There Goes the Neighborhood

Two boys play atop a pile of snow at the end of a street in Union City, N.J., in 2016. (Rickey Rogers/Reuters)
Helicopter and now “snowplow” parenting. Enough. Here’s a case for free-range childhood.

The New York Times informs us that the “helicopter parent” — the hovering, nervous ball of anxiety — is out. Constant surveillance of children is not enough. Now we have “snowplow parents,” who rush ahead of their children and clear out all obstacles in their paths. It’s an article of the “How We Live Now” genre that exists so that New York Times readers can deplore each other and themselves. And I certainly enjoyed hating its subjects, and fearing how much I might one day resemble them.

The article touched on the now infamous college-admissions scandal, in which parents were caught Photoshopping their useless offspring’s faces onto stock photos of student athletes. Others were found to be paying off admissions consultants and proctors to doctor school records or feed their kids answers to test questions.

But the practice extended into the earliest days of childhood, in which parents intervened constantly. And this left their children crippled. One psychologist said she regularly handles students from elite colleges who must come home because they “don’t have the minimal kinds of adult skills that one needs to be in college.” Skills like figuring out how to feed themselves food they like at their own college’s cafeteria.

There is an alternative to the arms-race-style parenting. The free-range childhood movement has been championing the kind of parenting I experienced, and the type of childhood I experienced, one where I was free to organize my own play with other kids in the neighborhood. A childhood where I was free to get myself home from school on public transportation. It was spearheaded by Lenore Skenazy. She also does great work promoting efforts to make sure that states don’t criminalize or regulate a free-range childhood out of existence. The concept has also been championed by author and researcher Jonathan Haidt, who has attributed the sense of fragility and anxiety among young college students to their lack of normal unsupervised socialization at crucial childhood ages.

I’ve had doubts about free-range childhood, at least where I live, though. And they are only intensifying as my kids get closer to the age when they should be put outside. Skenazy has encouraged me to overcome the doubts and send my kids on little missions around their neighborhood. That will come, but will anyone else allow them to be out there?

My childhood neighborhood had silent guardians, the old Italian-American ladies who watched the streets and intervened in the play of children when property or limbs were in danger of being broken. There were also the stay-at-home moms who felt a duty to “our kids,” the kids of the neighborhood, whether they really knew the parents or didn’t. And the kids themselves wanted to be outside, and called each other to come out. Sometimes shouting up to bedrooms, other times calling on the phone, or knocking on the door to ask if I was home and could come out to play. There was a social expectation that kids would be outside and the world had to accommodate them.

That social expectation does not exist where I live. As Samuel Hammond, a researcher for the Niskanen Center, put it to me, there’s been an “enclosure of the parental commons” in our lifetime. For those who don’t remember their AP European History basics: The commons were lands that, well, commoners could use. They could find streams to fish in, or pastures to graze their cattle in, or to cut turf out of its bogs for fuel. The enclosure of the commons entailed kicking the commoners off the land and bringing it under greater commercial control by the owner or lord of the land, usually with massive gains of income for the lord, and the loss of a safety net for many commoners.

Something akin to this is happening to parenthood. The helicopter and snowplow parents with means have withdrawn their children from the street, and often their homes from the “parental commons,” the system of expectations and resources that were held in common by members of a neighborhood that allows it to support its own kids’ socialization without intense supervision and micromanagement.

By the time kids are old enough to go out on their own, parents have usually had a number of unforgiving interactions in which adults made them and their children feel unwelcome in any public space. So they fear Child Protective Services or other agencies getting called on them for allowing their kids what used to be a normal level of independence. I know I’ve already seen other parents react with concern and horror at seeing my own kids alone for even a few seconds before they notice that I’m just 20 yards away myself. And the kids themselves have lost some of the motivation. Screen culture allows teens and tweens some measure of private socialization even as they remain under the watchful eyes of Big Father, Big Mother, or Big Sitter. The result is great for child minders, after-school clubs, day care, and the people who profit from teen social networks and YouTube. It’s great for commerce; I’m not sure it’s great for parents or children.

Maybe I can improve this slightly by sending my own kids out on their own and inviting others out. I know it is not universal. There are poorer neighborhoods that still function as neighborhoods used to. I’ve seen neighborhoods function the old way in Europe. But, in our New York suburbs and those nearby, the absence of children playing is now universal. Just about every day that I get in the car I drive past a sign that says, “Caution: Children at Play.” In a decade, I’ve never seen a child at play on that street.


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