8,959 lives were saved by child restraints (child safety seats or adult seat belts).

A couple of graphs from the same report:

We can’t live in a world without risks. And every incremental increase in safety isn’t necessarily worth the trade-offs in cost, convenience, freedom, and enjoyment. It’s perfectly reasonable to do cost-benefit analysis.

My oldest is 2-1/2 and an adventurous kid with remarkably little fear. Her mom and I let her run and jump and fall. She’s got a ridiculous number of scratches, bumps, and bruises but we figure it’s part of being a kid and gaining the confidence that will serve her well later in life. But we also do our best to protect her from the things that could seriously injure her.

Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame, for example, provides “Evidence that Seat Belts Are as Effective as Child Safety Seats in Preventing Death for Children Aged Two and Up.” So, maybe putting your kid in a booster seat until he’s 4 foot 9 is excessive. Given the relatively low burden it imposes, though, my two girls will be in them until they reach whatever the recommended height is then.

I wear a seatbelt whenever I drive and did even when it wasn’t legally required that I do so. Then again, I commute to work in a 2-door convertible, prioritizing guaranteed enjoyment over minimizing potential risk. I’d certainly be marginal safer in, say, a Volvo sedan. But my kids can’t make those sort of choices for themselves. So they’re in a mini-van with every form of airbag known to man in the best child seats that money can buy.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Parenting
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    Research on the effectiveness of child safety seats has found them to reduce fatal injury by 71 percent for infants (younger than 1 year old) and by 54 percent for toddlers (1 to 4 years old) in passenger cars.

    I’m too lazy to look at the PDF, but does this assume proper installation? Because my in-laws often fail to notice that the car seat is flopping around all over the place – definitely not safer than a seatbelt in that case.

  2. john personna says:

    http://www.fiftydangerousthings.com/

    (A tree fell down in the neighborhood last week. A community email said that someone should clean it up right away, because kids were climbing all over it.)

  3. sam says:

    “Then after that trauma, we were put to sleep on our tummies in baby cribs covered with brightly colored, lead-based paints.”

    Sure. But then did you play in a room with peeling lead-based paint that is sweet to the taste and thus irresistible to young kids? Evidently not, since you seem to be able to compose sentences that are readable and not wrong-headed in the lead-based paint way.

  4. john personna says:

    another part of the counter-trend:

    Risk in science education (mad science)

  5. mantis says:

    Who is this “we” that Doug refers to? Everyone in his generation? If so, he’s full of shit.

    Our mothers smoked and/or drank while pregnant.

    And some of you were born with birth defects. Freedom!

    They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can and didn’t get tested for diabetes.

    Hey Mom, sorry about you losing a foot, but at least you didn’t fall prey to diabetes testing nazis!

    Then after that trauma, we were put to sleep on our tummies in baby cribs covered with brightly colored, lead-based paints.

    And some of you died in bed. Some of you got brain damage from the lead. Freedom!

    There were no childproof lids on medicine or special locks on cabinet doors.

    And some of you overdosed on aspirin or vitamins (this can, in fact, be very dangerous for kids). Some of you drank Drano. Freedom!

    We we rode bikes, we wore baseball caps, not specially engineered helmets.

    And some of you had head trauma. Freedom!

    As infants, we rode in cars without car seats or booster seats, no seat belts and no air bags.

    Nothing says freedom like a baby flying through a windshield.

    We rode in the back of pickup trucks and no one was arrested or cited.

    Does anyone else love the stories of teenagers dying when their pickup rolls with a bunch of them in the bed? If not, you must hate freedom.

    Yet we weren’t overweight, because we were always outside playing.

    Why did they invent fat kids last year? It was better when there were none.

    Anyway, I’m sick of that list. Keep in mind almost none of it has anything to do with “the nanny state.” The reason people don’t do a lot of that stuff anymore is that people tend not to want to take unnecessary risks, not because the government forbids it.

    This is just so much more “things were better when I was a kid, we didn’t need these fancy, new-fangled…..” Tell you what, Doug. You go ahead and tell your wife to smoke and drink as much as she wants while pregnant, drive your kids without any restraints, leave poisons out with the toys, and let the rest of us care about our kids well-being.

