She describes herself as having been a “fairly cautious” parent before the pandemic, but Shannon now worries about her children’s safety more than ever. “The pandemic has made me more paranoid and fearful of other people,” she says. She has two sons, aged seven and four, and she’s anxious about them falling ill “because they are too young to get vaccinated”. When her elder son’s school reopened last year, she kept him at home. “We don’t go inside other people’s houses, and, if we have play dates, we do them outside,” she says. As a hospital chaplain in Indiana, Shannon has seen people dying of Covid, so her fear is understandable.
There have been benefits – her sons are closer than ever – but she acknowledges the downsides. “That social aspect of their development is something I’m definitely worried about. There’s a part of me that’s like: ‘Let them be kids,’ and there’s a part of me that’s like: ‘I need to keep them safe.’”
This safety-at-all-costs style of child-rearing is one many parents will be familiar with, even if the anxieties are different – and the pandemic may have highlighted it for many, or made it worse. From a child’s perspective, the past year and a half of lockdowns, closed schools and playgrounds has given a message: the outside world is dangerous; stay away from other people. It’s safest at home. If we are starting to emerge from the pandemic, now may be a good opportunity to rethink what kind of childhood we want for our children.
Lenore Skenazy, a New York-based writer and activist, advocates what she describes as “free-range parenting”. While she says, with a laugh, that she loves safety (“helmets, car seats, safety belts”), she also believes children should be given more freedom, which builds confidence and independence. We must trust them to make their own decisions, and – this is scary for parents today in a way it wasn’t for previous generations – allow them out by themselves.
In 2008, she was described as “the world’s worst mom” after she wrote an article about letting her then nine-year-old son find his own way home on the subway. Puzzled by people’s horror, she became interested in how parents had become so risk-averse and were monitoring their children’s every move. She wondered what it might be doing to a generation of kids and wrote a book, Free-Range Kids, which she has just updated, as well as launching Let Grow, an organisation that promotes children’s independence, and has free resources for schools and parents.
“I was concerned that it’s becoming weird to let your kids outside without either an adult, a cell phone or a GPS of some sort. Kids spend four to seven minutes outside in unstructured, unsupervised time a day here in America.” She points to a British study that found today’s parents were allowed to play outside unsupervised from the age of nine. Now it’s 11. “That’s such a giant leap, or step backwards, in one generation. So you’re not letting kids out until they’re hitting puberty? That’s unprecedented.”
“We’re at a point where it could go in either direction,” says Helen Dodd, a professor of child psychology at the University of Exeter (she led the study on the age children were allowed to play outside unsupervised). “I think there are many children who’ve got used to being in the house and being with their parents most of the time … they’ve kind of forgotten that the world is out there, and it’s fun to get outside and be active. For those families, they may not return to how they were before and so the pandemic may end up restricting children’s movements and freedom even more.”
Ellie Lee, director of the centre for parenting culture studies at the University of Kent, believes we failed during the height of the pandemic, particularly in the first wave of newfound community support. Instead of getting children to participate in aid groups, “we went down the route of saying we’re going to keep you at home”. Worse, children came to be seen as vectors of disease. “I was really struck by how almost frightened adults had become of children,” she says.
How easily we shut down children’s lives speaks, according to Lee, “to the lack of seriousness with which culture has taken the problem of what’s going on with children, what we expect of them and what their lives are”.
Tim Gill, a play expert and author of Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities, says that “there will be some parents and children who gained insights into what really matters – some of the good things on their doorstep, or the value of more family time. But there’ll be others who have had a traumatic and turbulent year and a half. For the families who are in difficult circumstances, things have got worse.”
Some children did see benefits, says Skenazy, at least at the beginning. With schools and after-school clubs closed, children – particularly of so-called helicopter parents – who’d always had their lives timetabled suddenly had a lot of unstructured time to fill. Let Grow surveyed eight-to-13-year-olds in the first two months of the lockdown, and found they were more likely to describe themselves as “happy” than “sad” – 71% said their parents were letting them do more things on their own, and 72% reported finding new things to fill their time. “My favourite part was where we asked: ‘What new thing are you learning on your own?’ And it was, like, ‘bugs’, and ‘finally playing with my brother’. It sounded like old-fashioned kids filling their time.” Whether or not this continued, particularly as remote learning and timetables took hold, Skenazy isn’t sure. (They didn’t have the funding to continue the study.)
There are wider lessons coming out of the pandemic, says Gill, such as that “it’s a good idea for kids to be able to walk and cycle more, and to have better places to play in their neighbourhoods”. We have also surely learned “the value of green space and public space”. He hopes it will be something councils put more money into, “because they’ve been drastically underfunded for the past decade or so”.
