Handle with Care

From helicopter moms to snowplow dads, we are more involved in our kids’ lives than ever before. Are we better parents than our parents were? Or have we gone too far?

When I was a kid in Dayton, Ohio, the whole neighborhood—15 or so kids of varying ages—would turn out at night to play kick-the-can. Some of the kids were nice and some weren’t, but we all had to get along in order for the game to work. Your best friend wasn’t the one you had the most in common with, but rather whoever lived closest, because parents rarely drove their kids to playdates.

Little did I know at the time that I was experiencing “child-structured play”—something psychologists now say our kids are sorely lacking.

When a child’s free time is consumed by adult-structured activities (be it violin lessons, basketball or Lego robotics), “there’s no opportunity to explore and figure things out as they go, through trial and error, which is what childhood is all about,” explains Kashdan, who has authored or edited several books, including Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology, released earlier this year. “Children today are failing to learn how to navigate the complexity of the social world on their own.”

This trend has created challenges for Kashdan not only as a professional, but also as a parent. Although he encourages his 6-year-old twin girls to go outside and explore the neighborhood with their buddies, they often walk out the door and return a short time later because they can’t find anyone else to play with. All the other kids are busy with scheduled activities.

“[I almost need] an Excel spreadsheet,” says Cherrydale mom Hanna Eun, 42, an independent business consultant, adding that the constant chauffeuring creates extra stress for parents. “Here in Arlington, you feel like you have to drive kids everywhere. Driving is a huge time suck.”

Eun sometimes lets her own children, ages 8 and 11, walk alone to the local Safeway or the library, since the route doesn’t involve crossing a major road—but not without having her parenting decisions called into question. Several neighbors have expressed surprise that she’s not worried that something will go wrong. She is quick to defend her position.

“[My kids] need to know what it’s like to be independent and not micromanaged,” she says.

Categories: Parents & Kids