Free-Range Kids

Why Don't Parents Let Their Kids Have Any Freedom? Q and A With Chasing Childhood Director Margaret Munzer Loeb

"Parents feel a tremendous obligation to make life easier for their kids."

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Why are today's kids allowed to do only a fraction of the activities their parents enjoyed? Just 10 percent walk to school. Tree forts have vanished. A 2018 study found kids play outside just half as much as their parents did. What gives?

These are the mysteries examined in the new documentary, Chasing Childhood, which is playing at the DOC NYC festival through November 19.  The film—a cautionary tale—follows a family that pressured their daughter to succeed in school and college. But it also focuses on my non-profit, Let Grow, which promotes childhood independence. One of our (free!) school initiatives is the "Let Grow Project," a homework assignment that boils down to this: "Go home and do something new, on your own, without your parents." A middle-school boy who pushes for the chance to take the train to visit his dad provides the film's emotional peak.

I'm interviewed in the movie, but now that it's out I get to turn the tables and interview its co-director and executive producer, Margaret Munzer Loeb.

LS: What would you say your film is about?

ML: It's about the unintended consequences of over-protecting, over-pressuring, over-scheduling kids, and the loss of free play and autonomy, and how that is impacting their childhood, as well as how they become functioning adults.

LS: What prompted you to make it?

ML: [Co-director Eden Wurmfeld and I] were somehow raising our own kids with less autonomy than we had had growing up in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, and we wondered why our parents felt so relaxed. By age 10, I was taking two public buses to school, but I didn't feel comfortable letting my own kids do that.

LS: So many parents tell me something similar. They loved their freedom but are terrified to let their kids do anything.

ML: But in addition, I was also starting to be judged for the things I did let my kids do, like use the stove. My son was cooking by age seven and people thought that was crazy.

LS: What else did people consider too much for kids to handle?

ML: Making anything in the kitchen. Cutting an apple. Making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—first of all, God forbid, peanut butter. But parents had become so trained to say, "I can do it for you."

LS: I know. And it's not even their fault. We have a whole culture warning us that our kids are fragile and urging us to step in and help, help, help. What's the result?

ML: An anxiety epidemic, a depression epidemic.

LS: Is this just an upper-crust New York City thing?

ML: What we learned is that this was everywhere. Parents feel a tremendous obligation to make life easier for their kids.

LS: Why did you contact Let Grow?

ML: We were interested in the fact that you are working with real kids in real places, and not just writing about it from an observation and research perspective. And you are interested in change and we are interested in change.

LS: We are—and your movie helps! I think seeing how much kids can blossom with a little trust and freedom will change a lot of people. Looking back on the whole endeavor, what surprised you most?

ML: The universal thing we found is something that you touch on in all your work, which is that when people look back on what they loved most about their childhood, it was always something that was incredibly unstructured and adults were generally not around. They rarely talk about Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving. They talk about a time when something could have gone wrong, or maybe it did, and they got out of it and that feeling of fear and overcoming—that felt very universal.

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  1. The kids who were the first to experience this sort of childhood are graduating high school and college now. I think the results speak for themselves.

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    2. Ya know, I was thinking about this the other day. It seems like obsessive sheltering and helicopter parenting has really accelerated in the last 15 years or so. Probably the biggest change to society in that time is the nearly ubiquitous use of cell phones and social media. Everyone is connected all… the… time.

      I googled “effect of cell phones on parenting” and nearly everything that came up was either about ‘too much screen time for kids’ or ‘parents ignoring kids due to phone addiction.’ However, I think the main deleterious effect has been to condition parents that they have to be in constant contact at every single moment. If they’re not able to talk to their kids at a (metaphorical) snap of the fingers, then it induces the same addiction-withdrawal symptoms/behavior as losing their phone. As a result, many kids rarely get any taste of freedom (along with it’s benefits) during childhood. The consequences of that could end up being far-reaching in the future.

      1. Cell phones could be a liberating influence – one could let one’s kid range further if one can track the kid better via cell phone. Plus the phone can be an emergency device to call 911.

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    5. No I’m certain it goes back at least ten years farther.

      Think: the “children” trapped in adult bodies that are now out doing the Antifa/BLM thing…. noneof them are independent operators, all of them are merely minions and chumps, interchangeable cogs in the machine that is bent upon destroying this nation. Most of the real “leadership” in that group are the rejects and leftovers from the SDS, Weathermen, etc. Alost none of them can assess a situationi, weigh the reisk/reward equation, and come up with a plan to correct it, then implement that plan.

