Perfect parents, fragile children

If parents could engineer the perfect child, would he grow up to be unbearable? Katie Roiphe takes on overparenting — familiar ground but always good for a rant — in Slate.

You know the child I am talking about: precious, wide-eyed, over-cared-for, fussy, in a beautiful sweater, or a carefully hipsterish T-shirt. Have we done him a favor by protecting him from everything, from dirt and dust and violence and sugar and boredom and egg whites and mean children who steal his plastic dinosaurs, from, in short, the everyday banging-up of the universe? The wooden toys that tastefully surround him, the all-sacrificing, well-meaning parents, with a library of books on how to make him turn out correctly— is all of it actually harming or denaturing him?

Someone I know tells me that in the mornings, while making breakfast, packing lunches and laying out clothes, she organises an art project for her children. An art project! This sounds impossibly idyllic – imaginative, engaged, laudable. And yet, is it just the slightest bit mad as well? Will the world, with its long lines in the passport office and traffic jams, be able to live up to quite this standard of exquisite stimulation?

It is more than slightly mad. It’s nuts.

It’s good for children to know “that your parents have busy, mysterious lives of their own, in which they sometimes do things that are not entirely dedicated to your entertainment or improvement,” Roiphe writes.

I decided when my child was very young that the greatest gift I could give her was a sane mother. So I didn’t let her do things likely to drive me crazy.  It worked for both of us.

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    VIrginia Woolf said something about this… I can’t remember exactly what it was but it was something like “It was liberating to know that my parents had their own lives and I could have mine.”

  2. Ms. Roiphe remembers the “good old days” of the ’70’s and ’80’s but she conveniently overlooks the fact that a lot more kids used to be seriously hurt or killed back then. Between 1960 and 1990 the death rate among children aged 1-4 from accidents dropped by 57% and the rate among children aged 5-14 dropped 48%.

    There are all sorts of things I used to do as a child that I would never allow my children to do because they’re dangerous- bike riding, roller skating and skiing without a helmet, sailing without a life jacket, riding in the back of a moving pickup truck, sitting on someone’s lap when there weren’t enough seatbelts to go around, etc. My DH has a scar on his chest from when he was a kid and one of his friends accidentally shot him with a cross-bow. What the heck were my parents and IL’s generation thinking?

  3. I agree, it is nuts. I remember the 80’s: METAL monkey bars (I could knock my teeth out!), WOODEN Jungle Jims (I could get splinters!), and we even swung from tree branches like Tarzan. Such dangerous playing taught me balance: walking up the monkey bars to their pinnacle, then either sitting down and flipping off, or just jumping off, required balance, a sense of gravity, a feel for when I could take just the right step and right myself if I misjudged. I had to plan how I might save myself if I fell (I didn’t fall, by the way), because the potential consequences were obvious.

    Swinging from the trees taught us to test whether something could hold our weight, and for tension (how many twists and turns before the branch snapped?) I didn’t have to read and memorize that oak trees were strong, I knew it as a fact from all that unsafe playing I did. I wonder when, where, or how kids can learn what I took for granted, when play equipment now must be plastic and kids never have to consider in the back of their minds how to execute a stunt without incurring pain?

    I too rode around without a helmet. Not only that, us kids would ride as fast as we could, and jump off just to see how far our bikes could go without us. On sidewalks. Made of cement. No helmets then, and it wouldn’t occur to me to wear one now, as I learned as a child how to fall off a bike and to watch for cars. Kids weren’t presumed to be extraoardinarily stupid and incompetent in my day. These days, I think I’m supposed to be impressed if a kid can feed himself with a metal fork WITHOUT taking out his eye. You know why I never tried to jump off a building to imitate Superman? Because I learned on the playground that when you jump from great heights (a metal slide somewhat taller than the average adult), your feet will hurt when you land. “Brace for impact” was second nature.

    We went trick-or-treating, in our neighborhoods, without a phalanx of adults dogging our every move. This was in the Adam Walsh era, the “I know my first name is Steven” era, the Satanic Panic era: for a while there was a TV show that came on every night educating kids about stranger danger, with the use of anatomically correct dolls to boot! And yet, parents managed to not get hysterical.