Another aspect, he says, is “perhaps a realisation that technology just doesn’t cut it. There was this sort of myth that kids today don’t really need to play out or see their mates in real life, and I think the pandemic has been an enforced experiment in how far you can push that.” It wasn’t enough to just have contact online, he says, “so I would hope there’ll be a kind of a reappraisal of the importance of face-to-face friendships in children’s lives”.
Unsurprisingly, a survey for Natural England found 81% of children spent less time outside playing with friends during the pandemic. However, this has long been in decline. Children stay closer to home than previous generations, and are given independence later. My own late-80s childhood is something from another age – afternoons after school were spent playing in the streams and fields behind my friend’s house, unsupervised by adults, when we couldn’t have been older than eight. I loved it, but it’s impossible to imagine letting my own children do this. What happened?
A number of things, says Skenazy. One is the media, and a number of high-profile murders of children, which, while horrifying, are extremely rare. The modern version, she says, is the Facebook post where a mum says: “‘I was at the store yesterday and there was a man staring at my child. And he had a van outside and I have no doubt she was about to be trafficked.’”
Then there is the army of parenting experts “who are always telling us: ‘You’re doing it wrong,’ so that they have something to say and can write their book.” And there’s capitalism. There is a huge range of products you can buy to supposedly keep your child safer – in her book Skenazy writes about knee pads for babies, as if for the whole of human history babies have been injuring themselves needlessly while crawling.
“The ability to be omniscient now is unprecedented in human history – you can see where your kid is when they’re not with you, read their texts, see their pictures,” she says. “I think that’s giving parents this false idea that since they’re omniscient, they must be omnipotent.” We feel we can, or should be able to, control everything, and that if something bad happens, it will have been our fault. “Now, it’s like: ‘If only you’d had that app, if only you stayed up all night watching the heart rate of your child.’ It’s a huge burden to parents, and nobody seems to be studying what it means to grow up under total surveillance.”
All the experts are keen to stress they don’t blame parents, but the culture. There have been societal changes, says Dodd. Communities are weaker, with fewer people engaging with their neighbours. Were you to live in a street or estate where everyone knows and looks out for each other, “as a parent, you think: ‘There are lots of people around who would help them out if anything happened.’” Attitudes to what is appropriate, and a fear of being judged, also play a part. “I hear stories of people calling the police because a child has been seen out playing without their parents.” Signs reading “no ballgames”, for instance, tell children they are not welcome to play outdoors, even though in many places, those public spaces are ideal – easily and safely accessed.
Stranger danger may be overblown, but there are other real risks – more traffic, for instance. “A lot of things need to change,” to create an environment where children can play safely and independently outside, says Dodd. “It’s complex – it’s about infrastructure and access. It’s about society’s attitudes to children being out and playing in the street, being noisy.”
We are not benefiting children, either through parents overprotecting and overmonitoring them, or through society not creating an environment for unstructured and independent play. “Play is good for children in terms of expressing themselves,” says Dodd. “It also keeps them physically active, it helps relieve tensions and it helps with mental health. If they’re playing with their friends, they’re building social skills.” But beyond that, she says, “it’s about the child learning that they can solve problems, make decisions and assess risks themselves. If we do all of that for children, at some point in their life they have to do it themselves … without any practice and experience.”
There is an idea that cosseting children may lead to greater rates of anxiety and depression in young adulthood. While, according to Dodd, there isn’t evidence directly linking the two, earlier this year she published a theoretical paper that suggested play built the skills we need to prevent anxiety. “Play is about exposure to uncertainty, having to cope with things by themselves, the experience of physiological arousal – so their heart’s racing, they have butterflies in their tummy.” If children experience those in a playful setting, she says it prepares them. “They learn: ‘I can cope with uncertainty, I know how to cope with situations when things go wrong, I know that my heart might race, but that’s OK.’” Dodd believes that keeping children at home means “they’re not learning the skills they need to enable them to cope with challenging situations”.
Skenazy points to the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, a study that looks at problem-solving and creative solutions, developed in the 1960s, which has shown a decline in creativity since the 1990s. “That doesn’t surprise me because when we end up organising kids’ events and supervising them, there’s no chance for creativity.” She hears about “a passivity. Teachers say that the kids are so used to constant orders, such as: ‘Let’s get out the pencils, let’s draw now,’ that they don’t seem to be that proactive, creative, making things happen.”
There are signs things are changing as people realise the benefits of unsupervised, unstructured play – one charity, Roam, in Birmingham, runs independent play sessions in a park where under-12s are allowed to play on their own in groups of at least three for up to two hours (volunteers keep an eye from a distance), and sessions sell out within minutes.
“We’re talking about children’s freedoms, play and access to outdoors more than we have for a long time because of the pandemic,” says Dodd, “so if there ever was a moment to really think about what children need, and how we create the social and physical environment that allows those freedoms, then now’s the time.”