February 6, 2011

From running wild to supervised play dates

Here is the prevalence of the term "play date" in Google's digitized book library (restricted to American English since this seems to be an American phrase), and here is the same from just the NYT:


The first time it appears in the newspaper of record is 1988 and takes off after that. More or less the same pattern shows up in the Ngram data.

When I first started cataloging the trends related to the crime rate about a year ago, I noted that most of the ones involving a retreat from public spaces happened before the crime rate peaked in 1992 -- more like the late '80s. For example, video game arcade revenues peaked in 1988 and went into steady decline afterward; park attendance steadily fell after the late '80s; how much people trust others (as reported by General Social Survey respondents) peaked then as well. So here's another example -- parents started removing their kids from an unsupervised world several years before the crime rate peaked.

In large part, it is this retreat from the public sphere, and locking yourself and your family indoors, that causes the crime rate to plummet. After all, if you're not out and about, then impulsive, opportunistic criminals cannot target you or your property like cars, cash, shoes, etc. They would have to plan it all out in detail far ahead of time and travel who knows how far to get you, and that's antithetical to an impulsive mugger or rapist. And with everyone locked indoors, there are far fewer people who can step on each others' toes at a bar (or wherever) and gradually escalate it into a brawl or murder.

As someone who was part of the last generation to grow up without micro-managing parents, I find the concept of a play date not only silly but bewildering. I get that parents are paranoid and want to keep their kids out of public spaces, but it's worse than them merely limiting the amount of time that kids can spend unsupervised -- even when they are allowed to go over to a friend's house, it has to be scheduled sometimes weeks in advance and monitored all the while by grown-ups. When I was in elementary school, it was no more complicated than:

Hey Mom, I'm going over to Robbie's house.

OK, have fun!

Often my mom wasn't even home to be notified -- either at work or MBA night classes -- but I went out anyway, never leaving a note or anything silly like that. If she got home and didn't see me there, obviously I was at a friend's house, at the park or the pool, hanging out at the mini-mall, or something else not worth worrying about. I'd only call home if I got invited to stay for dinner, so she could take that into account when making dinner back home.

Browsing through some of those NYT articles, several things strike me as particularly depressing about kids' lives once the helicopter parents got going:

- Although some of the kids profiled are 2 or 3 years old, where play dates may make sense since they can't even speak fluently yet, a good fraction of them were 8, 9, 10, and even 11 years old and in sixth grade. When I was 10, me and my friends roamed the neighborhood streets with no supervision as part of our summer job -- yep, just out of fourth grade and already working for a living. I really wonder about these third and fourth graders who require play dates to see other people their age -- do their parents still wipe their asses for them too?

- On the whole, the Millennial kids are not pushing back against their helicopter parents. It would be sad enough if the parents were doing what they've been doing, but it's much worse to see kids just sitting there and taking it. They clearly share a good deal of the blame, buncha pussies. Not that parents were hyper-controlling during the '60s through the '80s, but do you know what we did when they went too far in restricting our freedom? -- we disobeyed them! And sure, maybe we sometimes went too far in disobeying them, but that boundary line of what's right and wrong can only be figured out by trial-and-error on both the kids' and parents' side. It's not something like the multiplication tables or the ABCs that can be neatly distilled and packaged for the kids to absorb -- they have to make their own decisions, some of which they may regret, in order to learn where the boundaries of acceptable behavior lie.

- Play dates make kids even more reliant on their parents as a means of transportation. If two kids want to hang out, they usually set up something loose like "after school" if they plan it during recess, or "in a little bit" if they plan it over the phone. Even if they set a precise target like 4:00, there's no real penalty to the one going out if he shows up late, and the host kid won't be put out. Hey, they're just kids; they don't believe in promptness. Their parents, however, do, and the one sending out her kid would be mortified if he showed up late -- she might as well be tardy herself. Wanting to avoid this embarrassment and resultant shunning at all costs, she insists that she chauffeur her kid over there, rather than allow him to get there by himself.

Whenever I wanted to go to a friend's house, all I did was hop on my bike and since everyone lived within a 10-minute ride, it was no sweat off my back. During the past 15 to 20 years, though, letting kids ride their bikes would only encourage their independence, so that had to go. Awhile ago I showed how bike riding had changed (during the late '80s / early '90s) from something that young people did to something that 20-something SWPL types and middle-aged endurance dorks took over.

