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When did parents get so scared?

When you were a kid, you probably spent hours outside and unsupervised. It’s not that way anymore.

Illustration by Amy June Bates/Amy June Bates


In the 1977 Newbery award-winning classic I read as a child, Jesse, a lonely boy heading to fifth grade, befriends new girl Leslie, and together they fabricate a fantastic imaginary kingdom in the woods near their homes. Then tragedy descends (spoiler alert): Swinging across a gulley, Leslie slips from a rope, bonks her head, and abruptly dies.

My take-aways from this tale — the woods are dangerous! life is fragile! — must have burrowed deep into my psyche. Thirty years later, the thought of letting my own two daughters, now 6 and 10, wander unsupervised in the woods behind our suburban South Shore home fills me with dread. Perhaps worse, I’ve imbued them with my fears about the dangers lurking there: ticks, poison ivy, the occasional coyote (to say nothing of the darker ones I don’t voice aloud: heroin addicts, vagrants, child molesters). Now I’ve quashed their natural impulse to explore. They hardly ask anymore.

Despite the eye-rolling of our elders and psychologists bemoaning that we are raising “a nation of wimps,” I belong to a cohort of parents ruled by fear. Every mother I ask can recall with pinpoint accuracy a moment of stomach-churning panic when her child went momentarily missing — at a mall, in a hotel lobby, up an elevator, in the Children’s Museum.


Rather than abating with time, the checklist of parental worries has only lengthened as our children have aged, like pencil marks ticking up their growth chart: from SIDS to chemicals in sippy cups, arsenic in apple juice to hormone-laden milk, Lyme disease and meningitis and measles outbreaks, vaccinating, not vaccinating, concussions and trampolines, whole grapes and popcorn, school shootings and cancer-causing sunscreen, overheated cars and negligent nannies, boogeymen kidnappers and friendly neighborhood molesters, and always, above all, the judgment of our fellow parents for failing to be as hypervigilant as they are.


(Of course, it must be noted that all this hand-wringing falls under the hashtag #middleclassproblems. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, he describes a West Baltimore upbringing where “everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns.” Many don’t have the luxury of obsessing whether their children’s bug repellent is DEET-free.)

Anyone who has spent the last decade of bedtimes revisiting classics in children’s literature can’t help but be struck by this evolution in parental oversight. In the Little House on the Prairie series, Laura and Mary trek miles to reach their one-room schoolhouse. In 1968’s Ramona the Pest, Ramona and her friend Howie walk themselves to kindergarten alone. A sequel, Ramona the Brave, begins with Ramona and her older sister Beezus, now 6 and 11, returning from a solo trip to the park — an act that earlier this year practically caused a national panic attack and got Maryland parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv slapped with charges of neglect.

As Hanna Rosen wrote in her 2014 Atlantic story, “The Overprotected Kid”: “It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s — walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap — are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting.”


So what, I want to know, has caused this change? Has all our hovering made things any safer? And what is it doing to our kids?

Illustration by Amy June Bates

MY MOTHER, A NEW YORK CITY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHER, parented with a ’70s innocence I can only view with disbelief. In kindergarten, I was picked up from the school bus by an elderly man who lived in our apartment building. In later years, I waited for my mother, unsupervised, cellphone-less, at the local library until she could pick me up. A teenager down the hall — a boy, no less — baby-sat me, and I went to my share of sleepovers and sleepaway camps. All of these acts require a faith many parents today can’t seem to muster, but my own mother shrugs off my horror. “We trusted back then,” she says. Today, as another mom friend of mine ruefully observes, “we know too much.”

My parenting peers have their own Terabithias. They’re mostly high-profile true-crime stories: the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old New Yorker Eton Patz; the 1981 Florida abduction and murder of Adam Walsh; the 1987 panic over Baby Jessica, the Texas toddler who fell down a well; and, especially for Bostonians, the 1997 case of Louise Woodward, the British au pair accused of shaking baby Matthew Eappen to death. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has argued that humanity is getting less violent, but tell that to any parent who has had to explain what happened that day at Sandy Hook Elementary School. (My older daughter gets apprehensive just driving through Connecticut.)


So is it simply the media? (And as a card-carrying member, do I have only myself to blame?) “The media is obsessed — turn on the TV any time and you will find a child in danger,” says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids. “It’s an endless stream of warnings that make you feel that your child is never safe from anything and anyone everywhere. Everybody knows the way to get an assignment editor’s attention is to frame the story in terms of harming children.”

To wit: This summer, a spate of news stories warned of the dangers of “dry drowning,” as if this rare tragedy were something new under the sun. A Google search of the last couple of years reveals page after page of click-bait, including “Kids Can Suffer ‘Dry Drowning’ Hours After Leaving the Pool” and “What Every Parent Needs to Know About Dry and Secondary Drowning.” At times, the fevered pitch can reach the ludicrous: In a recent piece on parents.com, a pediatric urologist warns of a “childhood constipation epidemic” after one British teenage girl died of a rare condition.

