Avoiding Risk Can Be Hazardous to Your Kid’s Health

In last week’s blog post, Parenting is Risky Business, I wrote about the dangers of using “risk” as a criterion for determining child neglect: risk is subjective, and parenting involves weighing and taking risks all the time. Of course, parents want to shield their children from harm. But in the past few decades, has this desire morphed into an obsessive drive to shield them from all risk – one which does far more harm than good?

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From birth until 18…

Many American parents fear the risk of allowing their children too much freedom, but rarely consider the risk of giving them too little. There is a growing sense of “surplus safety;” that everything potentially dangerous must be avoided. However, it is impossible to truly avoid all danger, and the attempt to do so would lead to a dreary life.

Excessive avoidance of risk may even hinder a child’s development. The girl testing her limits on the monkey bars and the boy begging to explore his neighborhood out of his parent’s sight are not reckless children out for meaningless kicks (or to give their parents heart attacks). They are engaging in ‘risky play,’ activities that carry the possibility of physical injury or getting lost, which Norwegian evolutionary psychologist Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter believes are developmentally necessary to combat debilitating phobias later in life.

The ‘non-associative model of fear acquisition’ suggests that people don’t develop phobias through exposure to or ‘association’ with scary situations or objects, like heights or snakes. Instead, infants are born with instinctive fears of situations that they are not physically or emotionally equipped to handle, such as the fears of strangers, dangerous animals, and the dark. As they grow, the exhilaration that comes from playful risk-taking allows them to confront and reprogram their reactions to these threats. Such play also allows children to rehearse handling the risks they may face as adults.

Children who are denied such opportunities to challenge themselves may have a higher incidence of mental illness as adults. According to Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, the sharp decline in opportunities for unstructured, unsupervised play, which often involves risky play, has contributed to an equally dramatic rise in anxiety, depression, narcissism, feeling of helplessness, and suicide among children, adolescents, and young adults.

Helping children learn to handle risk doesn’t mean tossing them out into the world to fend for themselves. Kids can develop the necessary skills gradually, by taking on progressively greater physical challenges or expanding the area in which they can roam without adults. Our kids started with unsupervised play in our front yard, and progressed to walks and bike rides around the block, to local stores, and to the library. (And up taller and taller trees).

We Americans once prided ourselves on our courage and willingness to take risks. Most of us descend from people who risked everything to leave their homelands and make a new life in this country. Every day, we decide which risks to take and which to avoid. By trying to avoid unlikely or minor threats, we may expose our children to far greater risks: The risk of growing up anxious, inept, or unable to take care of themselves. The risk of not developing resilience or the ability to judge the appropriateness of different kinds of behavior. What we risk most of all is raising children unprepared to meet the challenges essential to creating rich, rewarding lives; challenges Americans have proudly met for generations.

What do you think? Is it worth it to let kids take risks? 

Where have all the children gone?

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Signs of a different time. 

When I was growing up, and for nearly every generation before mine, kids were expected to entertain themselves in their free time without adult supervision. The idea that two children couldn’t walk in their own neighborhood without an adult—either because they were incapable or it was unsafe—would have been laughable. Kids were kicked out of the house and told to “be home by dinner.”

But no longer.

The world is different today—it’s much, much safer than when I was a kid. So why are American parents paranoid about letting their kids out of their sight? German reporter Clemens Wergin, Washington Bureau Chief for the German newspaper Die Welt, wrote in the New York Times about the contrast between parenting in Berlin and suburban Maryland. Back home, it wasn’t unusual for his girls, ages 8 and 11, to take the metro alone, go to the playground, or walk a mile to a piano lesson without parental supervision. But when he suggested that practice to American parents, many were “horrified.” In hundreds of emails, messages, and tweets, people from France, Israel, Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand and elsewhere have shared with me stories of the freedom and responsibility given to children in their cultures.

Why not here? The American situation is even more confusing because such freedom was the norm for children and parents in this country not too long ago.

According to Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, children are less free today than any time in human history, with the exception of periods of slavery or intense child labor. But his research, as well as that of many others in his field, demonstrates that kids need time on their own, away from adults. Time to explore the world at their own pace and make sense of it in their own ways. By supervising kids at all times and controlling their activities, American parents, and society as a whole, reveal a disturbing lack of faith in children’s intelligence and competency. They also deny kids opportunities to experience classic adolescent milestones, such as learning to navigate their neighborhoods, going on sleepovers, getting paid jobs, and attending overnight camps—actives that social work professor and family therapist Dr. Michael Ungar sees as critical rites of passage that have aided the maturation process for generations.

Over the past year, I have heard stories from American adults who grew up “free-range” —what comedian Bill Maher notes was just called “parenting” back then—and have read many nostalgic accounts of childhood adventures. Author Mitch Albom put it best when he said that his parents would have been in jail if today’s over-protective standards had been applied when he was growing up.

Ironically, as children’s freedom outdoors has been severely curtailed, their privilege within the family has grown dramatically. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert notes that, with the exception of ancient royal heirs, American kids may be the most overindulged brats in history. They have little to no responsibility, and are raised with fewer limits than in the past. Chores and part-time jobs are seen as wastes of time. Set bedtimes and mealtimes are quaint relics from the past. Few restrictions are set on TV and videos games, and even parents who can ill-afford to do so spoil their kids with toys, clothing, and other purchases. Behaviors that were considered non-negotiable in the past, like civility and basic respect for adults, are seen as optional or even a hindrance to parents who aim to be their kids’ best friends.

