Helicopter parents - KaBOOM! News

"Take Our Children to the Park... and Leave Them There Day" (Saturday, May 19) has a provocative name for a reason: to call attention to itself.

Had Free Range Kids founder Lenore Skenazy, who originally came up with the idea, named it, "Give Your Children A Chance To Gather Outside With Other Neighborhood Children and Engage in Unstructured, Unsupervised Play for an Hour or Two," I'm not sure that so many people would be taking notice.

Parental paranoia has risen dramatically over the last two decades. It's a trend driven by fear--fear of crime, fear of injury, and even fear of children growing up to be failures. Some parents, like Lenore, have decided that enough is enough.

The world has dangers, yes, but it is not the inherently evil, threatening place that we often make it out to be. As Lenore and others point out, rates of violent crime are lower today than they were in 1974, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and have been steadily declining since the 1990s. Parents fret about child abductors while carting their children around in cars, even though kids are nearly 12 times more likely to die in a car wreck than they are to get kidnapped by a stranger.

And yet, people accuse Lenore of being "out of her tree."

All that she is asking, really, is that parents use their common sense. She is not issuing a decree that ALL parents MUST take their children to the park this Saturday and leave them there... or else! This day is really all about empowering, not endangering, children. Lenore is hoping that by making a big deal over leaving kids to play together at a park, it will, over time, cease to be a big deal.

As Lenore puts it,

"Clearly we are in the middle of a vicious cycle--there are no kids outside so I won't let MY kids outside, so there are no kids outside, so you don't let YOUR kids outside, so I don't let MY kids outside, etc., etc., etc--which is why the holiday (or whatever it is) is even necessary. It is a day to break the cycle. A day to get kids outside to meet each other and re-learn the lost art of playing!"

Will you be taking your kids to the park... and leaving them there?

A longer version of this piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Mom says, "Go outside and play." Kids go outside and play. It used to be that simple. But for a number of reasons, few parents these days feel comfortable letting their children roam the neighborhood without keeping a watchful eye. 

Danielle Smith, a blogger on strollerderby, asks in the video at right, "Do you let your kids play outside alone?" Though she admits it's unlikely, she worries about her kids getting abducted by a stranger and simply can't bear the thought of anything happening to them on her watch.

Many parents are equally reluctuctant to send their kids outside unsupervised -- so many, in fact, that our neighborhood streets are now eerily quiet, void of the shouts and screams of playing children. And that's precisely the problem. In the "good old days," kids weren't playing "alone." They were playing with all the other neighborhood kids. 

After all, playing alone is boring. And more dangerous. In the extremeley unlikely event that a child abductor were to be perusing your neighborhood, he or she would be far more likely to prey on your children if they were alone.

We strongly believe that children need time for free, unstructured, unsupervised play -- but they also need other children to play with. So the question of letting kids play unsupervised is one we need to pose not only to individual parents, but also at the neighborhood level.

Of course, getting a whole neighborhood on board with unsupervised outdoor play is no easy task. (You can read about one father's worthy efforts here.) But since April is officially "Get Outside Month," there's no better time to start.

>> See our "Get Outside" board on Pinterest for ideas and inspiration.

Does your neighborhood look like this?

Photo from PlayingOut.net, an organization dedicated to activating street play in your neighborhood.

Most mothers were sitting on benches around the perimeter watching their kids on trampolines, except for this one mom who had pulled a chair up close and was shouting, “Whee!” each time her child jumped. I knew she was American.

Pamela Druckerman, author of the new book Bringing Up Bébé describes this scene on a Paris playground in a recent interview with Macleans. Amongst the many differences she notes between American and French parenting styles is the "belief in America that we must always stimulate our kids." In France, by contrast, "children are given freedom to play by themselves, and to cope with frustration and boredom."

Druckerman goes on to say:

... when American parents come to my house, they’re constantly engaged with their children resolving spats, or getting down on the floor and playing Lego. We never finish a conversation, certainly not a cup of coffee. When French families come over, the kids go off and play by themselves and we adults have coffee.

We've written before on this blog about the benefits of boredom and the importance of children engaging in free, unstructured play, without parental hovering. But is it a "bad" thing for parents to build Lego houses with their kids?