For Lenox child psychologist David Anderegg, a professor at Bennington College and author of Worried All the Time, the crux of the problem is “frequency overestimation,” a phenomenon that throws off our sense of how common something is. “The media overplaying every child abduction makes people overestimate the probability,” he says. “Because our culture is so visual, even if something is rare, the images are repeated so much, you start to think it’s not rare.”


Though the planet has always been brimming with tragedy and malevolence, previous generations didn’t have minds overwhelmed with fear. They didn’t have JonBenet Ramsey and Natalee Holloway and Madeleine McCann flickering on their screens 24-7, or Amber Alerts buzzing their phones, or Facebook, where 55 million of us studied the face of an unidentified 4-year-old girl whose body was discovered this summer in a trash bag on Boston’s Deer Island.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 40 million American adults, or 18 percent, the majority of them women, suffer from an anxiety disorder. It’s not hard to see why.

BACK IN 2008, LENORE SKENAZY became the face of the “free-range” movement when she penned a column for the Daily News about letting her 9-year-old son take the New York subway alone. Two days later, she was being called America’s Worst Mom on the Today Show, Fox News, and NPR. Her true mistake, she contends, was not imagining the worst-case scenario. “What I had done wrong was my not having pictured him dead,” she tells me. “In our culture, you must go to the very-worst-scenario thinking — ‘tragical’ thinking — and proceed as if it’s likely to happen. If you’re not worried, there’s something wrong with you.”

“We have lost the ability to see anything other than black and white; anything is either 100 percent safe or it’s dangerous,” Skenazy says. “We’ve lost the ability to say something is ‘safe enough.’ ”

Much of our anxiety, Skenazy says, has been fueled by the nature of our litigious society, which forces manufacturers to be overly defensive, recalling products on only the whiff of a problem, or parks to strip our playgrounds of risky equipment, or not build them in the first place.

Consumerism plays a role, too. “If they can convince you your child is in danger, you will spend anything,” Skenazy notes, pointing to products from bath-water thermometers to baby kneepads. “It’s easy to see how anybody who wants to make a buck just has to worry a parent,” Skenazy says. Sure enough, soon after we talk, a press release drops into my in-box hawking the Starry Night automobile sunshade that, for $12.99, will protect your kid’s skin from possibly cancerous sunbeams.

There is another popular theory for parents’ worry, advanced by evolutionary psychologists. Parents across the ages have certainly experienced the savage loss of a child — from a farm accident, a streetcar, the flu. But today, as birthrates have plummeted, perhaps we somehow see our children as even more precious than we once did.

“No mother of ten children will tell you ‘It’s OK I lost one child,’ ” says David Anderegg. “But if you have ten kids, let’s face it, you cannot be as invested in every child. One strategy, from an evolutionary standpoint, is to have as many children as possible and hope some will survive; the other is have very few and invest heavily in their care.”

With more first-time parents than ever older than 35, there is also the challenge of having children as fertility wanes. One mother I spoke to, whose second child is one of the estimated 5 million worldwide born to date using fertility treatments, wonders if this highly intentional (and expensive) form of conception creates on some level a fiercer biologic impulse to protect those hard-won offspring.

This culture of not trusting anyone, of never outsourcing child care, has a significant unintended consequence, especially for women: It inhibits our ability to turn to other pursuits, like, say, full-time work. “It has become almost superstitious,” says Skenazy. “A ‘good parent’ always has their eyes on their child. Any time you take your eyes off your child — poof! — they’re in danger. Omniscience used to be God’s job. We have outsourced God’s job to us.”

Skenazy’s free-range parenting crusade has unleashed an unintended Pandora’s effect — if parents let their kids share the same freedoms the parents once enjoyed, they have to worry they’re going to be busted for child neglect. My own kids have picked up on these fears. When I leave my 10-year-old alone in a car for a minute, say to return a RedBox DVD inside the grocery store, she dives under a pile of coats to hide. She’s partly fearful of being snatched by a bad guy, partly concerned that a well-intentioned passerby will call the police on me.

Many voices have pointed out that we are doing our children a vast disservice. Alarmed by the rise in anxiety, depression, and dependence among college students, Stanford University undergraduate dean Julie Lythcott-Haims broaches the issue in her new book, How to Raise an Adult. “Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?” she writes. “We treat our kids like rare and precious botanical specimens.  .  .  . Without experiencing the rougher spots of life, our kids become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable, sometimes terribly incapable, of thriving in the real world on their own.”

