Hanna Rosin’s cover story in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, The Overprotected Kid, is mostly about how parenting has evolved from “hands off” to “hands always on,” in just a single generation, but it’s also about the history and psychology of playground design — a fascinating subject!
One common concern of parents these days is that children grow up too fast. But sometimes it seems as if children don’t get the space to grow up at all; they just become adept at mimicking the habits of adulthood. As Hart’s research shows, children used to gradually take on responsibilities, year by year. They crossed the road, went to the store; eventually some of them got small neighborhood jobs. Their pride was wrapped up in competence and independence, which grew as they tried and mastered activities they hadn’t known how to do the previous year. But these days, middle-class children, at least, skip these milestones. They spend a lot of time in the company of adults, so they can talk and think like them, but they never build up the confidence to be truly independent and self-reliant.
Lately parents have come to think along the class lines defined by the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau. Middle-class parents see their children as projects: they engage in what she calls “concerted cultivation,” an active pursuit of their child’s enrichment. Working-class and poor parents, meanwhile, speak fewer words to their children, watch their progress less closely, and promote what Lareau calls the “accomplishment of natural growth,” perhaps leaving the children less prepared to lead middle-class lives as adults. Many people interpret her findings as proof that middle-class parenting styles, in their totality, are superior. But this may be an overly simplistic and self-serving conclusion; perhaps each form of child-rearing has something to recommend it to the other.
I grew up as a young child in the missing children’s milk cartoon era of the 80s where you were taught never to talk to strangers, but I think my parents did a great job raising me. They were involved with sports, made sure I finished my homework, but mostly the only unbreakable rule was be home for dinner at 5pm. As much as the family dinner rule drove me crazy — since none of my other friends had anything like that — looking back at it years removed I understand the value family dinner time brought to my development.
Further, there is something to be said about the social skills learned hanging out in a neighborhood with a lot of other kids, having a bike to ride across town to your other group of friends, having to arrange/cajole/organize playing pick-up sports games, and aimlessly exploring a scary environment.