Controversies about "free-range parenting" illuminate today's scarred cultural landscape. Neighbors summon police in response to parenting choices the neighbors disapprove. Government extends its incompetence with an ever-broader mission of "child protection." And these phenomena are related to campus hysteria about protecting infantilized undergraduates from various menaces, including uncongenial ideas.
The Meitivs live in suburban Montgomery County, which is a bedroom for many Washington bureaucrats who make their living minding other people's business. The Meitivs, to encourage independence and self-reliance, let their 10- and 6-year-old children walk home alone from a park about a mile from their home.
For a second time, their children were picked up by police, this time three blocks from home. After confinement in a squad car for almost three hours, during which the police never called or allowed the children to call the Meitivs, the children were given to social workers who finally allowed the parents to reclaim their children at about 11 p.m. on a school night. The Meitivs' Kafkaesque experiences concluded with them accused of "unsubstantiated" neglect.
Today's saturating media tug children beyond childhood prematurely, but not to maturity. Children are cosseted by intensive parenting that encourages passivity and dependency, and stunts their abilities to improvise, adapt and weigh risks. Mark Hemingway, writing at the Federalist, asks: "You know what it's called when kids make mistakes without adult supervision and have to wrestle with the resulting consequences? Growing up."
Increased knowledge of early childhood development has produced increased belief in a "science" of child rearing. This has increased intolerance of parenting that deviates from norms that are as changeable as most intellectual fads.
"Intensive parenting" is becoming a government-enforced norm. Read "The day I left my son in the car" (Salon.com), Kim Brooks's essay on her ordeal after leaving her 4-year-old in the car as she darted into a store for about five minutes.
Writing in the Utah Law Review, David Pimentel of Ohio Northern University notes that at a moment when "children have never been safer," government is abandoning deference to parents' discretion in child rearing. In 1925, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of parents "to direct the upbringing and education of children."
Today, however, vague statutes that criminalize child "neglect" or "endangerment" undermine the social legitimacy of parental autonomy. And they ignore the reality that almost every decision a parent makes involves risks. Let your child ride a bike to school, or strap her into a car for the trip? Which child is more at risk, the sedentary one playing video games and risking obesity, or the one riding a bike? It is, Pimentel says, problematic for the legal system to enforce cultural expectations when expectations, partly shaped by media hysteria over rare dangers such as child abductions, are in constant flux.
Time was, colleges and universities acted in loco parentis to moderate undergraduates' comportment, particularly regarding sex and alcohol. Institutions have largely abandoned this, having decided that students are mature possessors of moral agency.
But institutions have also decided that although undergraduates can cope with hormones and intoxicants, they must be protected from discomforting speech, which must be regulated by codes and confined to "free speech zones."
Uncongenial ideas must be foreshadowed by "trigger warnings," lest students, who never were free-range children and now are as brittle as pretzels, crumble. Young people shaped by smothering parents come to college not really separated from their "helicopter parents."
Such students come convinced that the world is properly devoted to guaranteeing their serenity, and that their fragility entitles them to protection from distressing thoughts. As Penn State historian Gary Cross says, adolescence is being redefined to extend well into the 20s, and the "clustering of rites of passage" into adulthood marriage, childbearing, permanent employment "has largely disappeared." Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Cross says that "delayed social adulthood" means that "in 2011, almost a fifth of men between 25 and 34 still lived with their parents," where many play video games: "The average player is 30 years old." The percentage of men in their early 40s who have never married "has risen fourfold to 20 percent."
In the 1950s, Cross says, with Jack Kerouac and Hugh Hefner "the escape from male responsibility became a kind of subculture." Today, oldies radio and concerts by septuagenarian rockers nurture the cult of youth nostalgia among people who, wearing jeans, T-shirts and sneakers all the way, have slouched from adolescence to Social Security without ever reaching maturity.