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Are parents overprotecting their kids?

6:23 PM, Apr 14, 2011   |    comments
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By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

Hannah Zelinger just gave her doll collection to her 3-year-old cousin - and now Hannah's bedroom in Long Beach, N.Y., is going from all pink to a black-and-white geometric design that's more mature.

After all, she's 9. And by today's standards, she's leaving childhood behind.

"At 3, 4, 5 and 6, they're playing with toys and dolls and puppet shows and crafts. It stops at 7. After that, they kind of skip into tween," says Hannah's mother, Jennifer Zelinger. "She talks about boys asking them out and who's going to like them."

Zelinger says Hannah wants some independence. But as a mother, Zelinger says, she's so torn about that idea that when Hannah rides her bicycle around the block to see a friend, the moms are on the phone for the entire journey.

"We're actually monitoring how long it takes and checking in, and I think it's sad," Zelinger, 46, says. "I want her to have that freedom, but the stories that I hear - I would never live with myself if anything happened."

Today's kids may never know the no-cares time of innocence, exploration and imagination that their parents recall about childhood.

Many parents rarely let their kids roam the neighborhood, use public transportation or walk to school alone. Play and sports are organized into play dates and teams, and extracurricular activities eat up kids' free time. Hannah's schedule at one point included Hebrew classes, ceramics, gymnastics, Zumba, trapeze and softball.

Even the lazy days of summer aren't so slow anymore, with many kids in structured camp programs, often focused on academics.

The cost, some analysts say, is not just rising concern that kids won't look back fondly on their childhoods. Analysts say there are increasing signs that a lack of independence fuels stress, anxiety and depression among young people. Many child-development specialists and others worry that it's just not as much fun to be a kid anymore.

"Kid time today? That time is filled," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a developmental psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia.

"We've lost the sense of allowing children to be children, to have that period of time in their lives where we don't burden them with a zillion things to do," says Malcolm Goldsmith, professor emeritus of health education at Southern Illinois University.

Zelinger says she grew up with "a lot of free time to play outside and put on roller skates and play kickball. In many ways, I do feel they don't have time just to play games and play with their friends and go to the park."

She says she's skipping the gym so she can pick up her daughter an hour earlier from her after-school program so Hannah can have an hour before dinner to unwind. She's also cut back on the weekend schedule and activities that Hannah wanted to pursue.

"We made some changes to have downtime," Zelinger says. "I'm blocking out a few hours of just nothing - maybe even a whole day and night - which I never used to do."

Protection or overprotection?
Childhood specialists say parents' fears - ranging from concern about their child being harmed or abducted to worries about their child's future education or career - seem to be driving much of the change.

"It's the reality of contemporary life," says historian Steven Mintz of Columbia University in New York. "We think we live in a pretty dangerous world, and kids who are nave are vulnerable."

"It's not that their lives are more hazardous, but perceptions of the hazards have increased a lot," says historian Paula Fass of the University of California-Berkeley, co-editor of Re-Inventing Childhood in the Post World War II World, due out this fall. "When that happens, we close down on the children and make it less possible for them to act informally, and worry that we need to have somebody watching over them."

Dawn Pettus, a stay-at-home mother of four in Florence, Ala., says she can't let her kids, ages 4 to 13, have the freedoms she had growing up in the same town.

"We would be allowed to go to the mall or the skate center, and a parent would come back and get us," says Pettus, 41. "Now, you can't. There's a possibility of someone taking them. People at these places are not responsible for them. There's too many things that could happen today."

Janis Feinstein, 49, of Hoboken, N.J., says she had much more independence as a child than her daughters, ages 12 and 15, do now. She was allowed to walk to school and local shops and movies, but she says it's been difficult to allow her daughters to roam.

"My younger daughter got her cellphone when she was 10 and walked to school on her own," she says. "It was only when she got home that I could actually relax."