    When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to have a bean bag chair. The reason? My parents friends had a boy who unzipped his, climbed inside, and suffocated to death. I thank my parents for their freedom-hating ways. They may just have kept me alive when I was too young to know better.

  6. Rob in CT says:

    @mantis:

    That, sir, is a righteous rant. Take a bow.

  7. Laurie says:

    When I compare growing up in the 60’s and 70’s to raising my own 2 boys (14 and 17) I think the two biggest changes are video games and travelling youth sports. There is no where near the density of kids per block now days, which makes things different as well. Other than seat belts, I am not at all overly protective and I think it has contributed to 2 very confident kids. Older son drove up in a moped the other day which he bought for getting around the greater campus area. I was not at all sorry when the deal fell through for lack of title to this vehicle.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    Of course we do cost/benefit analyses (shorthand ones in our heads, anyway) about safety. I don’t have everything in my house childproofed. Certain cabinets/drawers have the safety locks on them and we do have a gate on the stairs & plugs in the outlets. Minor stuff. I have friends whose house looks like a fortress on the inside, which to me seems excessive.

    Our way works for us because our daughter is never our of someone’s sight for more than a few seconds (she’s 19 months old). Even when she goes around a corner, she has a tendency to loudly announce what she’s up to, so that helps 🙂

    As for the child booster seat thing – the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m not only concerned with preventing death, I’m also seeking to reduce the risk of injury. Proper installation is important – user error probably plays into the numbers the Freakonomics guys have. That said, sure, on its face keeping your kid in a special seat until they’re shaving does seem a bit much. I’d be curious to know what the data shows if you expand from “death” to “death or injury.”

  9. The boomers and their parents have produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers, inventors and entrepreneurs ever.

    The last 50 years have seen an explosion of innovation and new ideas.

    We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned how to deal with it all.

    We had the good fortune to grow up as kids in America, before the government regulated so much of our lives “for our own good”.

    Give thanks, for such an age will never occur again.

    I already get far too many of these “why my generation is awesome and yours sucks” e-mails from my parents, I don’t really need blogs posting another copy of this drivel when there’s far more important things to discuss. Whatever the merit of Dr. Joyner’s point, this chain letter is really just about the Boomers and their narcicism.

  10. [comment deleted]

    To quote Emily Litella, “Never mind!”

  11. Vast Variety says:

    I’m Gen X (’72) and I remember riding in the back of Dad’s truck when ever we went to town or to my Grandmother’s when the weather was decent enough for it. The only rule was that we had to stay seated in the bed… if we didn’t he stopped… sometimes abruptly enough to remind us that what we were doing was potentially dangerous.

    Living out on a farm I was always riding around on tractors and actually learned to drive one well before I could drive a car. We would climb up on the big hay bails and jump from one row to the next.

    Before I could drive if I wanted to go to town to visit friends I hopped on a bike and rode the 7 miles in to town on the trail that ran near the house. The covered bridge always spooked me.

    Sometimes I think we have over done it in the name of “protecting the children.” There are certainly more laws and regulations than there really need to be, but kids are certainly safer today than when I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s.

  12. Neil Hudelson says:

    The boomers and their parents have produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers, inventors and entrepreneurs ever.

    The last 50 years have seen an explosion of innovation and new ideas.

    We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned how to deal with it all.

    We had the good fortune to grow up as kids in America, before the government regulated so much of our lives “for our own good”.

    Give thanks, for such an age will never occur again.

    I like that the implication of this quote is that either Generation X hasn’t/won’t be entrepreneurs or creators (Go F*ck yourself, Google, Facebook, City Year, the explosion of foodie culture in the U.S., –just to name 4 creations off the top of my head), that Generation Y are somehow failures (again, see above, or you know…look at who is fighting our two wars and then ask if that generation deserves a little bit of respect) or that the current generation can’t/won’t be respectable adults (“What the hell? You are already 16 and haven’t proven yourself to be a dynamic entrepreneur/inventor who will change the world? Darn kids and their playstations!”).

  13. @Neil Hudelson:

    Also the implication that it doesn’t matter whether one is themself a risk-taker, problem solver, inventor, or entrepreneur–as long as you were born the same year as one, feel free to take credit for their work.

