Perched on tippy toes my little man peruses the cookie selection and makes his choice. We enjoy our sweet stash in our favourite blue cafe as we enthusiastically discuss dinosaurs, bugs and the underestimated pleasure of choc chips.
As we finish, my fearless leader guides me on an adventure down the hill and over the green to the waterfront. Offering to hold his hand down the stairs, I’m met with the cutest rejection ever, “No Mama, I’m leading the way”. His growing independence breaks my heart while simultaneously filling me with maternal pride on a daily basis.
Around the corner we arrive at the greatest miracle of all: an empty playground. I revel in the serenity of having it to ourselves although I know it won’t last long. Within minutes, a crew of eight energetic toddlers arrive on the scene. Physically connected by a long harness, their experienced carer unravels them as they huddle in a circle for a pre-play pep talk.
I can’t help overhearing the mantra being repeated; “Climb UP the stairs, go DOWN the slide!”.
The kids play for twenty minutes and my son joins their pint-size clan playing tag; expending seemingly limitless three-year-old energy. Their carer is run ragged wiping noses, offering reassurance and trying to keep everyone safe. I don’t envy her job; for me, keeping up with one child is challenging enough.
I observe her puzzled expression as I high-five my son after he climbs up the slide breaking the “rules” she has set for her tiny tribe. All of a sudden I hear a whistle blow and as if a switch has been flicked, each child stops in their tracks, sprinting back to their carer. Play time is over. She reconnects the harness and as swiftly as they arrived, they vanish as she leads them up the hill.
Peace returns and I contemplate what I’ve just witnessed. I’m gobsmacked. I can’t believe how quickly and obediently the spirited children froze, dutifully returning to their ringleader as if it were a well-practiced military operation. My son willingly concedes to my requests but our relationship is a two-way street; full of mutual respect, passionate negotiation and inevitable compromise.
My life would undoubtedly be easier if he was blindly submissive, but striving for it has never been my aim.
My perspective is obviously skewed by my own experience yet I can’t help noticing how the interaction made me feel: a hint of sadness as I wonder if their young spirits may have been slightly broken in the training process. While I appreciate the carer’s rules made it safer to simultaneously manage so many kids, I reflect on research I did for a recent post suggesting anxiety is on the rise as modern kids are losing their sense of internal control.
As it turns out, this cultural shift is one of the greatest threats to our children’s ability to achieve long term happiness. It erodes individualism, undermines decision making abilities and predisposes children to mental and emotional health issues. The scientific term used to describe this phenomenon is locus of control; simply referring to whether a person feels they have control over their own lives (internal locus of control) or whether they believe their life is controlled by outside forces (external locus of control).
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, evaluated results from a questionnaire called the Children’s Nowicki-Stricklund Internal-External Control Scale from the 1960’s through to 2002. She discovered an alarming move away from an internal towards an external locus of control in children of all ages with the trend being even more pronounced in younger children.
Why is this a concern? Because children with a bias towards externality are more likely to focus on goals such as materialism and status, rather than pursuing intrinsic aims which bring true and lasting happiness. They experience a sense of helplessness, decreased self-control, and a predisposition to narcissism, anxiety and depression. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, believes the decline of free play is largely responsible; after all, play is the only part of a child’s world in which they’re freely able to express their control.
But, it’s not only what we removed from children’s lives, it’s what we replaced it with: an unhealthy level of adult control.
Testing boundaries and finding their limits gives children a sense of accomplishment, yet as parents we’re constantly concerned with keeping them physically safe. In our fear-driven world, we attempt to stay one step ahead of young children who seem preoccupied with revealing danger, so we can ensure they make it to their next birthday.
But, in our heroic attempts to keep our kids physically safe, are we sacrificing their mental and emotional health? Have we created a world that is so sanitized, so orderly, controlled by bells and whistles, rules and schedules, that we’ve forgotten the value of what it means to be wild and free? Are we unconsciously sabotaging our children’s happiness?
I think labelling people’s behaviour can be counterproductive, so I’ve never liked the label “helicopter parent”, which describes parents who hover over their child’s every move. But, I’m beginning to appreciate it’s relevance as it extends beyond the playground and permeates every aspect of our children’s lives.
I believe we’ve become helicopter parents because we live in a helicopter society.
A society that tells us kids need discipline and structure. A society that suggests we can’t trust our babies to let us know when they’re hungry, tired or need comfort. A society that claims babies have the ability to manipulate us. A society that encourages us to believe parenting “experts” rather than our own instincts.
In short, a helicopter society pressures us to conform, to bury our instincts and instead follow a misguided rulebook, while quietly undermining our parenting confidence. But, perhaps most dangerously, it communicates to children that they’re incapable of knowing what they, themselves, need.
So, it’s no surprise our children feel they’re not in control of their own lives, because by and large, they’re not. And if we buy what society is selling, going against what young minds need in order to flourish, our kids pay the price. This new understanding has had a profound effect on my consciousness as a parent; I reflect on the level of control my son has over his own life and I endeavour to give him as much as I can within the bounds of safety and practicality. So, I’ll let my son climb up the slide, but more importantly, we’ll continue to deep dive into wild and natural places which are infinitely more appropriate for testing and stretching the limits of young minds and bodies, than any manmade playground.
Our children are wild things; they’re innocent, curious little creatures who need our guidance, but not our overarching control. If we can turn a blind eye to society’s judgments, smile as we join our kids climbing up the slide and trust our innate instincts the future is bright for our children. Because what they need is simple; time, freedom, respect, unconditional love, honesty and authenticity. Kids are resilient; they don’t need perfect parents, there’s no such thing.
What they need are brave guides willing to advocate for their needs, to go against the grain of society in order to go with the grain of natural childhood.