      My own peers were, in the main, fully capable of setting and reaching goals, making things happen, etc. because most of us grew up in a time when we had chores, responsibilitie,s were trusted to cake care of ourselves, had to take care of younger sibings, and explore various activities, pasttimes, hobbies, passions…. we learned if WE wanted something to happen, WE would have to be the ones MAKING it happen. Antifa and ilk simply scream and yell, threaten. destroy build NOTHING, and destabilise…… expending lots of money and energy (and destroying much more than they spend) and STILL don’t get what they think they want.

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  3. “They loved their freedom but are terrified to let their kids do anything.”

    Their fear is getting into trouble with CPS, cops, and shaming by other parents. That is my bet.

    1. It absolutely is.

      My wife and I frequently have a discussion of how can we let our kids do X activity to gain confidence without the shame brigade or worse coming.

      That said, we were always greatly amused watching our 2 year old climb around a helicopter parent and their 6 yr old on the gym. Once it even caused the parent to climb down and let their kid go alone.

  4. I can’t help but wonder how many times this film will be introduced in evidence at a custody hearing.

  5. I wonder if there are any studies that show this trend is due to more
    women working, therefore not at home when kids come home from school? My mom, or some other kid’s mom was always home and ready with the bandaids when we scraped our knees paying whiffleball in the street or fell out of a tree or pounded a nail through our thumb making a skateboard out of lumber and old skate wheels.

    1. my mothers worked and my cousins mothers worked and most of my friends mothers worked and we are talking the 60’s here so that is not a new but all the other “fears” that have been introduced are new

      1. “my mothers worked”

        I’m curious, how many mothers did you have?

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    2. and THAT is part of the problem. I know at least two hundred kids and former kids some with their own kids now who were homeschooled…… THEY learn how to make things happen. A goodlty number of those homeschooled kids have made millions of dollars in their own businesses. They learned HOW TO WORK and HOW to make things happen when they were five and six years old. Some ran their own businesses at 14 or 15, Now thye employ dozens.

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  7. If you are in a big city, there is a legitimate safety issue. More from traffic than from “stranger danger”, but I know that when I was in the dense urban center, parents had to take their children to the park. You could not let children go by themselves. Parents are partly concerned with traffic, partly concerned with strangers and partly concerned with neighbors reporting unsupervised children.

    My relatives that live in a smaller town in the West, can give their children more freedom. With only 40,000 people in town, less traffic and lots of outdoor space, their children have more freedom to roam than city children. City children have more options for activities that they can join. I know my relatives made a choice to move to the West to have their children to give them this freedom. They could have had higher paying jobs on the East Coast, but decided for family life, they were able to work professional jobs, but in a community where the kids could run free.

    1. My relatives that live in a smaller town in the West, can give their children more freedom. With only 40,000 people in town, less traffic and lots of outdoor space, their children have more freedom to roam than city children.

      That’s why those rural kids will grow up and vote for freedom, and the urban kids will grow up to vote for more authority.

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  10. Safetyism always begets more safetyism.

    On the personal level, those conditioned to see the world with fear and distrust will raise their children accordingly. They will inflate or invent dangers that they must protect kids from.

    And on the institutional level, perception of risk, and even more significantly, formal safety programs, will always ratchet up. No corporate safety manager ever proposes to cut back on the program. They can only get recognition by expansion.

    Finally, media vampires feed off our fear. They have every incentive to amplify negative emotions and suck people into a dark, scary world view. See also: politicians.

    Example: the kidnapped kid kraze of the 80s, back in primitive days when people held milk cartons more often than smart phones.

    1. which is WHY rabid tyrannical governors these days are micromanaging all risk relating to some silly virus that’s no more fatal than seasonal flu. A nation of fraidy cats has been carefully raised, and evil manipulators have risen to power over the quivering masses. And the masses love to have it so.

  11. On the personal level, the ones conditioned to see the world with fear and mistrust will boost their kids accordingly. They will inflate or invent dangers that they need to protect youngsters from.

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  12. The main cause of overprotecting parents: they’re terrified of some bored Karen who sics the CPS monsters on them for letting their kids play outside.

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