In our zeal to protect children from trauma, we risk creating more anxiety by protecting them too much. Recent studies, for example, show that children of over-protective parents have increased anxiety, “higher levels of narcissism and more ineffective coping skills,” and higher levels of depression. While chronic stress is debilitating, research is showing that short bursts of acute stress (such as sports, video games, or risky play) is both fun and beneficial. Just as our immune systems benefit from mild, limited exposure to physical stressors, our psychological systems benefit from mild acute stress.
Having unsupervised time is a necessary part of this mild stress, and of developing resilience. Yet, our current laws and social expectations do not allow for much unsupervised time. Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt tell the story of a teenage boy chopping wood. A passerby called the police, who “took the tools for safekeeping.” Children’s playgrounds are so safe now as to be boring, even though studies show that the benefits of risky (not dangerous) play far outweigh the risk of injuries. The famed 1979 book Your Six-Year-Old listed in its factors of whether a child is ready for first grade the question, “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?” As one parent stated about her daughter, “Who knows if she can travel around four to eight blocks by herself? I’ve never let her even try! I’d probably be reported to the police if I did try!”
We can hope that the pendulum swings back to expectations that are healthier for our children. In the meantime, we need to remember that not all stress is bad, and not all protection is good for our children.