    Grandma sent us kids to play in the woods, with a bb gun, even. She left her shotgun in the closet, where we could get to it, because we were expected not to be stupid enough to play with it. And how could we be that stupid, when we saw what they can do? The natural world was not alien to us, so the concept of cause and effect wasn’t strange to us, either. I expect my young nephew to figure out how to climb up the boulder in my backyard and figure out that scraping his knee on its sharp edges won’t kill him.

    I’m glad I was a kid when kids weren’t expected to be dumb and fragile, when kids were sent outside to play instead of relying on those asinine “play dates.” Our parents didn’t often know what we did on the playground, which was to their benefit, as I don’t imagine they would have survived our childhood if they were the controlling, hovering types kids have to put up with today.

    I shudder to think of how kids today might rebel against that nonsense. Or worse, how they may grow up with no common sense and a tendency to be a ninny. I just heard about the Massachusetts teacher, Wendy Scott (an absolute moron of the first water) who wanted to bar students from having pencils, because they’re “dangerous.” God save the children from “concerned” adults like her.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Some of this is extra caution.
    However, having some meanness to be delivered of, I will state that I frequently impute discreditable motivations without a scrap of evidence to support me.
    So, here goes: Most of this is preening. Look how wonderful a parent I am. You’ll note that one of the items the mother in question was telling us about–what a great parent she is!–was an art project. That has nothing to do with safety.

  5. I’m 100% certain the families of those whose children died or were permanently injured back in the “good old days” wish that the precautions Jamie pooh-poohs were standard.

    It’s easy to say “well *I* survived so parents today are just being wimps”. But many kids DIDN’T survive. I would personally never be able to forgive myself if I allowed my child to forgo those safety precautions and something bad happened.

  6. “Many” kids didn’t survive?  How many is that?

    A drop from 5/100k to 2/100k is a 60% relative reduction but a very small absolute reduction.

  7. I cheerfully pooh-pooh the hysteria because I don’t believe kids are “helped” by removing any use for their brains. I don’t see how their development is aided by taking away anything that would force them to stop and THINK about what they’re about to do, and what might happen if they did it. I personally believe we all lived to adulthood in one piece because we were expected to be able to handle scraped knees, splinters, or having a tooth knocked out. It taught us to be cautious without being ninnies.

    I’ll give you an example of the decline of the modern child’s competence zone: my father’s cousin complained to us that a neighbor’s mother had harangued her one day because the boy had jumped her fence and was bitten by her dog — which had given the boy fair warning by barking and growling at him before he came over. The boy’s mother was angry when our cousin pointed out that the boy had brought his bite on himself. What did he expect, trespassing in the yard of a growling dog? The mother claimed he was, “only 10 so didn’t know any better” to which my cousin–remember she’s in my father’s generation–replied, “When I was 10, I wasn’t stupid enough to go into the yard of an angry dog.”

    If you think my cousin should have cut the boy some slack, consider that she and my father grew up by the sea, with sharks, sting rays, and barracudas. And you thought an 80’s era playground was dangerous! By the way, there was no age limit on playing in the sea, only a knowing-how-to-swim limit. To get to the sea from their houses, you have to negotiate a rocky bluff. By rocky I mean the complete absence of grass and soil, with “rocks” of scissor sharp edges (yes, I cut my foot. I got over it). Yet, our elders freely allowed us children to frolic in this environment. We were expected to watch out for sea predators and to have common sense regarding them.

    That boy’s mother probably thought her coddling was protecting him, but it seems to me that if a 10 year old can’t expected to figure out about dogs then something is wrong with him. I don’t believe all that coddling did him any good: he’s the one who was bitten.

  8. Roger Sweeny says:

    Crimson wife,

    You are absolutely right that there are fewer deaths from childhood injuries than there used to be–and that each of those deaths brought pain.

    However, that gain has not been costless. Kids do learn less of how the world works, and have less “sense” of it, as Jamie points out. I suspect they feel less comfortable in it. I’m not sure how you would quantify that, but I consider it a loss.

    Then there is the rise in childhood obesity, early onset diabetes, etc. If you are expected to only engage in certified-safe play, well, easier to watch tv or play a video game.

