Is Fear Ruining Childhood?

Like many people approaching the mid-century (ACK!) mark, I look back fondly on childhood as an idyllic episode in my life.  And while it may be true, as Doug Larson says, that “nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days,” I still think those days were pretty good.
I remember running freely through the neighborhood at a very young age, under the supervision of slightly older kids; riding my bike IN THE STREET; selling any number of things door to door to (gulp) strangers; walking home from the bus stop; hanging out in the five and dime while my mother shopped in the grocery store; sitting alone in the car while she ran errands; basically living outside in the summer till after dark.
If you are my age, you probably remember doing the same things.  Now we all know many of our kids are having childhoods that are quite different.  Often we blame the internet or video games or social media, and all of those are valid differences and posts for another day.  What I blame is FEAR.
Having had a happy childhood, I didn’t see any reason to depart too much from the way I was raised when my own kids came along.  Sure, there have been some advances we can all approve of.  Today’s car seats are better than the one I had as a toddler, which came equipped with its own mini-steering wheel.  We now know it’s not good for kids to bask in a constant haze of cigarette smoke.
We received a car seat for a baby shower gift, and we aren’t smokers, so those issues were never a problem.  So I stayed home with my babies, slept with them nearby, diapered them in cloth with rubber pants and pins.  As soon as we had a yard, I let them play outside alone, climbing trees, getting dirty, and having adventures.  I left them in the car when I ran into the convenience store to buy milk.  I let them stay at home alone for short periods as soon as they felt comfortable enough to ask to do so.  In our urban neighborhood, they walked to the playground, to the library, to the drugstore.  I could give many other examples.
free range
Often I encountered others whose children were far more sheltered.  Most parents seemed to be telling their kids to fear everyone, while I was telling my kids that most people are good.  Others wouldn’t let their kids play outside in their own yards unsupervised; I was shooing mine out into the unfenced front yard.  Everyone else seemed to be terrified of the infinitesimal chance of abduction.  Other parents seemed to feel danger was lurking everywhere.
Yet studies show that crime rates are lower and the world is statistically safer than it was when all of us roamed freely.  Maybe it is the influence of the internet, which makes sure we are all aware of every possible horror that could befall our offspring (although, as I have pointed out, if these things happened more often they would no longer be news).  Or maybe, for whatever reason, it’s the product of an increased need to believe that we can be in control of our own lives (an illusion, and an emotionally crippling one).  Whatever is causing it, it’s bad for us and it’s bad for our kids.
I don’t care what other people think about me, so I did what I thought was best for my own kids.  But when they are parents, they might not have the luxury to parent the way they were parented.  Because while I am not afraid that a stranger will abduct my unaccompanied child, I AM afraid that a stranger will report me to the Department of Children’s Services for leaving her alone in the car.  I AM afraid of being arrested and charged with neglect for making parenting decisions that for one thing are perfectly reasonable and for another ought to be no one else’s business.
We all grew up knowing about over-protective parents but now we have to contend with an over-protective society. On every social media post I read expressing outrage about the “nanny state” I read several comments from parents who would never, ever let their kid do this, that, or the other thing alone because the “world is a dangerous place.”  Can we trust parents to make the best decisions for their own families?  Can we trust our kids with a little freedom to play, learn, and grow?

0 thoughts on “Is Fear Ruining Childhood?

  1. I am currently working on a similar post. I will be 46 on Saturday and it sounds like we had similar childhoods and have given our children similar childhoods. We live on a farm and in a small town so my children have been fortunate to have the freedom to “run wild” in a way a lot of kids haven’t. It’s a tricky balance. Our parents were much more carefree, but many of them were also incredibly selfish – the Me Generation. (Not my parents. My parents are saints.). Still,I agree that fear is too much of a driving force in childhood today. 24/7’news coverage was built on fear mongering. Great post.

    1. Thank you, Laura. I look forward to reading your thoughts. While I can see how parents being self-involved could lead to a more permissive style of parenting just to get the kids out of the way, I think today’s “obsessed with the kids” parenting is pretty damaging too! Happy Birthday!

  2. hollybertone

    Hi Leslie – You are spot on. I’m actually more afraid of what is online than I am of what is out in the street that will harm our children. Stopping by via CBN. Hugs, Holly

    1. Thank you, Holly. Yes, it seems to me that parents in general don’t worry enough about ACTUAL dangers, like teenage drivers. Just like people in general are afraid of things like plane crashes but don’t worry much about heart disease.

