Last week our family took its annual soul-crushing road trip: a cool 1,000 miles each way from Atlanta to the eastern end of Long Island. Along the way, my 8-year-old son got to experience a series of wonderful adventures: his first-ever visit to a Stuckey’s, corny staple of my own childhood road trips (they still sell Miner’s Gold gum!); making friends with random kids while swimming in hotel pools together; learning to help pump the gas at truck stops in half a dozen states.
He had a blast, and I loved watching him navigate all those gas stations and hotel lobbies, looking all of a sudden taller and more grown, still my baby but with a big-kid confidence and swagger.
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I was still thinking about his new maturity when I got home and caught up on a Facebook group I joined, one for moms to discuss mom stuff. Someone had posted about the age at which children could or should go to the public restroom by themselves, and I read with growing surprise as dozens of mothers said they were taking their 8-year-old boys into the women’s room with them when they were out and about. Better safe than sorry, they told one another; I’d never forgive myself if something were to happen to him. One woman wrote about the danger of being raped or murdered in a public restroom: I’ll never forget what happened to that child in California, she wrote.
She has a good memory: The horrendous murder of a 9-year-old boy in a public bathroom, the one that seems to get mentioned every time there’s a conversation about this, happened in 1998.
I’d never want to downplay the horrific grief that child’s family must feel to this day, but to worry on a daily basis about something that happens once every few decades seems misplaced. Children are accidentally shot by friends and family every day in this country, but we are only now getting around to the conversation around guns in the home, and how to talk about it when sending your kid off to a play date.
The online discussion made me realize two things: One, many modern American parents have a terrible time assessing relative degrees of risk and danger. And two, we’ve become so obsessed with the idea of safety that we’ve enshrined it as a life goal or principle—no matter what, I will keep my child safe!
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What we fail to worry about is the end game. What happens to a child raised—above all else—to be safe? What kind of a person results in a childhood organized around parental fear?
Julie Lythcott-Haims has met this kind of person, thousands of times in fact, in her job as Dean of Freshman at Stanford University. After seeing her book How To Raise an Adult and hearing her TED talk, I called Lythcott-Haims to talk about what happens to these overprotected kids when they try to leave the nest. As it happens, many of them have a difficult time adjusting.
The first-year students she worked with were “very accomplished in a transcript and résumé sense” but stymied by the challenges of everyday life. “They can’t do their own laundry,” or manage typical roommate problems, or even register for their own courses—a task many outsource to their parents. “It feels very loving and it’s certainly helpful,” Lythcott-Haims says, “but that kid ends up really ill-equipped to navigate life’s imperfect bureaucracies.”
When parents hover, she adds, “the insidious message that bores into their young developing brains is, ‘Hey kid, you’re not actually capable of doing any of this without me.’” And the young adults who have been raised this way know it. “It’s dawning on those who’ve been over-parented that something was a little awry about their childhood,” she says. They find themselves having to play catch-up, “learning to exist at the forefront of their own lives.”
What Lythcott-Haims describes is the end result of the kind of parenting I saw being discussed on that Facebook group: parents (especially mothers, to be honest) who can’t quite figure out when to let their kids take a few risks, and can’t quite see where their role in managing their child’s life should leave off so that the child can take over. It needn’t be that way, says Lythcott-Haims.
“Our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job,” she says. “They shouldn’t need us to tie their shoes or cut their meat or hold their hands when they cross the street when they’re 18. More than that, they ought to be able to make their own food and manage their own deadlines. They ought to be able to get on public transportation. They ought to be able to go places.”
And they have to start doing these things before they turn 18 and leave our nest.
“We mustn’t recoil in fear at the potential harm that might come,” she adds. Letting kids try to do things on their own, she says, “is the only way our kids can grow the skills, the physical strength, the emotional resilience, the thicker skin, to cope with what life will throw at them.”
This is what happens to the little boys who aren’t allowed into a public bathroom without their mothers, or little girls who never have to speak to a stranger to buy candy at a Stuckey’s: They grow up completely ill-equipped to handle adult life. We are afraid of kidnappers, killers, monsters who exist more in our imagination than in reality; but while we’re distracted by those fears, we are raising a generation of anxious, fragile young adults.
There is no manual for when a kid is ready to use a public bathroom without a parent’s help. And not every kid ready to go buy a piece of candy on her own at exactly the same age. But how will they—and we—know, if they never try?
“We need to look back only as far as our own childhood for guidance,” Lythcott-Haims adds. “We have to think, what could I do that I know my kid doesn’t know how to do? What kind of freedoms did I enjoy that my kid doesn’t have. Let me interrogate my own fear about why I shouldn’t let them do what my parents let me do. And let me see if I can find the courage to take some steps in that direction.”
Lythcott-Haims told me about a Free Range Kids project in her town, in which kids who joined got to choose one of three independent activities: to make a meal, walk or bike someplace alone, or go into a store and buy something. At the end of the project, one child spoke at an assembly of parents, beaming with pride.
“The confidence this little girl had was such an eye-opening message to the parents in the audience,” she says, “who came to realize, these are our fears, not our kids’ fears. And look at the harm we do when we teach them to be afraid out in the world. We want to teach our kids to say, I got this.”
One public restroom or Stuckey’s checkout counter at a time.