  9. There is a middle ground. Helmets for bikes/rollerblades makes total sense. Ditto life jackets for sailing, or any boating really, until you’re a very good swimmer. But there are plenty of other activities that children used to do that their parents don’t seem to let them do today, that carry much less risk than brain damage. The “no running” rule for school playgrounds is a good example of that. Also: climbing trees, playing with whatever neighborohood kids you could find after school, using hand tools, learning to cook before the age of 12 (all of these are frowned on for safety reasons). I could go on: driving kids to school when there are sidewalks, no swimming in ponds without swim shoes (because you can’t see the bottom) and (my favorite) little tiny kids, three or four years old, who are wearing helmets to ride their Big Wheels.

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Frankly, life jackets while sailing seems like a no-brainer, no matter how good a swimmer you are. You can drown fast and quietly if you fall off a boat, especially if you’re taken by surprise and/or hit your head on the way in. The life jacket can also help you figure out which way is up — a surprising problem in emergency situations.

    Swim-shoes in ponds isn’t really a bad idea, either. You cut yourself on something in the duck-crap infested detritus goo of a pond, you’re looking at insta-infection, possibly of the nasty kind.

    I’m also not convinced about the bicycle helmet issue; I’m not completely against mandatory helmets, but the risk of traumatic head injury when riding a bicycle seems much, much less than the risk of drowning while sailing, and bicycle helmets don’t help in the worst accidents. Yes, I’m sure the death rates for kids are much higher for bicycles — but kids also probably spend about 1000-10,000 times more time riding bicycles than sailing, so we’d expect a larger number of fatal injuries.

    But I’m with you on the rest of that, Limetree, and I agree that there is room for discussion and compromise. We can disagree on how to weigh things specifically and whether everything that’s a good idea should be made into a law, but still agree that a conversation is important.

  11. According to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, deaths among bicyclists younger than 16 have declined a whopping 86% since 1975. While some of that is probably due to fewer miles ridden by kids, the fact is that 97% of those killed in bike accidents were not wearing a helmet at the time. Requiring kids to wear helmets when bike riding saves lives, plain and simple.

  12. Roger Sweeny says:

    Requiring kids to wear helmets when bike riding saves lives, plain and simple.

    No doubt. When I was younger, if I felt like taking a bike ride, I would just hop on my bike. Now I make sure I have my helmet, ID, and money. I make sure I have put on sunscreen and stretched my muscles.

    Partly as a result of that, I take fewer bike rides. And I just feel less free.

    Safety is important, but it is never the only thing. Otherwise, we would save 40,000 lives a year by banning cars.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Could we please take a few seconds to reflect on the difference between the following two statements?

    1) Requiring kids to wear helmets when bike riding saves lives, plain and simple.

    2) The wearing of helmets by kids when bike riding saves lives, plain and simple.

    I propose that statement #2 is probably true, and can be backed up by the statistics that CW proposes. (Link here: )

    I propose that statement #1 is of as-yet undetermined provenance. The “requiring” of an effect and the actual effecting of that effect are often two very different phenomena. This is only exacerbated by the fact that “require” is one of the most nebulous, vague verbs in the English languag. Think about the various ways in which one could go about “requiring” things:

    1) Pass a law with a small fine, payable by the parents of a child found riding without a helmet.
    2) Pass a law with a huge fine, payable by the parents of a child found riding without a helmet.
    3) Jail any child caught riding without a helmet for a term of weeks.
    4) Jail the parent of any child caught riding without a helmet for a term of years.
    5) Jail any bike seller who sells a bike to someone who doesn’t demonstrate that they own a helmet.
    6) Bolt a bicycle helmet onto every child’s skull upon their 6th birthday.
    7) Take away the bicycle of any child caught riding without a helmet.
    8) Take away the children from any parent whose child is caught riding without a helmet.
    9) Exile onto a small raft with 1 week’s supply of food all members of any family whose children are caught riding without a helmet.
    10) Put gear-locking mechanisms on all bicycles (backed up by fines and penalties, of course) that are only released in the presence of a special RFID chip that is found only in (and required to be produced in) bicycle helmets.
    11) Allow the police to shoot anyone found riding without a helmet on sight.
    12) Allow private citizens to shoot anyone found riding without a helmet on sight.
    13) Take away public school privileges from any child found riding without a helmet.
    14) Eliminate any liability whatsoever for drivers who hit riders who aren’t wearing a helmet.