Whether these fears are real or imagined, parents take them to heart, analysts say. But those who study childhood say kids were in a lot more danger 30 or 40 years ago.

"Research shows very clearly that kids are safer today," says Michael Ungar, a professor of social work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and author of Too Safe for Their Own Good. He credits public health campaigns, such as car-seat legislation and anti-drug and anti-smoking efforts.

"We've created safer worlds for our children, and now we need to make sure we don't hold (them) back so they don't get disadvantaged," he says. "Children need manageable opportunities to experience risk and responsibility in their lives. If we take away all these opportunities to suffer natural consequences, then where are they going to learn the skills they need to become well-functioning adults?"

The stress builds
Research supports the idea that children's autonomy has lessened over the years.

A 2009 study in the journal Qualitative Sociology reviewed 300 advice columns and editorials from 34 randomly chosen issues of Parents magazine published between 1929 and 2006 to gauge parental authority and children's autonomy. It found that children today have increased autonomy at home - in their self-expression, daily chores, appearance and defiance of parents - but fewer opportunities to be in public without adult supervision than kids in earlier generations.

In a column in The New York Sun in 2008, contributing editor Lenore Skenazy created controversy when she announced she had let her 9-year-old son ride the subway by himself. In Free-RangeKids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, she suggests parents loosen their grip.

Free-range parents, she says, believe in helmets, car seats and seat belts for safety, but "We just do NOT believe that every time school-age kids go outside, they need a security detail."

Her blog ( gives like-minded parents a chance to talk about their "common-sense parenting in uncommonly overprotective times."

Increased parental fear is a product of various factors, says Skenazy, 51, including round-the-clock news, TV dramas about child abduction, a litigious society that skews the view of risk and a multitude of products designed to help parents monitor their kids.

"We think of our kids in constant peril from a lot of things, starting with predators on down to the peril of not getting into a good college," she says.

Educators add to the pressure by expecting more from students and parents, Pettus says.

"When my oldest started school, all you had to bring was a pencil box and some crayons," she says. "Now, if you don't know your letters and the sound your letters make, then you're already behind."

These increased educational and social pressures may be taking a toll on kids' mental health, suggests Laurence Steinberg, psychology professor at Temple University.

"We don't have large-scale surveys that ask kids about fun, but we do have them about depression and anxiety," he says. "A lot of kids are reporting being depressed or anxious. It's partly because they feel under a lot of pressure to do well, whether in school or on the athletic field or at piano class or whatever it is."

One in five kids ages 9 to 17 grapple with mental illness such as depression or symptoms of anxiety, and 80% go untreated, says the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Experts say there's no way to determine if childhood mental illness is increasing or decreasing, because it wasn't measured as such in earlier decades.

But about 12.5% of kids ages 12 to 17 received treatment or counseling for problems with behavior or emotions, according to a 2009 report by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"Kids need unstructured time to unwind and relax, just to play without worrying about their performance," Steinberg says.

Pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg offers solutions to help kids navigate stress and focuses on the importance of resilience rather than perfectionism in his book, Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings, released earlier this month.

"There is no question there's a lot of stress in the lives of children and particularly teenagers," he says. "We need to reduce the stress by taking some of the pressure off while at the same time preparing kids to manage life's inevitable stressors."

Ginsburg, an adolescent-medicine specialist in Philadelphia, is among a group of child experts trying to refocus attention on the benefits of play.

"Play is a vital piece of childhood under challenge by a variety of forces in society," he says.

One of the larger efforts is the Ultimate Block Party, a large-scale play date in the park organized by various play advocates, including Hirsh-Pasek. The first event was last fall in New York City's Central Park, and others are scheduled around the country to focus on the science and educational value of play.

Steinberg, author of You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25, out earlier this year, says he's not ready to proclaim that fun in childhood is dead.

"It's a different kind of fun that kids have today," he says. "It's not fair to say playing video games is inherently less fun than playing tag. Kids who are glued to their screens today don't know what these other things were like."


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