  3. In many ways I parent from fear. I spent several years working in the foster care system as a social worker and saw first hand the horrific things people are capable of, especially when it comes to children. This no doubt jaded me and makes it hard for me to trust people with my children. I know how debilitating fear can be, and I’m working real hard on not letting my need to protect my children from fears real and unreal cause me to cripple them by being too overprotective. I grew up the same way too where I could go play outside until dark. I had a two block radius I needed to stay within and my friends and I would stay outside all day playing and riding bikes. My generation rarely allows their children this much freedom. Instead we plan structured play dates for our kids!

    1. It sounds like you are being thoughtful about it, which is good. The fact that I have five kids probably helps me with this. There are just too many of them for me to micromanage their lives the way some moms do. I’ve HAD to let go on control.

  4. My childhood was very much as you describe. It wasn’t that long ago that the world was so much safer and more care free. My 11-year-old stepdaughter has started the REALLY bad habit of sneaking out of her mother’s house when told to clean her room or do some chore. One time she took her 5 year old sister with her to WALK to Starbucks, which isn’t exactly close to their house, without telling anyone where they were going! So we’ve all had to hammer pretty hard into her head how dangerous it is for 2 little girls to go out on their own like that, with no one knowing where they are or what they are doing. I am not sure that she gets it. I hate for them that they have to live in fear in today’s world but they need to be aware of the risks so that they know why they can’t do the things that we as kids took for granted!

    1. Do you really think the world is more dangerous? I think it’s only our perceptions that have changed. Still, your stepdaughter doesn’t need to wander off without permission!

      1. That’s a good point. There’s always been crazy people out there and there was just as much risk back then as there is now. With today’s technology and media coverage, you just HEAR about it more now, and that makes it SEEM like the world is “more” dangerous. I miss the blissful ignorance of our youth without the technology we have today!

  5. I grew up as you did but I have definitely let some fear get the best of me when it comes to my kids. I worked in the social work and mental health field and it made me very cautious.

  6. We hear so many things and we want to protect our children but we have to be careful to not give them fear, but still be careful. The line is thin! Thanks for this post!

  7. This was a refreshing post! I can remember a lot more freedom as a child, as well. I definitely think there is a middle ground between too much freedom, and over protecting. On one hand, children need to have freedom to play and learn and grow. Riding bikes with our friends, and playing outside, and walking to friends houses allowed us to gain a certain level of independence as we matured. However, there were dangers or possible influences back then that parents did not consider. I have found that parenting requires a good mix of continual evaluation, acknowledging both what works and what doesn’t. Your post however, has definitely caused me to examine if there are areas in my children’s life where I am unconsciously instilling fear. Thank you for that!

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful post, Letetia! I like how your point out that we are more aware of potential dangers today rather than assuming that the world today is MORE dangerous. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way.

  8. I agree, I had a pretty great childhood as well. I was able to go outside, far and wide with my friends and always felt very safe and never threatened. Was I just lucky or was it really safer? I think having a pro-active approach to parenting is the best way to handle safety. Coming at the problem from a place of fear is never going to have a good outcome.

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  10. valgirl3

    Very interesting article. I’ve heard that too, how crime rates are actually lower. The exposure to information is greater and that creates more fear. I definitely want my daughter to have freedom but I can fall into the fear trap at times.

    1. Thanks! It’s hard not to fall into that trap due the awful information overload. We just have to remember that if all these things were happening everywhere all the time, they wouldn’t be newsworthy!

  11. You are so right! Living here in the Netherlands where that fear hasn’t taken over makes it all the more shocking to see and hear how afraid everyone in the US is about everything! It seems to me the level of fear picked up particularly after 9/11. Somehow the general fear of attack by terrorists morphed into fear of kidnapping, accidents, and really pretty much everything.
    Depending where you live, of course, kids here get a lot more freedom. My daughter was biking to school by herself at 9. My son walked (his school was closer) from about 10. In both cases the decision was mine about when the child was ready.
    I was amazed when, after a flasher appeared near my son’s school, the school responded by discussing with the kids what to do in that situation, and then sent them home with a note to let us know. That was it. And many of the parents discussed it with their kids as well, but then let them walk or bike to school as usual! It was a measured response that worked well. The kids who saw him next reported him, he was arrested, end of story.
    I fear for what these children raised in fear are going to be like as adults. Won’t they be unhealthily risk-avoiding? And overweight, from staying indoors all the time?

    1. I love hearing this perspective. I think that kids raised this way are either going to be afraid of everything, or will be so pleased and excited to be free that they will go overboard!

  12. We are totally on the same page! you will be glad to know that there are still some reasonable people raising kids. I am only 34. But oh, the uproar I get whenever I try to explain this to someone!

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