Many of us remember a time when, in comparison, parents were rather uninvolved in childhood.
When a parent (usually a mum) would throw the door open on weekday afternoons and tell us, “Go out and play and be home for dinner.” Our parents had no idea where we were or exactly what we were doing. There were no cell phones for keeping in touch or GPS devices for tracking.
Off we went into the wilderness of our block, our neighbourhood, our town, our vacant lots, our parks, our woods, our malls. Or sometimes, we just snuck a book and sat on the back steps.
Childhood doesn’t look that way today and many young parents don’t relate to childhood ever having been that way.
When, why, and how did parenting and childhood change? Even a cursory hunt yields a bounty of shifts. A number of important ones take place in the mid-1980s.
In 1983, one shift arose from the increased awareness of child abductions. The tragic 1981 abduction and murder of a young child named Adam Walsh became the made-for-television movie Adam, which was seen by a near record-setting 38 million people.
The faces of missing children began staring out at us over breakfast from the back of milk cartons soon after. Walsh’s father, John Walsh, went on to lobby Congress to create the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1984, and to found the television show America’s Most Wanted, which aired on Fox beginning in 1988. Our incessant fear of strangers was born.
Another shift — the idea that our children aren’t doing enough schoolwork — arrived with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, which argued that American kids weren’t competing well against their peers globally.
Since then, federal policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have fomented an achievement culture that emphasises rote memorization and teaching to the test against the backdrop of increased competition from students in Singapore, China, and South Korea, where such teaching practices are the norm.
American kids and parents soon began struggling under the weight of more homework and began doing whatever it takes to survive school, as was illuminated in the 2003 book “Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students” written by Stanford School of Education lecturer Dr. Denise Pope, and the 2010 film Race to Nowhere.
A third shift came with the onset of the self-esteem movement — a philosophy that gained popularity in the United States in the 1980s that said we could help kids succeed in life if we valued their personhood rather than their outcomes.
In her 2013 best-selling book “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way,” Amanda Ripley cites the self-esteem movement as a uniquely American phenomenon.
And a fourth shift was the creation of the playdate, circa 1984. The play-date emerged as a practical scheduling tool at a time when mothers were entering the workforce in record numbers. The combination of more parents working and the increased reliance on day care meant fewer kids were going home after school, and it was harder to find either a location or a time for play.
Once parents started scheduling play, they then began observing play, which led to involving themselves in play. Once a critical mass of parents began being involved in kids’ play, leaving kids home alone became taboo, as did allowing kids to play unsupervised.
Day care for younger kids turned into organised after-school activities for older kids. Meanwhile, concerns at the turn of that decade over injury and lawsuits prompted a complete overhaul of public playgrounds nationwide. The very nature of play — which is a foundational element in the life of a developing child — began to change.
Observing such shifts among other things, in 1990, child development researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay coined the term “helicopter parent” to refer to a parent who hovers over a child in a way that runs counter to the parent’s responsibility to raise a child to independence.
Focused on giving advice to parents of young children, Cline and Fay had their finger on the pulse of important changes that took place in American parenting in the prior decade, and which are commonplace today, twenty-five years later. That means the oldest members of the helicoptered generation turned thirty circa 2010. They are also those known as “Generation Y” or “Millennials.”
In the late 1990s, the first of the Millennial generation began going off to college, and my colleagues and I at Stanford began to notice a new phenomenon — parents on the college campus, virtually and literally.
Each subsequent year would bring an increase in the number of parents who did things like seek opportunities, make decisions, and problem solve for their sons and daughters — things that college-aged students used to be able to do for themselves.
This was not only happening at Stanford, mind you; it was happening at four-year colleges and universities all over the country, as conversations with colleagues nationwide confirmed.
Meanwhile my husband and I were raising our two little kids, and without fully realising it we were doing a good deal of helicoptering in our own home.
Excerpted from “How To Raise An Adult” by Julie Lythcott-Haims, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Julie Lythcott- Haims. All rights reserved.