Why would our third grader sneak off?

Our third grader shivered as she climbed into the car.

Without telling her mother or me, Parlie and a cousin slipped away recently to visit some other cousins a mile away.

They didn’t plan for a snowstorm to hit mid-trip. In tennis shoes and jackets, the girls trudged through three fields and a momentary whiteout before reaching their destination.

Parlie’s pants were soaked when we picked her up. I chided her for taking off without letting us know, and for not dressing for the weather.

What if they’d lost their way? What if they got stuck in the storm?

Parlie flashed annoyed looks at me from the backseat as I rattled off worst-case scenarios.

Then my wife, Nicki, chimed in. “She’s fine. She’ll learn.”

Nicki, born and raised on a farm, is more prone than I am to letting our three elementary age daughters engage in unsupervised play and learn lessons on their own — sometimes, the hard way. Not that I didn’t do those things growing up. My brothers and I still wonder how we survived riding four-wheelers at light speed and helmet-less down country roads and through mountains surrounding our hometown.

Playing outside — often far from my parents’ sight — was a hallmark of my youth. Yet I struggle at times to let our girls have the same freedom.

So do many parents today, apparently.

“Children today have more restricted childhoods, on average, than those enjoyed by their parents, who grew up in far more dangerous times and yet had more opportunities to develop,” authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt point out in their 2017 bestseller, The Coddling of the American Mind. 

Cue every grandpa who ever walked to school uphill both ways in the snow.

A wave of “paranoid parenting” triggered partly by ubiquitous images of missing and exploited children on “grocery bags, billboards, pizza boxes, and even utility bills” in the 1990s increased parental fears and set the stage for a tsunami of helicopter moms and dads, the authors argue. Those with children born after 1995 are particularly prone to hovering over their kids.

Parenting styles have since cut deeply into unsupervised play — a crucial part of “wiring a mammal’s brain to create a functioning adult,” the authors point out.

While intentions may be good, over-parenting has taken a toll on today’s young adults. Lukianoff and Haidt link fewer “falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and acts of inclusion” inherent in unsupervised play to increased depression rates and other hypersensitive behaviors among current college students.

The book has me reflecting on my parenting game.

What’s the right balance between watching over them and leaving them alone? How much unsupervised play should kids have? These questions carry even more weight amid a global pandemic that has ravaged the social lives and unsupervised playtimes for kids everywhere, including ours.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that our 9-year-old would want to sneak out with a friend into the cold.

How do you strike a balance between play and supervision? Are Lukianoff and Haidt on to something? I’d love to hear from you at [email protected]

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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