So…in spite of the reduction in crime over the past generation, AND expert agreement on the importance of structure, limits, and accountability for children, it seems that the only real boundary many modern parents enforce is the front door.

Parenting is Risky Business

[Yesterday, I was invited to testify before the Maryland House Judiciary Committee on a bill related to Child Protective Services. The sponsor pulled the bill from consideration while I was en route – this post is adapted from the comments I prepared for that hearing].

My name is Danielle Meitiv. I am a Maryland resident and mother of two children: Rafi, 11, and, Dvora 7. From October 2014 to June 2015, my husband and I were subjected to three neglect investigations by Child Protective Services (CPS) of Montgomery County, Maryland. In the first incident, we allowed our children, then ages 10 and 6, to play at a park one block from our house without adult supervision. In the other two instances, we allowed them to play at a park one-mile from our home and walk back, again without an adult. In all three investigations, my husband and I were cleared of any wrongdoing.

“Being wrongly investigated and indicated for inadequate supervision is more harmful to families than it may seem to the general public,” says Diane Redleaf of the Family Defense Center.

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The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes parents’ rights – shouldn’t CPS? 

Some people might think that it is better to investigate innocent families than to risk missing actual abuse or neglect. This ignores the harm that wrongful  investigations inflict on children and their families. Our children were pulled from their classrooms, interrogated and frightened by a CPS caseworker, lied to, and held against their will for hours in the back of a police car without access to food or a bathroom. We were not notified that the children had been  into custody until almost three hours after the fact, and they were not returned to us for two more hours. My son later told me that he thought he was going to an orphanage and would never see me again, and both children still want to hide when they see the police.

Children can be deeply traumatized by these forcible, unwarranted separations and their parents are left to pick up the pieces, with little or no help or apology from the authorities. Our family can certainly attest to that – we sought therapy to help our children deal with the post-traumatic stress induced by their ordeal, and it was a full month before we were all able to sleep without nightmares. Because most people assume that CPS only intervenes or removes children in cases where there is a clear threat of serious harm, “there have been few consequences for child welfare authors who indicate parents of neglect or remove a child from the home without evidence,” according to a 2015 report by the Family Defense Center.

Our children are not the only ones who have suffered. According to a report published by the federal Department of Health and Human Services in 2012, from 2008 to 2012, the number of referrals to CPS agencies nationwide increased by 8.3% to 6.3 million children, the while overall rates of actual child victimization declined by 3.3%. That means that over this period, the rate of wrongful investigation increased significantly. These wrongful investigations wasted government resources, which would have been better spent on children and families who actually needed intervention and support.

Nationwide and in the State of Maryland, a root cause of the increase in wrongful investigationsis the vague and inappropriate definition of child neglect. Maryland law 5-701 includes under the definition of neglect “the leaving of a child unattended…under circumstances that indicate… that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm.” The use of “risk” as a criterion is a serious problem because it is subjective and fails to take into account the risk management decisions that are an essential aspect of parenting. Every parenting action entails a level of risk, whether it is allowing your child to play football, ride in a car, walk home from the park unattended, or sit in front of the television all day.

This criterion also infringes on the rights of parents to make those decisions. As recently as 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court reffirmed that “it cannot now be doubted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children”. [Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000)]

The child welfare policies and practices of most states, including Maryland, directly violate these rights. In June of 2015, the Maryland Department of Health and Human Services announced a “clarification” of their guidelines, stating that an unattended child would not automatically trigger an investigation for neglect. This is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. The laws that govern child neglect in Maryland, and every state nationwide, must change to recognize the Constitutional rights of parents to raise their children, without risking government intrusion or harassment. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that fathers – and mothers – know best. State laws must recognize this as well.

Just the Facts

Fact: According to the FBI, the United States today is as safe, or safer, than it has been in more than forty years.

blog_violent_crime_six_large_cities_2According to the New York Times:

The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years. In all regions, the country appears to be safer. The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States. Small towns, especially, are seeing far fewer murders: In cities with populations under 10,000, the number plunged by more than 25 percent last year.

Fact: Just one generation ago, when todays parents were kids, children were given much greater freedom and responsibility than they are allowed today.

Author Mitch Albom describes a childhood much like that which I, and the majority of today’s parent, enjoyed:

I walked half a mile to school as a 6-year-old, rode a subway and two buses to school when I was 11 and was told by my mother, repeatedly, “Go outside and play somewhere. Anywhere!

Fact: In most places in the world, childhood independence and freedom are still the norm.

As Clemens Wergin, Washington bureau chief for Die Welt, explains:

…Germany is generally much more accepting of letting children take some risks. To this German parent, it seems that America’s middle class has taken overprotective parenting to a new level, with the government acting as a super nanny.

So, why do American parents think that their kids are incapable of handling the same level of independence they enjoyed when they were kids?

Why do they believe that their kids are less competent than their peers in other countries and in earlier times?

And if today’s kids are in fact less competent, whose fault is that?

 

 

Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, “free-range” mom, and very passionate, opinionated person. She is currently working on a book called “Fighting For the Future: A Parent’s Rebellion.” You can find her on Twitter:  @DanielleMeitiv , Facebook: Danielle Meitiv, and YouTube: Danielle Luttenberg Meitiv. She lives with her husband and her two famous, free-range kids in Silver Spring, MD.