Of course not. Perhaps the more relevant question is, should you as a parent feel obligated to build Lego houses? Would you rather be socializing with friends or catching up on household chores? Could American parents make things a little easier on themselves if they loosened the reigns and allowed themselves more "me" time?

To the last question, Druckerman would respond with an emphatic yes. How would you respond?

My two elementary-aged daughters sit at our kitchen counter munching apples and Ritz crackers. My kids aren’t with their peers at ballet, basketball, piano, art, karate, gymnastics, or swimming. They do take lessons occasionally, but I limit their activities to once a week. For JJ, it’s ballet and for Ani, it’s Lego engineering.

“Can we go outside now, mom?” Ani asks, already grabbing her coat and running out the door.

Our suburban backyard faces other backyards, separated by bike path and a small creek. During the school year, we can be outside for hours and not see or hear another child the entire time. My kids check the trampoline of our next-door neighbor just in case, hoping for a friend to play with.

"Mom, why can’t I have a play date?" Ani asks.

It’s hard to explain over and over.

"No one can play. All your friends are busy in activities and sports. Maybe during the next break."

My kids are each other’s best playmates thankfully.

I watch their legs pump on the swings out and back, out and back; listen to the giggles and screams; feel the warm Colorado sun on my face. Am I a crazy person, the only one in the universe, who thinks it’s better to play than to take so many lessons?

Doubts creep into my mind. No one else is doing it, Melissa, the doubts whisper. Your kids should be in activities. They’re missing out.

Richard Louv’s book title, The Last Child in the Woods, resonates with me today. I feel that we’re the last family in the woods, and it’s lonely.

Where is everybody?

Won’t someone come out and play?

Am I doing the right thing?

Would you let your kid climb a tree? What about jump off a roof?

Over the weekend, in light of our recent conversation about risk aversion, we asked our Twitter followers and Facebook fans about their favorite “dangerous” playtime activities growing up. There was a lot of gleeful jumping, climbing, and (almost) falling involved. Here's just a sampling:

We didn't just hang upside down on the monkey bars, we used to play "tag" and run across them like it was nothing. I don't think I could even step on one of them today - amazing how fearless children are!
- Stacy Towers via Facebook

Jumping roofs! Dangerous but fun. We jumped from house to house. In LA, they are built very close.
- @1AKA_VS via Twitter

Jumping off the roof of a ranch house garage into a pile of leaves.
- Eva Spera-Gauthier via Facebook

Um... climbing high into trees and jumping down... (we thought we could fly!). 
- @hipmamasociety via Twitter

Falling out of trees. Luckily I was a bouncy kid.
- @WayfarerGlyn via Twitter

Riding my brother's bike down the hill. It was too big for me. I couldn't reach the pedals. I had to get off by riding onto the grass and going in a slow circle until it fell down.
- Deb Rennie via Facebook

Walking the rail on the railroad tracks. Who knew we were developing and training balance. We were having FUN!
- Youth Fitness Guy via Facebook

Running the gauntlet through the swings that my friends were swinging on. The best part of it was *almost* getting kicked, narrowly escaping!
- Kasia Swatek Kramer via Facebook

Playing with fire.
- @helainebecker via Twitter

Biking down the long, steep hill in front of my house (age 6), no hands, no feet, no helmet and screaming my head off in glee.
- Move with Me Action Adventures via Facebook

What was your favorite "dangerous" playtime activity growing up?

Photo by Mitchio (cc).

This story originally appeared in the Altruim Institute’s Health Policy Forum and has been adapted for kaboom.org.

Ever since the arrival of my daughter, my ears have been primed to pick up on the conversations and behaviors other parents are modeling for their children. Lately, it feels like more and more of these conversations are geared toward coaxing children away from taking risks. There are the well-known fears to which many a parent can speak to: gangs, drugs, perilous streets, and so forth. Yet, it seems as if we are moving in the direction of proclaiming things fearful that past generations simply considered a part of growing up. Riding a bike to school, swinging to soaring heights only to jump off, and even roaming the neighborhood with a group of friends have been traded for the “safety” of our children.

Earlier this month I came across a blog titled “An Itemized Tour of the Most Terrifying Playground in the World. EVERYBODY PANIC!!!”. The author takes readers through a point-by-point list of, as she states, “the stressful aspects of this park that brought out the neurotic parent in me.” While sympathetic I was mostly troubled by this post.