On some level, psychologists say, children need to experience fear, so that the first time they are in a dangerous situation, they have some idea how to react. “If you deprive your child of opportunities to do mildly dangerous and adventurous things, you are putting your child at a new risk — that your child is going to grow up not knowing how to deal with danger, not knowing how to handle difficulties, not knowing how to solve conflicts and problems,” says Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn. “If they’re not allowed to climb the tree, they may grow up with a fear of heights. So I say to parents, ‘How do you weigh this risk? There is a tiny chance something horrid could happen, but there is a bigger chance this will happen if your child doesn’t play outdoors.’ ”

Is this just experts simply adding one more anxiety to our ever-growing pile? Possibly. “Now parents are anxious about being too anxious,” Anderegg quips, only half-joking. “They’re trying to hit that sweet spot where their kids will not suffer the effects — trying to over-parent without their kids noticing.”

Illustration by Amy June Bates

IRONICALLY, THE TRUTH IS THAT OUR CHILDREN have never been safer. Between 1987 and 2012, childhood deaths from unintentional injuries such as drowning and poisonings fell 60 percent, according to Safe Kids Worldwide. Crimes against children (and against adults, for that matter) have fallen to levels last seen in the late 1970s, though some experts wonder if this is just because we never let them outside anymore.

According to polling, the fear of child abduction is the top reason parents say they don’t let their kids out alone, yet it is, in fact, extraordinarily rare. According to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, there are only around a hundred cases of child abductions by strangers in a given year (many of those children started as runaways). Lenore Skenazy famously calculated that, statistically speaking, her son would have to stand alone on the street corner for 600,000 years before he would get snatched by a stranger.

“The only thing I’ve seen that makes parents relax is letting their kids do something on their own — go get the milk for dinner, play in the forest,” she says. “When they come back, they’re so happy, so grateful you believed in them; the joy you see in their faces immediately touches your heart, and there’s no space left for the fear.”

I want to agree. I try to persuade myself that I need to relax, let go, suppress the pit of fear in my chest when they bike around the bend in the driveway and out of my sight. I stop hovering when they rollerblade downhill; I sign one up for sleepaway camp, let her go down the block to buy a muffin from the bakery alone.

Then, one March afternoon in our seaside village, an apparent child predator actually comes to town. News of it travels swiftly, reverberating at the spring band concert held that night in the high school gymnasium. A 10-year-old girl reported a man attempted to lure her into his car, pulling over and asking her, “You need a ride, sweetheart?” The girl slammed the car’s door closed and ran inside to her mother.

Wait, weren’t these incidents supposed to be extraordinarily rare?

My head spinning with contradictions, I call my local police department, expecting to receive an abundance of reassurance. Instead, I speak with Detective Lieutenant Gregory Lennon, who commands a regional child abduction response team. Every day, he receives an itemized list of a dozen or so reports of attempted abductions across the United States.

“Don’t assume because you live in a bucolic community your children are at less risk of a random act of children victimization than anywhere else,” he warns me. Child abductions are actually more likely to occur in an isolated area than a highly populated city. Predators are like lions stalking young zebras separated from their herd, he says. “Immaturity combined with freedom equals disaster. You have to watch your kids. Be vigilant.”

Finally, I reach out to John Walsh, whose son Adam was murdered after being abducted from a department store in 1981. Walsh’s avid lobbying and crime-fighting crusade on Fox’s America’s Most Wanted and CNN’s The Hunt may make him a national treasure in the eyes of many, especially when it comes to raising awareness about the dangers facing children. But I’m curious to find out: Does he feel as if he might have planted too many seeds of fear?

When I get him on the phone, Walsh staunchly rejects any notion that his advocacy played a role in today’s overwrought parents. “I don’t believe I’ve created a generation of scared parents,” Walsh barks. “I don’t believe I’m scaring the hell out of people. You owe it to your children to make them as safe as possible. What my wife and I tried to do was create an awareness. Knowledge is power. Children are a gift, and there are people who hunt them.”

Instead, he turns the tables, grilling me on what I’ve done to arm my daughters against potential predators, then berating me for not sufficiently preparing them. “You should teach those girls everything they should know to protect themselves,” he says. “You teach your child hygiene, sex education — the most important thing is personal safety. Don’t be paranoid: Don’t tell them they can’t go to sleepaway camp or go online. Give them the tools to make them safe, and maybe you’ll be one of those lucky ones.”


More family coverage:

When to start trying if you want a specific number of kids

The perils (and perks) of parenting a child of the opposite gender

Perspective: I’m a white dad afraid for my black sons

More millennials at home, even as jobs improve

Is more homework putting stress on families?

Melissa Schorr is a contributing editor at the Globe Magazine. Her second novel for teens, “Identity Crisis,” will be published in January. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.