Free-Range Kids

Halloween (and Everything Else) Is Too Scary for the Fragile Generation

Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed.


Joanna Andreasson

If you're sending your kid out to trick or treat for Halloween this year, the list of suggested safety measures is probably not quite as long as what to do when locking the nuclear device onto the submarine, but it's close. Here's my favorite tip from a suburban paper this year: "Before bobbing for apples—a favorite Halloween game—reduce the risk of bacteria by thoroughly rinsing the apples under cool running water. As an added precaution, use a produce brush to remove surface dirt."

That's right. Wash the apple in water, scrub it within an inch of becoming applesauce, and then place it in yet more water. But that's how we approach childhood today: nothing is safe enough.

As New York University Stern School of Business Professor Jonathan Haidt and I argue in "The Fragile Generation," our cover story for the December 2017 issue of Reason magazine:

Beginning in the 1980s, American childhood changed. For a variety of reasons—including shifts in parenting norms, new academic expectations, increased regulation, technological advances, and especially a heightened fear of abduction (missing kids on milk cartons made it feel as if this exceedingly rare crime was rampant)—children largely lost the experience of having large swaths of unsupervised time to play, explore, and resolve conflicts on their own. This has left them more fragile, more easily offended, and more reliant on others. They have been taught to seek authority figures to solve their problems and shield them from discomfort, a condition sociologists call "moral dependency."

Keeping kids safe from literally everything, including germs, scrapes, disappointments and bruised feelings, has had the ironic and unintended consequence of hurting them. After all, kids grow when they push themselves to the edge of their comfort zone—when they climb ever higher on the monkey bars, or have to make their own way home on a broken bike, and it's getting dark.

When all those opportunities for bravery and resourcefulness are replaced by the concierge experience—an adult on hand to swoop in and help out—the child misses out. And it's possible that this is one of the reasons we are seeing kids on campuses who seem increasingly hypersensitive and inclined to ask administrators to baby them.

You might behave this way, too, if you grew up being told nothing should upset you. The first time you felt scared or confused, you might want a safe space. And having learned that the job of grownups is to make you feel comfortable, you, too, might feel outraged when a professor says actually, that's not my job. It's possible nothing seems safe enough for the young person whose apples were scrubbed twice before bobbing. Even something very safe, like the give and take of life on a college campus.

This is not just my worry. It's a worry shared by Boston College Professor Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn; Daniel Shuchman, a New York investment fund manager who is also chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which defends free speech on college campuses; and Haidt, my co-author.

Together we've formed a new nonprofit, Let Grow, dedicated to overthrowing the culture of overprotection. "The Fragile Generation," lays out what we think happened when society started treating all kids like grandma's fine China collection, and what can be done about it.

Bottom line: We have to make it safe, legal, and normal for adults to give kids free, unsupervised time to goof around, screw up, explore, read widely, argue, make up, and discover their own resilience. That's what our organization hopes to make happen. Because a world without resilient young people isn't just sad. It's scary.

Read "The Fragile Generation" here.