In addition to the playground elements that cause “stress” in parents, there is an underlying fear that our children will be hurt, abducted, or meet some other undesirable fate while on the playground. As an advocate for playgrounds and outdoor play in general, it is alarming to see the number of people who agree that playspaces should be made less risky. Nobody wants anybody’s child to get hurt, but if we are always there to catch our children before they fall, they will never learn to brace themselves for the impact. This is as true for the tumbles they will take on the playground, as it is for the ones that await them as adults.

The media has contributed significantly to the cultural shift in our perception of risk. As a colleague so aptly says, “It is difficult enough being a parent, you are literally responsible for someone else’s life. When you couple that responsibility with the fear created by the media, it is easy to see why more parents are becoming risk-averse.”

There has also been a shift toward increased structured enrichment activities for children. We are living in a society where we feel as if we are doing wrong by our children if we don’t fill every opportunity with a “life-enhancing experience.”

These activities often come with predefined rules and expected outcomes that further limit children’s ability to take risks. It is in our attempts to protect and raise children ready to tackle the 21st century that we have inadvertently taken away one of the best learning opportunities: space for children to challenge themselves, take risks, and acquire vital problem-solving skills. The need for constant protection of our children speaks to our society’s inability to simply let our children fail at anything, no matter how trivial.

It is inevitable that children will encounter obstacles in life. It is through risk taking that children develop the capacity to think creatively and develop solutions. Those obstacles and risks begin on the playground.

In November KaBOOM! launched its first guest blogging contest, asking parents to muse about their experiences with play. We received lots of entries, and while it was tough, managed to narrow it down. Over the next ten weeks we will be publishing the top ten, and we hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did! Congratulations to all of our winners. In 3rd place is Angie Six from Indianapolis, Indiana…

"No climbing!"

"You'll get dirty!"

"Get down before you hurt yourself!"

Years ago, these were the things a kid would hear when they were getting too rambunctious for indoor play. My mother put up with a lot inside the house, but when we started climbing the walls she had the good sense to send us outside.

The rules for outside play were simple: stay close enough that we could hear our mothers yell, don't do anything that might get you killed. Given that kind of freedom, we spent hours playing outside and doing things that involved climbing, all kinds of mess, and a few injuries.

Fast-forward to the play time of today and you'll find rules aplenty. I don't have the same surroundings to send my children off on their own, so when they need to burn off energy we visit local playgrounds. My rules are nearly as simple as my mother's: stay near, be nice, and don't do anything that might get you killed. It's everyone else's rules that are killing the fun for today's kids.

The ravine my kids gravitate to because it's swampy and fun? The other kids get scolded for joining in. "You'll get dirty," the parents say. "We came here to play on the playground, not in the dirt." The sticks my kids use to build shelters? "Put that down! You'll put an eye out!" It's the looks I get when I let my kids climb a tree or stand on top of the monkey bars that's sharp enough to put an eye out.

I never imagined I'd be that mom, the one who the others judge for being too lax. I'm strict about sweets, I'm cranky about what they can and can't watch on TV. Compared to my own childhood, my children are far more micro-managed in every aspect of their day.

That's why it's so important to me to leave them be outside. Yes, they get dirty. Yes, I see them climbing and think about insurance deductibles. That's my job. It's also my job to step back and let them play. Dirty clothes can be washed. Balance and good judgement can only be learned by testing boundaries and, yes, sometimes falling.

It's hard not to feel self-conscious and turn into a helicopter parent. I resist, though, in hopes that there will be another parent there, watching. Perhaps their gut tells them the same as mine - that children need this, that kids inherently know what's okay and what they're capable of. Maybe they have just a smidgen less confidence than I do after nine years of parenting. Watching me give my kids freedom to play without the weight of so many rules may be just the thing they need to see so they'll feel okay with a less involvement.

If you see us on the playground, join us. We'll be up in the trees or in the mud. We'll be having fun - the only rule that really matters on the playground.

Are you a mom or dad who blogs about parenting? Do you want to support a great cause? Are you looking to reach new audiences? Could you use a $350 Amazon gift card?

