Julia Steiny: We’re Crippling Our Kids with Fear

by Julia Steiny

While hiking in the Finger Lakes region, I watched as a three-year-old did a major face plant on a stone path.  Fellow hikers gasped with horrified “Oh, no!”s and were about to lurch forward to… well, I’m not sure what they thought they would do.  But the mom raised her hands in a big back-off gesture and frowned fiercely.  “Let’s see if she handles it,” she said quietly so as not to wreck the kid’s concentration.  The small crowd held its breath.

So, with only grunts, the sturdy little darling hoisted herself up to all-fours, butt in the air, tested her balance, and rose.  She and mom exchanged a glance and a nod that confirmed that she was all set.  The child toddled on.  Mom did not gush “good job!” at her or smother her with sympathy.  She did glare at us.

Mom took the mishap in stride, and clearly felt the rest of us should too.  Falls happen.  Expect them.  Adversity happens.  Inevitably.  ‘Cause that’s life.  Be careful, but don’t be afraid.  Fear is limiting.  And learning to manage your own recovery and restoration will prevent unnecessary future falls better than anything.  The older a kid gets, the less Mom will be there when adversity happens.  And that’s how it should be.

Instead, communities want laws that criminalize youthful independence.

I thought America had reached its peak for over-cautiousness, but no.  Recently a North Carolina mom was arrested for letting her 9-year-old go by herself to play in a safe public park full of kids and fun stuff to do.  Another mother called the cops.  The police collaborated with that helicopter mom to give the “bad mother’s” child a stern lesson in the evils of independence.  The kid hadn’t yet learned the world is an unmanageably scary place.  But thanks to this incident she’ll be scared to death henceforth that her self-reliance will put her into foster care and get her mom some jail time.

That North Carolina arrest was no anomaly. A poll conducted by Reason-Rupe found that a whopping 68 percent of their sample of Americans felt that the law should require 9-year-olds to be supervised in public parks.  At nine?!  We’re making healthy independence illegal and ensuring that kids grow up fearing their own neighborhoods and public spaces.

I hate to date myself, but when we were 9 or even younger, my friends and I were off into the big bad world with only strict orders to be home when the street lights when on.  Often we rode our bikes to a commercial street at least a mile away from the house.  And if we were stupid enough to let our bikes get stolen, oh well.  Such are the consequences of carelessness.  We were expected to handle our own squabbles, our own troubles, unless, as was sometimes the case, we couldn’t.  Once a group of older bullies would not leave us alone, so we agreed to rat them out to our respective parents.  The parents dealt with it.  No one called the cops.  And this was not Mayberry, but Los Angeles.

The recent poll goes on: 43 percent think 12-year-olds should be supervised at parks.  OMG.  Twelve-year-olds who’ve been shielded from unsupervised socializing with other kids become entitled little beasts who don’t know what hurts or offends, or in any case don’t care.  Maybe we want them supervised in order to protect ourselves from what they’ve become.  Parents should be the backup at age 12, not the kid’s first line of defense.  Kids will grow up, whether we like it or not.  So they need to be confident they can solo safely, socially, healthily when no mommie’s around.

Resilient kids fall down, go boom and recover.

Preventing kids from even the smallest risk is now the cultural norm of “good” parents.  Moms such as the one hiking with her three-year-old are often called “free range” moms, referring to the free-range chickens that get to run around instead of living out their lives in cages.  “Good” parents now metaphorically cage their kids by keeping them indoors, supervised at all times, and doing only what adults teach or direct them to do.  (No one seems to care about the substantial risks of kids living in the world of electronic entertainment, risks such as obesity and anti-social behavior.)  But this kind of protectiveness is like dressing kids in a ton of Medieval armor and hoping they’ll dance through life.  Young American can-do spirit is now met with “Watch out!” and “Be careful!” and “Stop, you’ll hurt yourself!”  Have we thought through what sorts of young adults we’re aiming towards as the result of all this protection?  Will they have the resilience, autonomy and common sense to solo out there in the real world?

What I hear us saying to the kids is:  “We don’t believe in you.  The world is terrifying and we know you can’t handle it.  So we’ll protect you and prepare you for a life without adversity.  Which is to say we won’t prepare you at all.”

Keeping kids scared will warp their adult chances at becoming resilient, innovative or much fun to be with.  I think that the nation’s poor academic performance stems from shielding kids from learning life’s basics.  What a nasty thing to do to kids.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny