Want to Protect Children? Don’t Embrace “Safetyism”

No one seems to support "safetyism," or "helicopter parenting," yet Americans seem obsessed with keeping their children "safe" at all costs

Image Credits: Alona Siniehina / Getty.

Earlier this year, Anna Hershberger had the cops called on her because she let two of her kid—ages five and almost seven—walk outside with a trash bag and pick up litter unsupervised.

The cop who showed up didn’t arrest Hershberger but did warn her that something terrible could have happened to her children.

Hershberger’s police visit was one of thousands of examples of safetyism in America. Safetyism is the idea, pervasive among schools, police stations, and well-meaning parents, that children can’t so much as walk down the street or play a game without constant adult supervision. If you leave your kids alone for a minute, who knows what might happen?

Many psychologists and parenting experts argue that our cultural obsession with safetyism is depriving kids of the experiences they need to develop a sense of individual identity. Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston University who specializes in studying how children learn, argues that when kids are free to pursue their own interests free of adult intervention, they acquire “skills, values, ideas, and information that will stay with [them] for life.” In the absence of that freedom, kids don’t acquire the skills, values, and ideas necessary to become their own persons.

Lenore Skenazy (founder of Free Range Kids and president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence) told me in an interview that adult supervision is killing kids’ ability to cultivate real hobbies and passions. Children aren’t allowed to just write a story anymore, Skenazy explains. Instead, as soon as parents see them put pen to paper, they’re plonked down in a creative writing class, where they’ll be under the well-meaning but stultifying eye of a writing teacher drilling them on form and technique. “Write something just for you” becomes “I want to see you practice that use of imagery I showed you yesterday.”

It’s tough to overstate how easily adults can kill a kid’s enthusiasm by trying to instruct them. As Skenazy notes, this approach takes an internal drive (I want to write just for me!) and turns it into an external drive (I need to write five hundred words today to get a gold star from my new writing teacher). Holly Lisle, a professional writing teacher who’s published over thirty novels of her own, says that tons of writers lose their passion precisely when drills and techniques replace self-directed exploration. What’s true of writing is equally true of every interest, from playing jazz to shooting hoops in the backyard.

When we think about what makes us unique individuals, most of us think of interests we’ve cultivated since we were kids. What’s going to happen to a generation whose passion has been trained out of them by well-meaning authority figures? There’s a good chance that all this adult supervision is depriving us of musicians, artists, and entrepreneurs–of the next Lady Gaga or Ralph Waldo Emerson.

It’s not just hobbies, either. Skenazy says that constant adult supervision can “cauterize curiosity.” She warns that, “we’re not teaching [kids] to think. We’re teaching them to await instructions.” Unfortunately, there’s substantial evidence to support her views. One study compared how children from different cultures responded when an adult gave them an opportunity to learn but, crucially, no assignment. The researchers studied forty white, middle-class kids from California and another forty Maya children from Guatemala. Each child was told to sit at a table while a research assistant taught another kid in the room how to assemble a toy. The question was: Would the first kid watch and learn how to assemble the toy too, just out of natural curiosity, or do something else?

The results were stark. The Maya kids watched the interaction and quickly learned to assemble the toy. The California kids were more likely to goof off or just stare at the floor. An NPR story on the study reports, “The Maya kids showed sustained attention [to the toy-assembly] about two-thirds of the time…. The middle-class, American kids did so exactly half as often.”

Why the discrepancy? One big reason is that the Maya kids were raised with a lot of autonomy. They could go to the store to shop, slip out of the backyard to hang with friends, and set their own goals. That kind of autonomy naturally engenders curiosity. When the world is yours to explore, you want to explore all of it. Psychologist Edward Deci, who’s been studying child motivation for half a century at the University of Rochester, says that autonomy stimulates kids’ motivation to learn.

By contrast, American kids have lost much of their autonomy–and, as such, their natural curiosity. When there’s always an adult around to tell you what to do next, your brain adapts to that. Instead of building the muscle of your curiosity, you learn to sit and wait patiently for instructions. As Skenazy puts it, in the United States kids are trained to think, “Is this going to be on the test? If not, I won’t learn it.”

The problems caused by safetyism go deeper than just cauterizing curiosity and killing passion: safetyism strikes at the very heart of our attempts to build a free society. A healthy sense of individualism is essential to creating a libertarian society. A generation raised to never explore or color outside the lines is unlikely to see the appeal of freedom.

Students raised under safetyism are more likely to clamor for big government, because they have no idea how liberating life can be without the stultifying influence of an ever-present nanny (or nanny state). If we want to get back to our freedom-loving roots, we need to turn down our collective hovering and give our kids the space to figure out who they really are.



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