Welcome to the Age of Overparenting
“If you think of this from the viewpoint of natural selection,” Gray says — which I haven’t until this moment — “free play is a marvelous biological solution to the big problem that human beings have, which is that we are both selfish and social. We depend on cooperating with other people, and yet we are also looking out for number one. Children are constantly negotiating that balance in their play.”
The key for parents, he says, is backing off and letting kids play among themselves. Kind of like we used to do.
IN THE ARLINGTON middle school cafeteria, Michael Thompson asks if anyone wants to share their sweetest memory from childhood. I raise my hand and tell the group how, when I was eight, my friends and I discovered a frozen pond way back in the woods. We raced home to get our ice skates and laced them up in the hollowed-out trunk of a towering tree. And then, accompanied only by the sounds of our voices, laughter, and the scratching of our blades, we skimmed the ice, unsupervised, for hours.
“Why,” Thompson asks me in front of all the parents, “is that memory so sweet?”
Without thinking, I say, “Because my parents didn’t know where I was.”
“Your parents didn’t know where you were. So that experience was wholly your own,” he says. Then: “Would you let your own children do that?”
“I don’t even let my kids out of the house,” I blurt.
Everyone laughs, including me. (I do let them out of the house, by the way.) It’s a funny line, but the truth is our kids have but a shred of the freedom we enjoyed growing up. They have other things, of course. For example, my children know how to play team sports. They’ve gone to science camp and studied still lifes at the MFA. They compost and take educational family vacations to Washington, DC. At night, the older two like to laze about and ask my husband and me things like who the first person was and what happens when you die. We’re always there with some answer.
But what calling up my sweetest memory made me realize is that while today’s middle- and upper-middle-class children have an unprecedented array of opportunities, their experiences are often manufactured by us. For them, ice skating takes the form of 30-minute lessons at a city rink. Playing with friends involves checking calendars and pre-set finish times. Nearly everything they do is orchestrated, if not by their parents, then by some other adult — a teacher, camp counselor, or coach. But their experiences aren’t very rich in the messier way — in those moments of unfettered abandon when part of the thrill is the risk of harm, hurt feelings, or struggle. In our attempt to manage and support every moment of our children’s lives, they become something that belongs to us, not them.
Nine years into this parenting gig, I’ve begun to see that maybe our generation doesn’t have it all right and our own parents didn’t have it all wrong. Maybe it’s just time for some middle ground.
After a recent snowfall, my husband and I took our kids out to a huge hill on a Saturday afternoon to go sledding. When I saw that the hill was lined with trees, I confess I envisioned a concussion in our immediate future. And as our two oldest children wedged themselves onto our thin plastic toboggan, I wanted more than anything to climb aboard and steer them to safety. But I reminded myself of my quest to change. And so, without speaking, I crouched down and gave them a shove. Then I stepped aside and let them go.