Have We Domesticated the Wild Child?
Unsupervised children will be given an espresso and a puppy. I’ve seen that sign at more than one coffee shop. The point of the sign, I guess, is to remind parents to keep their kids under control, or they’ll be the ones in a world of hurt.
Nobody likes a kid with boundary issues and bad manners, but how do kids learn to behave “off-leash” if they’re never more than 20 feet from a parental figure, and never closer than that to a pile of sharp rocks or patch of poison oak?
“You grew up in a different time,” my niece Sarah explained to me as we watched her eight-year-old play on a spotless, round-edged, rubber-matted playground. Sarah’s only ten years younger than I am, but I’m Gen X and she’s a Millennial. While I think she’s a fantastic mom, I just don’t understand the anxiety I see in so many parents of her generation. Or mine, for that matter.
When I was a kid, we had to walk uphill both ways to play.
My friends and I did grow up in different times. In the first half of the 1980s, we experienced “Satanic Panic” at its peak and locked eyes with the “milk carton kids” every morning while eating our cereal. Abducted boys Adam Walsh and Etan Patz had become household names. Rumors of black masses out in the woods had some parents shook, but most of our reasonably-educated, middle-of-the-road folks just wanted us to “go outside, for crying out loud!”
So we ran around in unsupervised packs, infiltrating the rolling foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains*. We explored abandoned (mercury!) mines and built networks of forts and kingdoms over dozens of square miles. We swam in frog ponds and sidestepped rattlesnakes. We tracked down and visited the scruffy vagabonds who rotated their camps throughout the area and swapped lies about finding pentagrams carved into oak trees.
The youngest of us would be around the same age as Sarah’s daughter Aida is now—somebody’s kid sister or brother—but those kids fifteen and older were too cool for us, spending their time playing Defender in the arcade and making out in the mall’s food court.
That was “dangerous.” What we were doing? Wholesome.
“Children need to take some risks. As parents, this makes us anxious; we want our children to be safe. But if we keep them in bubbles and never let them take any risks, they won’t know what they can do.” — Claire McCarthy, M.D., “6 Reasons Children Need to Play Outside“, Harvard Health Publishing
Today, we think of 12-year-olds as babies. Heck, I look at my 14-year-old stepkid as if she’s an alien species. To think that in four years she’ll be an adult scares the crap out of me. She can barely microwave a bag of popcorn much less toast a marshmallow, and when I encourage her to spend more time exploring on her bike, I get push back from her biological parents. That’s because so many in our generation have been conditioned to think we barely escaped the late 70s and early 80s alive.
“Your childhood wasn’t exactly an example of responsible parenting,” my partner said when I suggested his kid hang out with the wonderfully feral local kids where we spend our summers. Even some of my own peers don’t quite understand, even him; his greatest summer adventures happened at golf camp.
Is the fear hereditary?
In spite of my sister having had the same free-range childhood I did, she had Sarah when everyone was freaking out about white vans and strange men looking for lost puppies. Stranger Danger may have hit mainstream consciousness well after she’d come of age, but still, it became part of the urban and suburban genetic code.
And somewhere in there, we figured out that a goose egg on the forehead isn’t a badge of honor; it’s a potentially life-altering injury. So there’s that.
My sister and her husband were incredibly protective, but still, they took her fishing, canoeing, and hiking every summer. She went to Girl Scout Camp, and as a young adult, she became an Outward Bound counselor. She had all the opportunities, only with more structure and intention. Eventually, she did it on her own terms and probably challenged herself more than half of my friends and I did growing up.
“Campers don’t just have to take a buddy with them wherever they go, including the bathroom. Some are now required to take two—one to stay with whoever gets hurt, the other to run and get a grown-up. Walking to the john is treated like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.” — Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt, “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed,” Reason
I’m nearly certain that Sarah and younger parents of my own generation hover over their kids more out of concern for being labeled a neglectful mom than anything else. They’re well-informed. They know that statistically, kids are far more likely to be hurt falling down at home or abducted by family or trusted adults. Still, there’s peer pressure to be the expected embodiment of the “good parent,” controlling every moment of their kids’ lives—even if just below the surface, everyone knows it’s ridiculous.
Are our kids doomed?
Not really. According to the Kampgrounds of America (KOA)-sponsored 2019 North American Camping Report, Millennials now claim the largest camping demographic. Those with kids are getting them involved in traditional outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, and hunting.
Millennials try to make the most of their experiences. Many are opting for posh amenities—possibly led by the Instagram “glamping” trend—but most invest in high-quality, multi-purpose outdoor clothing and equipment and use it as frequently as they can. They still seek out structured family activities, but more for enriched experiences than for control.
Ryan Jenkins, a marketing authority on generations Y and Z, describes “drone parenting” in which Millennial parents rely less on physically supervising their kids, and more on technological monitoring: Biometric baby clothing, tracking devices, and automated home systems, for example.
Right now, I’m thinking of the Black Mirror episode “Arkangel” in which a mother enrolls her young daughter in a remote surveillance program. It didn’t end well for either party, but could there be an upside? Rather than prematurely freak out, parents can glance at their iPhones to find out if Junior’s staying within agreed-upon boundaries. Where cell service isn’t exactly reliable—like, for example, the Santa Cruz Mountains—there are always global messaging systems that receive or send texts. And of course, two-way radios have kept families in touch for years now.
There’s another trend on the horizon: A suburban movement promoting neighborhood-run “anti” playgrounds in which kids can travel through time to the 80s, building bonfires and building with pallets and hoarded junk. Supervised? Of course… but in a very permissive, “we’re only here to stop the bleeding” kind of way.
Tech giveth, tech taketh away—but tech also enables unstructured play
If kids know they’re not too far away from their parents’ help, but still “on their own,” will that make the younger generations open to experimentation, exploration, and healthy risk-taking? Will personal tech—the bane of the outdoor adventure advocate—let their parents ease up and allow their kids the necessary experience of skinned knees, failure, and self-discovery?
Maybe we GenXers did have too much free rein. Maybe we suffocated our own kids in too many layers of bubble wrap. But things do tend to work out, and as much as society has given Millennials an undeserved rough time, it looks like those who are raising kids of their own are going to find that sweet spot in the middle.