Capable Kids

When I first started going to elementary school in Akron, Ohio in the early 1960s, I walked to school with my brother. The next year, when my sister was old enough to go to school, she walked with us, too. It was a journey of about 10 blocks, and we knew the route by heart. When we got to the area around the school, we would encounter groups of kids who had walked to school from other parts of the neighborhood, and an older kid wearing a Safety Patrol belt would let us know when to cross the street to get to the school itself.

This sounds like one of those “I walked three miles to school in the snow” codgerdom tales, but it’s not. Having grade school age kids walk unaccompanied to school in those days was an entirely normal activity, and no one gave it a second thought. We had been taught the route, we knew the street names and the turns we had to take, we had memorized our phone number, and we knew to talk to a policeman or to an adult if there were some kind of problem. But there never was a problem, and our walks to and from school were entirely uneventful. Everyone did it, and it was no big deal.

At some point between then and now, things changed. An interesting article in Psychology Today looks at those changing views. The shift in parenting concepts were captured in a book written several years ago called Adult Supervision Required by Markella Rutherford, who analyzed 565 articles and advice columns about parenting that appeared in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Parents. A 1966 article in Good Housekeeping, for example, captured the view that prevailed among the parents in my neighborhood in Akron: ““A six- to eight-year-old can be expected to follow simple routes to school, be able to find a telephone or report to a policeman if he is lost, and to know he must call home if he is going to be late. A nine- to eleven-year-old should be able to travel on public buses and streetcars, apply some simple first aid, and exercise reasonable judgment in many unfamiliar situations.”

Rutherford’s book shows that, by the 1980s, the notion of child capability and the presumed value of child independence that were generally accepted in the 1960s had been replaced by the view that children need to be monitored and protected, pretty much at all times. Rutherford describes the significant change in approach as follows: “For example, children walked unaccompanied to school, roamed around and played in neighborhoods alone and in groups, rode their bikes all over town, hitch-hiked around town, and ran errands for their parents, such as going to the corner store or post office. These descriptions of freedoms to roam have disappeared from contemporary advice. Instead, parents today are admonished to make sure that their children are adequately supervised by an adult at all times, whether at home or away from home.”

The “helicopter parent” concept of constant monitoring when a kid is outside hasn’t been the only change. Rutherford found that parents are now advised to be much more permissive about kid choice in the home, about things like what to eat and when to go to bed, and that the messaging to parents also changed about the value and expectations of children helping out around the house and doing chores.

The key question in this analysis is: has the change in messaging about approaches to parenting been good for children, or not? Does increased adult supervision affect development of children’s sense of their own capabilities, ability to think and act independently, and personal responsibility? The author of the Psychology Today article linked above thinks the trend is a negative one, and has helped to produce increased mental health problems for kids and declines in creative thinking.

Determining causal connections is always difficult, and debatable–but it is interesting to see how core concepts of parenting have changed dramatically over only a few decades. And you do wonder: if you treat children as capable at an earlier age, and let them exercise some personal responsibility, does that help to build a core sense of capability that will serve children well as they age and assume increasing control over their own lives?