If you believe your kids need time and space to play outdoors, enter our “Parents & Play” blog contest for a chance to win one of 10 Amazon gift cards. Plus, we'll share your story with 80,000 monthly unique visitors on our Play Today blog, as well as our 40,000+ Facebook fans and Twitter followers!

We at KaBOOM! believe that there is a Play Deficit in our country, and it’s harming our children. Too many families don't have a playground within walking distance of their home. Paranoia is trumping common sense, resulting in sterile, uninspired play environments and fewer opportunities for kids to play. Recess is being eliminated from our nation’s schools. Kids are overscheduled, and in their free time, many choose to stay indoors, lulled by television, computers and video games.

To enter our "Parents & Play" contest, answer the following question in 300-500 words:

As a parent, how have you personally witnessed the growing Play Deficit in your child’s life?

Tell us a specific story from your own experience that touches on one of the following themes:

  • School recess
  • Play opportunities in your neighborhood
  • Helicopter parents
  • Structured after-school activities
  • Indoor screen time

To get a better sense of what we're looking for, read this great sample post by Play Today guest blogger and bestselling author Leslie Morgan Steiner.

To submit: Email your submission to KaBOOM! Online Content Manager Kerala Taylor at ktaylor@kaboom.org. Use the subject line, "Parents & Play Blog Contest." Include your 300-500 word post as a Word attachment and pasted into the body of the email. Also include a 100-word bio with a link to your blog. Attach 1-3 photos relevant to your story, at least 600 x 400 px. One submission per entrant, please.

Prizes: Entries will be judged by an expert internal KaBOOM! panel on the relevance of the story and quality of writing. Great photos are a plus! All winners and runners-up will see their posts published on Play Today and shared with our Facebook fans and Twitter followers. They will also receive:

  • First place: $350 Amazon gift card
  • Second place: $200 Amazon gift card
  • Third place: $100 gift card
  • Runners-up: 7 runners-up will receive $50 gift cards

Deadline: Monday, Nov. 21, 2011 at 11:59 p.m. EST.

Click here for complete rules.

Watch out, parents: Just when you thought your children were safe, balloons and party whistles are now officially out to choke them, and teddy bears are plotting to infect them with deadly diseases.

At least that’s what the EU toy safety directive claims. Under its new guidelines, children under the age of eight who live in the European Union can no longer be trusted to blow up balloons without an adult by their side. They must wait an additional six years before they can blow a party whistle all by themselves.

And we know that non-machine washable teddy bear looks innocent, but don’t let him fool you. His cuddly fur is only a ploy to spread germs to children under the age of three.

    Where are these poor children's parents? Do they realize their kids are in imminent danger?!

If we want to know why parents are getting more paranoid—and why children are taking fewer risks—we need look no further than guidelines like these. Extremely unlikely events, like choking on a balloon, turn into dire threats that children must be protected from at all costs.

According to CBS News, between 1990 and 2004, approximately 68 kids died in the United States from choking on latex balloons. While each of these deaths is unquestionably tragic, that’s fewer than five kids per year in a country that boasts 74 million people under the age of 18.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, echoed our sentiments exactly when he told The Telegraph, "These bans diminish the experience, both of having fun and learning, by turning play into a danger zone with rules that stifle life and adventure for children."

We don’t need any more bans based on extremely improbable threats. We need to back off and let our children play.


Last month, Amy Chua precipitated a raging controversy over the "tiger mom" approach to parenting when her article, entitled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The article posed the question, "Can a regimen of no playdates, no TV, no computer games and hours of music practice create happy kids?"

We would be inclined to say "no" to this question, but as our CEO Darell Hammond points out in his most recent Huffington Post blog, Western parents may very well benefit from taking a page from Ms. Chua's book. He says:

As someone who advocates for unstructured, creative, child-directed play, I would expect to roundly denounce a mother whose strict regimen left her children little, if any time, for free play. Clearly, we have some differences of opinion. But that said, in an age of helicopter parents and bubble-wrapped kids, I find some aspects of the tiger mom approach refreshing.

And yet, here's one shortfall that tiger moms and helicopter moms share:

Both have a tendency to constantly hover and continually micro-manage their children's lives. The motives may be different -- a tiger mom hovers to push her kids to excel, while a helicopter mom hovers to protect them from all the world's dangers.

Read the full post here.