How Much Should Parents Protect Their Children?

Some parents hover over their children in ways that cause impairment.

Posted Apr 14, 2015

NOAA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Abby Sunderland
Source: NOAA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On April 13, Child Protection Services again seized two "free range" children of a Maryland mother and father whose parenting practices had already created a national debate.

The parents, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv from Maryland, had made headlines just before Christmas when police found Rafi, 10 and Dvora, 6, wandering the sidewalk on their own not far from where they lived.

This time, someone reportedly called authorities again after seeing the children unaccompanied near a park around a third of a mile from their home. This time child protective services did not even bother to call the parents, leaving them in a panic for several hours.

When I grew up in the 1950's, children wandering neighborhoods on their own without any parental supervision was fairly commonplace. Now, without much evidence that it is any more dangerous for children now than it was then, allowing that seems to be considered evidence of child abuse.

This somewhat absurd hysteria about child safety now extends through a child's college years and beyond, as "helicopter parenting" has become all the rage. I think the term "hovercraft parenting" is even more accurate.

This most recent story reminded me of a brouhaha that took place about five years ago that touches on this issue, although what a teenager was allowed to do in this case was vastly more dangerous than allowing children to walk alone in their own neighborhood. A 16 year old girl named Abby Sunderland famously tried to be the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world. Her boat became disabled in a severe storm, and her case became a virtual Rorschach test on parenting.

Editorial columns, letters to the editor, and online debates questioned the sanity of the parents who let the girl try out such a clearly dangerous activity, and argued about whether or not they pushed her to do it for the money they would earn from a reality show—although Abby’s brother Zac had already achieved the feat and the family apparently got very little money from that.

A legitimate question about how much risk parents should allow their teenagers to take, and how protective of their children parents should be, has been all but drowned out by extreme emotion (pardon the pun).

Some people have applauded the Sunderlands for “brave parenting” and for fostering maturity in their offspring. Clearly Abby was quite mature and knew what she was doing. A lot of adult sailors would have trouble keeping their boat upright in 20 to 25 foot waves after the mast was snapped off, or have the presence of mind to quickly activate manually operated emergency radio beacons. Still, should that sort of risk-taking be encouraged in anyone, let alone a teenager?

On the other side are the legions of hovering parents who literally think it’s too dangerous to let their children play outside, or surf the internet unattended for fear that the children will be whisked away by a sexual predator.

Now of course children do occasionally get abducted. According to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, there are 3,000 to 5,000 stranger abductions per year, which are mostly cases of sexual assault rather than kidnapping. Only an average of 115 cases per year are what are called "stereotypical kidnappings," defined in one study as "a nonfamily abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger in which a child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom or abducted with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed." 

Of course, there are about 40 million kids in this country, making the odds of stranger abduction around 347,000 to 1! Compare that to the approximately 3000 children between the ages of 2 and 14 who die in car crashes every year, or to the estimated 1,530 children who were murdered by their adult caretakers in 2006, or to the nine hundred and six thousand child abuse convictions of family members in 2003 alone.

Makes you wonder about how some folks assess risk.

Where’s the middle ground on keeping children safe? It seems to have disappeared. “Protecting” children from themselves is nowadays often taken to extremes in which the parents actually cause their children to be less safe because the kids never learn how to fend for themselves or to tolerate adversity.

A letter to the editor in my city’s newspaper opined that parents who do not randomly drug test their teens, regardless of whether or not there is any evidence that the children may have used drugs, have their heads in the sand. I would be more concerned that those children who had never used drugs would interpret such action by the parent as indicative of the parent’s expectation that they are going to use drugs, as well as the parent's expectation that they are incapable of using good judgment.

Children frequently misinterpret such parental over-concern as a sick need on the part of the parent to be some sort of rescuer—whether the children need rescuing or not. Such kids then often act as if they continually need to be saved from themselves—in order to oblige the parent’s apparent need to do just that.

Another area in which parents go ridiculously overboard in trying to "protect" their children involves media with violent or sexual content. Or even from Harry Potter books and movies, which, I assume they believe, might turn children into witches. This presumes, of course, that magic actually exists.

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax made a highly relevant observation about this when a letter writer asked him if she should allow her 14 year old son to continue to listen to rap songs with salacious lyrics. Ms. Hax suggested that this mother just raise her son, then trust him, to be one of the millions of people who are able to distinguish between an art form and an instruction manual for the treatment of others.

Parental overprotection and so-called helicopter parenting can lead to children growing up with significant personality problems and self-esteem issues, making it highly relevant to the main subject of this blog.

Why has this over-the-top "protection racket" become so prevalent? My theory is that there are a lot of parents these days who are feeling very guilty about the way their busy two-career lives affect their children. This sense of guilt hardly existed 60 years ago. The underlying  cause of the guilt, in my opinion, is not the caretakers' careers per se, but the ongoing culture wars being fought over them. This will be the subject of my next two posts.