    There are at least three questions:

    1) Do helmets have a benefit? (Obviously yes.)
    2) Do their benefits outweigh their drawbacks? (Less clear, but almost certainly yes.)
    3) Given the balance between benefits and drawbacks, how much “requirement” is really… uh… required?

  14. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Apparently 8+parenthesis = 8)

  15. Are we so certain of the virtues of helmets? They may reduce certain injuries, if the pattern of use remains the same. However, the presence of a helmet may lead to more risk-taking, and thus, more injuries:

    Millions of parents take it as an article of faith that putting a bicycle helmet on their children, or themselves, will help keep them out of harm’s way.
    But new data raise questions about that assumption. The number of head injuries sustained in bicycle accidents has increased 10 percent since 1991, even as helmet use has risen sharply, according to figures compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. With ridership declining over the same period, the rate of head injuries among bicyclists has increased 51 percent even as the use of bicycle helmets has become widespread.

  16. Elementary-aged kids tend to be very legalistic. The easiest way to get my kids to stop complaining about sitting in a booster seat or wearing a helmet when riding a bike, or whatever is to point out that it’s the law. If it’s just a family rule, they’ll often try to negotiate it. But if I tell them to bring it up to the state legislature, they shut right up. 🙂

  17. Richard Aubrey says:

    From time to time you’ll hear a report that highway engineers have discovered that making one part of a road safer works, for that part of the road. Accidents on other parts of the road in the area go up. The theory is that many people drive at the limit of their comfort level. When they get some safety credits built up in one place, they cash them in elsewhere. The result is about the same number of accidents.
    Deaths and serious injuries have declined, it is also reported, due to better engineering of cars, seat belts, and air bags. And improvements in emergency room treatments.
    I’d be surprised if there isn’t something to the highway engineers’ conclusion.
    But, as I said earlier, the mother in question was talking about an art project. Apparently she thought the kid was too fragile to be left to his own devices.

  18. I present to you a girl (I think her name was Jenny) in my helmet-less neighborhood who zoomed onto the street, on her bike, and was promptly struck by car. We all stood by and watched the paramedics deal with her.

    “This is why you look both ways before crossing the street, kids,” was the lesson we took from this. Jenny lived, by the way, most likely because the car wasn’t going too fast. The stats you provided are firm on this: if you don’t want your kid to die on a bike, forget the helmet and stress to them road safety so they don’t get hit in the first place. No car, no worries. This line is from the stats you link: “…It is estimated that collisions with motor vehicles account for nearly 90 percent of all bicycle-related deaths.” That’s why we survived without helmets.

    Ditto on the life jackets, though. One of the cousins who “survived” childhood by the sea died recently after getting caught in a storm during a fishing expedition. I think he was knocked off his boat. He wouldn’t have been wearing a life jacket in the first place because they like to dive for their fish, but once back on the boat…

    Kids when small will be legalistic — I thought my father was drinking and driving with his mug of coffee — but if they notice what you’re telling them doesn’t coincide with reality, they will stop paying attention.

    13) Take away public school privileges from any child found riding without a helmet.
    I like that one; kids might think the raft idea is an opportunity to play Robinson Crusoe (I hope kids are still reading that one).

  19. And while we’re on this topic, one of the most horrifying things I see almost every day is parents (with helmets) and tiny kids (with helmets) riding along w/th the parent on a bike and the child in a sort of caboose pulled along by the bike, so low as to be completely invisible to vehicles. And they do this in heavy traffic. As Jamie says, the biggest safety precaution with bikes is to stay away from motor vehicles. ot to mention how frightening it must be for the tiny kid.

  20. Limetree- aren’t the trailers required to have bright orange flags sticking up? Everyone I know who uses a bike trailer has a flag on theirs so I assumed it was a requirement (like it is for recumbent bikes).

  21. I don’t know if it’s a requirement, but around here (Illinois) you rarely see them. Plus, I’m not sure the drivers of the vehicles even see a 4×6 triangle of plastic (or know what it means) in a stressful traffic situation.

  22. Richard Aubrey says:

    Heard from my father today that when he was 12-13–early Thirties–growing up on the coast of Connecticut and running lobster pots in the summer.
    Sometimes in the evening, they’d see somebody a hundred yards or so out in the ocean messing with their pots. He and another guy his age would get their boat and an older friend with a rifle and go talk to the guys. Usually the story was their lines got tangled.
    Just growin’ up in the old days.