The Consequences of Giving Our Children Better Lives Than We Had

The conversation came up during dinner, and I thought about for a bit.  It was mentioned that Gordon Ramsay is much more of a human to the kids on his MasterChef Junior show than he is to the adults in his other shows.  Someone else brought up that she never would have allowed her kids to do a lot of the things in the kitchen that the kids competing on the show do.  Too dangerous.  What if something catastrophic happened?

I get it.  We want to protect our kids from anything that could possibly hurt them.  They are part of us, and their pain is ours.  And, to be blunt, they don’t have the judgment that we have.  They easily get into sticky situations that we know better how to avoid, especially when open flames or butcher knives are involved.  If I allow myself, I can have spontaneous kitchen nightmares about the worst possibly scenario happening to my youngest niece.  It’s a natural instinct for us to be protective.

But has it gone too far?  There is a reason human minds and nervous systems are built the way they are.  Compared with other living creatures, we are superior at learning from our mistakes.  We touch a hot stove, we figure out with incredible accuracy (even at a very, very young age) why we are feeling so much pain, and the experience and memory are indelibly and irreversibly etched into our nervous systems.  We NEVER do it again… unless we have a VERY good reason to do so.  We actually become better and more competent people when this happens.  We become more human.

The same goes for other experiences that we have either mothered or legislated out of the lives of our children.  It’s too dangerous for children to spend time playing in the woods.  It’s too dangerous for children to walk to school.  It’s too dangerous for children to take the bus or train into downtown and explore without adult chaperoning.  It’s too dangerous to hang upside down on the monkey bars.  It’s too dangerous for children to talk to unknown adults.  It’s too dangerous (for everyone else, apparently) for kids to hang out (aka, loiter) in public in groups of more than three.  It’s too dangerous to be a child these days.

Ironically, all of this preemption of childhood has not led to early maturation.  One might think that a child not allowed to be a child would simply become wise beyond her years, but the opposite usually happens instead.  A child prevented from being a child extends her childhood into adulthood until she has finally and sufficiently experienced the physical and/or emotional pain-learning feedback loop that should have occurred earlier in her life.  I hear adults complain on a regular basis about how immature their 20- and 30-year-old children are.  I would wager my meager salary on the explanation that they are so childish at such a late age precisely because they were not allowed to be childish when it was appropriate for them to be so.

This is just my hunch based on my own experience.  I don’t really have the time to find out if research supports it, but if it is true, it has implications for all sorts of social problems.  Adolescent drug and alcohol use.  Workforce participation among the younger generations.  Sexual promiscuity.  Absentee fathers.  Even urban design and policy.  We have tried to protect our children from the difficult portions of life, with the goal that they will have better lives than we had, but, in the end, it’s a fool’s errand.  If we succeed, then we’ve failed to prepare our kids for reality outside of the bubble we’ve constructed for them.  However, we often don’t succeed, and once our teenagers discover the difficulties of reality, many of them see escape as their only option.  After all, they never learned how to face the pain… and growth… that those challenges bring.

When I think about the most competent and mature young people I know, without fail, I find childhoods with significant freedoms to explore, experience pain and failure, and learn.  They were allowed to be children, and that made them much more likely to grow up to be adults.  When they left home (yes, they left home!), they knew how to solve problems, deal with difficult people, rebound from setbacks, and survive and even thrive on their own in a complex world with many obstacles… without resorting to some sort of drug.  At the very least, they knew how to cope.  More often than that, they simply knew how to kick ass.  I’m proud and envious of their young competence.  It took me 30 years to reach such maturity.