  14. catfish says:

    @mantis: Today we have parents who follow their children around when they go to college, making sure that they don’t make C’s and are put on the sports teams.
    When I was a child, my mother kicked us out of the house and we played on our own or with other kids until dark; in the woods, vine swinging, creek jumping, etc. Bee stings, poison ivy, and briar scratches were about the only thing that happened

  15. mantis says:

    Today we have parents who follow their children around when they go to college, making sure that they don’t make C’s and are put on the sports teams.

    So overbearing parents are a new invention? I don’t think so. Anyway, what is your point?

    When I was a child, my mother kicked us out of the house and we played on our own or with other kids until dark; in the woods, vine swinging, creek jumping, etc. Bee stings, poison ivy, and briar scratches were about the only thing that happened

    Same here, but that doesn’t mean I think kids should eat lead paint. Do you?

  16. Ben Wolf says:

    The boomers and their parents have produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers, inventors and entrepreneurs ever.

    Let’s keep in mind the boomers also gave us endless war, another Depression and an economy built and sustained on mass fraud and criminality. They ain’t no saints.

  17. john personna says:

    There is a backlash against over-protection, as the links I shared show. I think some of the risks in Doug Ross’ list were misplaced, they were significant risks that confuse the issue. Saying that kids shouldn’t eat paint isn’t the same as saying that sand and jungle gyms should be replaced with rubber and low fall heights. Not at all.

    Although the term ‘risk-taking’ often has negative connotations, the reality is that the willingness to engage in some risky activities provides opportunities to learn new skills, try new behaviours and ultimately reach our potential. Challenge and risk, in particular during outdoor play, allows children to test the limits of their physical, intellectual and social development. This paper examines the current status of outdoor play in urbanised, Western societies such as Australia and provides a critical analysis of the literature to present an argument for the inclusion of positive risk-taking experiences in children’s outdoor play, principally in the context of early childhood education. The increasingly restrictive regulation of early childhood services is considered in terms of the impact of risk avoidance in outdoor play for children’s optimal growth and development. Finally, a model of possible developmental outcomes resulting from the minimisation of risk-taking in early childhood contexts is proposed.

    Conclusion:

    Thus, while safety issues need to be addressed, avoiding all risk is not the solution, as doing so limits children’s participation in worthwhile experiences that promote their optimal health and development. On the contrary, failure to provide children with stimulating and challenging experiences through which they can engage in positive risk-taking exposes them to different risks that compromise their health and development. The ultimate aim for parents, teachers and other play providers should be to provide outdoor play environments where the risks of serious injury are reduced, but creativity, challenge and excitement are maintained.

  18. Neil Hudelson says:

    Today we have parents who follow their children around when they go to college, making sure that they don’t make C’s and are put on the sports teams.

    Pray tell, what university athletic department is making team placement decisions based on parental nannying?

    Any?

    Because I doubt it.
    And, of the regular commentors here, I am probably closest to college age–and indeed worked on a college campus until all of 9 months ago. Number of parents I saw in the classroom or on campus except for during move-in/move-out, and special events? Oh, maybe a dozen at most. And even then I really don’t know the motives, but I doubt it was to follow their child around to make sure they got good grades.

  19. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Indeed. You know, if one reads or studies every generation, one could probably come up with the conclusion of:

    “Each generation has its great members, each generation has a lot of f*ck ups, but it all turns out ok in the end.”

    It’s hard to right righteous essay with that attitude.

  20. JKB says:

    Well, as a Gen Xer who worked for me in the early nineties observed, the Baby Boomers grew up to make everything they did illegal for their kids to do. It was the early Boomers who were having kids in the eighties, looked out upon the cold dark world and said, in a loud annoying voice, “There ought to be a law!” Some technical improvements and awareness of risks were good, just sanitation was a good idea. But the regulatory monster they created became self-aware and turned upon the people

    Now we can’t even pursue happiness without a helmet and kneepads.

    A big part of the problem is the eternal childhood. Many parents never become adults. Are unwilling to face the adult fears of letting your children grow up; Of letting them face life standing out front. Not to mention, many parents seem unable to stop being the center of their child’s life.

  21. Russell says:

    Shorter Doug Ross: every Boomer alive today survived childhood so everything a kid can think of to do is safe.

