Last week, while I drove my kids to a nature center near our home, I saw something I haven’t seen in a long time.
I saw this gaggle of kids, all under the age of ten, donning cowboy hats and boots, riding their bikes along the side of the road. They looked completely out of place, with their slingshots and dirty faces, and they were completely unsupervised.
It isn’t something you see much these days—kids playing on their own outdoors. In my neighborhood, we can see kids in their backyards from our back window, but always under the careful watch of their parents. Kids on bikes, we see them too, but always with parents chasing close behind, shouting “Slow down!” or “Pay attention for the cars!”
I am one of those parents who follow close behind. Who watch over their kids carefully while they play. My kids are young, so admittedly that is part of the deal, but I am not sure I see that changing much in the future. In order for my kids to spend any amount of time outside, I need to be there with them.
The thing about parenting right now is that we’re fed a constant diet of information on keeping our kids safe. I appreciate a lot of that information. I know to anchor my dressers to the walls, thanks to the internet. I know to keep my kids rear-facing until two and to put them on their backs to sleep. I’m thankful for this knowledge, it’s kept my children safe.
At the same time, I also know the world is not a safe place, thanks to the internet. Children get hit by cars in their own neighborhoods or wander off if they’re not being watched. The internet has brought the very worst things that happen to children in our world and made them feel like they are happening in our backyard. The problem with being connected all of the time is that it makes the extraordinary and unlikely seem commonplace, like it is happening all of the time.
And so, modern parents, myself included, seem especially prone to practicing safety at all costs, even when the risks aren’t all that high. Unfortunately, it seems to be becoming more and more apparent that safety at all costs is costing our kids. I can’t help but feel like modern living is robbing my kids of their childhood.
It may seem like a silly problem to be so focused on, but when I get up in the morning, I am immediately trying to figure out how I get my to-do list done and get my kids the amount of activity they need. If I need to be outside keeping them safe, I can’t be inside cleaning up the kitchen or getting ready for dinner. Each day is a back and forth of questioning if I leave something undone to get them outside or if I keep them in so I don’t feel perpetually behind.
Even though I make time regularly to ignore my to-do list so my kids can play, it never feels like enough. An hour or two a day never seems like enough to get them the exercise they need, to avoid too much time in front of screens or wear them out before bed. Honestly, it seems my kids would be happiest if they could spend their entire day outside, but I can’t make that happen.
Maybe my expectations are too high, but I know my kids aren’t living the childhood I remember. I remember running off for hours, riding my bike around the neighborhood and climbing the fences to my friends’ houses. These days, even adventure is facilitated by parents. We schedule hikes, and then follow close behind, capturing the “magic” of their childhood on our iPhones.
It’s no wonder most of the parents I know are stressed out or dealing with some kind of anxiety. Being a parent in a modern world should be easy, but we seem to be making it harder than it needs to be. We’re more involved than ever in keeping our kids entertained and safe, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.
I don’t know what the answer is. I can keep taking my kids to the park and sending them to our small, fenced-in backyard, but it still doesn’t provide them with the childhood I remember. I’m still trying to decide—do I ignore the pressure to stand over my kids while they hang out outside, or do I give up my dream of giving them a wild and free childhood?