It is not often that one article can spur combined emotions of fear, guilt, anger, and resentment in me. This past week, the New York Times Magazine featured an article about a father trying to be an anti-helicopter parent. On the one hand, I share his sentiment of the sadness of the disappearance of community and children’s play and the over-scheduling of children’s activities. I also certainly don’t want to be a helicopter mom. In theory, I like his ideas of opening up his home to others and creating an environment where children can play without the straightjacket of parental protection. Yet, there is much I question in his philosophy.
First, his equating masculinity with rugged play and risk-taking is problematic. We are finally moving to a place where people do not assign strict gender roles as frequently. We even are seeing post-gender names becoming popular. I don’t want to return to a time when we need to assign specific traits exclusively to boys or girls.
Second, this story raises the question of what role class plays. He looked at other communities of a lower class than his as a model for his environment. However, it is one thing to have no choice but to create a community-based daycare so kids have a safe place to go in the summer when their parents can’t afford camp, and it is entirely another to have the money to create some version of a wealthy playground so that kids can engage in risky play. The ability to choose risk is itself a privilege. Not as widely reported are times when parents of modest means have no choice but to engage in what’s labeled as risky behavior for their children. Instead of being lauded as creative parents, they are prosecuted.
The role of the law when it comes to parenting is another issue I have with the family featured in the article. When the reporter questioned the father about the potential litigious environment he has created within his backyard, where kids can play on the roof of a house, he laughed. He isn’t worried about lawsuits because he has the means to defend himself if faced with a protracted lawsuit. Again, this is a form of privilege that he seems to take for granted. In fact, a constant refrain I hear from wealthy folks is often the phrase “I could (or should) sue him.” The idea of lawsuits as a weapon of power is reserved for the powerful.
I also question his thinking that children’s play will naturally work out for the best. As the reporter opined, the “Lord of the Flies” mentality is just as likely to come about.
The father’s philosophy is appealing because the idea of returning to an age of casual, less formalized play is attractive to a society in which too much of childhood is constrained. Yet, I’m not sure that going to the other extreme and creating manufactured risks in your backyard is the answer.
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