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Parents’ irrational fears keep kids from being kids

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve read stories about people having ID numbers etched into their children’s teeth and not letting their kids play outside, and those Amber Alerts make it seem as though hundreds of children are being abducted and murdered every day. Like most parents, I want to protect my kids. I don’t mean to sound heartless, but I think we’ve gone overboard. Am I wrong?

A: Nope, I think you’re absolutely right. The reality is that, factoring out the threat of nuclear war, the world is not any more dangerous for children today than it was a few generations ago. But thanks in large part to the media, which repeats stories over and over and over, too many parents are in a panic. And our children are paying the price.

When I was as young as 8, growing up in Oakland, Calif., I took city buses all over town to visit friends, grandparents, even go bowling. And all the other kids I knew were doing the same thing. But I’m pretty sure that if I put my 10-year-old on a bus by herself today, I’d get arrested.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take reasonable precautions to keep our kids safe. Of course we should. But we can’t protect them from every possible danger. Not letting our kids explore their neighborhood (or even their own backyards), not allowing them to get a few bumps and bruises once in a while and filling their heads with stories of dangerous strangers lurking behind every tree, we’re keeping them from developing the independence, self-confidence and ability to made decisions that they’ll need as they stumble toward adulthood.

Part of the problem is that we’re way too concerned with what other people think. Let me give you a few examples. A recent study of more than 3,000 children and parents found that while half of parents played outside at least once a day when they were young, only 23 percent would allow their own children to do the same. Why? Well, 53 percent of those parents said they were worried about traffic. And 40 percent said they were concerned about “stranger danger.” I get both of those, even though the fears are exaggerated. But the statistic that really got me was that 30 percent of the parents who keep their kids cooped up indoors feel that they’ll be harshly judged by their neighbors if they let the kids play outside unsupervised.

Another recent study was even more horrifying – and tragic. This one talked about how a growing number of day cares have banned physical contact between caregivers and children out of fear that the adults might be accused of molesting the youngsters. We’re talking about toddlers and younger. In some cases, the day care staff is being told that cuddling small children is bad because it could make them too dependent. What a crock.

Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes around small children knows how much they’re comforted by physical touch. Many experts say that depriving kids of being cuddled or held or – gasp – kissed increases their stress levels and can have serious, long-term negative consequences for their development. On a less-scientific level, it seems positively cruel.

Read Armin Brott’s blog at DadSoup.com, send email to armin@mrdad.com and follow him on Twitter at @mrdad.


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