    I’m all for reasonable risk taking (the clerk at our local kitchen store looked at me like I was crazy when I brought my 4 yo in to find a chef’s knife that was small enough for her to handle since she had outgrown the paring knife she had been using since she was almost 3), but that rant really needs to end “now get off my lawn!”

  22. Ron Beasley says:

    The problem is we are overprotecting and under parenting at the same time.

  23. tyndon clusters says:

    Wait a minute, some of you are completely over-reacting to his basic premise which I believe is true.

    I was of that generation who rode his schwinn bike EVERYWHERE….sometimes 30 miles round trip when I was 11 and this was in LA with all the road traffic.

    But then everyone rode bikes and we never wore helmets and I can’t think of ONE person that I personally knew or even remotely knew or even heard of an anecdotal tale of someone cracking their skull on the pavement. NOT ONE.

    Now I am sure it happened. Just like I am sure there are some that go to the ER to remove a door knob out of their rectum, but it just wasn’t commonplace.

    In fact, most of the injuries I can remember occurring to friends came from organized, supervised youth sports….and we HATED soccer.

    A digression: the best way to improve and popularize soccer in the U.S. is simple: let everyone use their hands EXCEPT the goalie. Just think of how much that would improve the game….no more 1-0 scores, instead everyone would be on the edge of their seats as Arsenal beats Manny U 40 -38!!!! It would be called American Rules Football.

    Anyway, back to my main point…..the lead paint thing I will concede was a huge problem, but the childproofing of medicine bottles and even BIC lighters is a pain in the a$$.

    Another thing that never happened when I grew up but is so friggin annoying nowadays is calling your friend at home on the phone and hearing the child in the background…..then you get the “hey, can I call you back, my kid is screaming”…

    When we were kids and our parents got a call it was ,”Shut the fu*(^k up, I’m on the phone.”

    Never once did my dad or mom hang up on a call because of us kids being a nuisance.

    This happens 90% of the time I call my friends with kids.

  24. Moderate Mom says:

    My kids fall into that period of time where we had to observe certain safety laws, but others hadn’t been put on the books yet. Each of my children rode in rear facing infant seats, but if it was me by myself with them, that rear facing infant seat was buckled into the front passenger seat. Now, that would get you a ticket. Once they turned two, they moved up to a booster seat, once again sometimes in the front passenger seat. Now, that would get you a ticket. After age four (or forty pounds, whichever came first), they no longer required car or booster seats and would happily sit buckled up in the front passenger seat. Now, that would get you a ticket. These are kids that were born in 1987 and 1991, and were out of booster seats in 1991 and 1995. It amazes me how much stricter the safety laws have become since then.

    The other day I saw a ten year old climbing out of a car seat in the rear of a car. It looked bizarre. I don’t think him sucking on a bottle would have looked any stranger.

  25. Oh, dear, mommy is very upset. Somebody forgot to take their Ritalin today.

  26. Trumwill says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Pray tell, what university athletic department is making team placement decisions based on parental nannying?

    I know you meant that to be rhetorical, but… it actually became an issue at Arkansas.

    You may recall reading stories last December about the Springdale parents meeting with Broyles after the SEC championship game. Since that time, they’ve been portrayed as little league-type parents who presumably whined because their sons weren’t getting the ball enough.

    According to multiple accounts of the meeting, however, the parents voiced concerns over several aspects of the program (academics, curfew rules, etc.) that had not played out the way they’d been assured during the recruitment process. Most notably, the parents felt Malzahn was not being allowed to run the type of offense for which their sons had been recruited.

    My (Division I) alma mater’s last basketball coach was known for recruiting kids from New York (I’m from the south). He finally explained why after he left: meddling parents.

    So… it’s not the case that the parents would actually get their way, they apparently do helicopter.

  27. Trumwill says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I already get far too many of these “why my generation is awesome and yours sucks” e-mails from my parents

    Of course, that’s when the question begs to be asked… where did their generation go so wrong in raising us?

    @Neil Hudelson:

    I’d like to second this comment. And probably add some snarky comment about who they turn to when they need their computer fixed. Which we learned through tinkering and exploration. Or, well, my generation did. Judging by your age, I think yours is just lazy and entitled…