- Childless yuppie couples have extended the play date idea to their own substitute children, namely their pets. (Dogs only; cats have too much dignity to be subjected to this manipulative crap.)

Just think about it -- at some point these bubble boys will be running the country, both the government and businesses, and then we're really fucked.

8 comments:

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  2. You have struck upon one of the primary parenting disagreements my wife and I have. In my mind, there is no problem letting my 2 sons, 6 and 8, ride their bikes a block or two over to a friend's house. My wife, on the other hand, would blow a gasket at the suggestion.

    Fundamental differences growing up: I rode my bike 1-5 miles to friends' houses, hunted alone with a .22 by age 10, worked as a farm hand through pre-teen to my early teens, and a lot of other self-reliant kinds of things. My wife was a typical 80's suburban kid. There is a common childhood thread, though. While I lived rural, I actually went to middle/high school at the city/suburbia school. By a quirk of county lines and school territory, I had to ride the bus 45 minutes to mingle with the "mall kids" as I called them. I think this is important to show that I don't have a rural bias or chip on my shoulder (I greatly envied those kids growing up) to "how things should be".

    What I have witnessed with my parental peers is that the suburban kids, now parents, are the primary helicopters. I know they grew up like you, walking/riding to each others' houses, staying over without much notice, etc., because I heard the banter about the evening's or weekend's activities at school. Not discounting your crime rate hypothesis, I have some observations:

    - The expansion and prevelance of media coverage of child kidnapping, molestation, etc. has damaged the pysche of American parents. The Amber Alert is great, but now this pervasive fear underpins almost all decisions regarding children's out-of-the-home activities. I could write pages of examples, but I can best illustrate with real conversations I've had with my wife and/or other parents:

    1.
    Me: "John and Brad want to go to Fred's house, so I told them they could hop on their bikes and go over."
    Wife: "What?! No, one of us will walk with them."
    Me: "They're fine."
    Wife: "John is only 6." (as if that explains everything)
    Me: "Brad can take care of him that far."
    Wife: "No. Somebody could stop them."
    Me: "They're on bikes and know not to talk to strangers. They'll just ride away and it's only a block and in front of houses the whole way."
    Wife: "It happens all the time and nobody sees it. No. We'll walk them."

    2.
    Me: "We'll put the tent up in the back yard and they can all crash in there."
    Other: "Who's going to sleep out there with them?"
    Me: "Er, nobody? They're in the back yard. They can come in the back if they need something."
    Other: "Somebody has to be out there. You can't have little kids out there alone because somebody could sneak back there and do something."
    Me: "We have 4 houses surrounding our back yard and the kids would scream bloody murder if they heard something."
    Other: "You don't know that. People do things and things happen."

    3.
    Other: "Where are the kids?"
    Me: "They all went running over that hill. I think they're still playing tag or something because I can hear them laughing and shouting."
    Other: "You should have walked to the top of the hill to watch them. What if somebody comes up to them.?"
    Me: "They run away and come tell us?"
    Other: "But somebody could hurt one before you could help."

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  3. - The over-medication of our society has pushed down to the over-treatment of our boo-boos. When I was growing up, we had serious wound treatment supplies and a handful of band-aids for something deep, painful, or in a really annoying spot. I don't know that I ever had "children's" tylenol, aspirin, or any other pain reliever. Now, every kid has their own medical supply kit: I laugh at the every-size band-aid, neosporin, wraps, medicines, etc. that parents foist on boo-boos. In order to administer those treatments, of course a parent has to be on hand. Heaven forbid that Johnny goes outside unattended and has to suffer a skinned knee more than 5 minutes without medical attention.

    - This "life scheduling", or whatever you want to call it, seriously hampers a kid's ability to be spontanious. You touched on this with your last point, regarding the tardy kid implicating a tardy parent. It goes deeper, though. One thing I do, that drives my wife crazy, is the "drive by". If I'm near a friend's house, I have no problem going by and knocking on the door to see them in person rather than do an impersonal call. "What if they're not home?" Then we leave. "What if they're busy?" Then they don't answer, or if they do, they say they're busy and I say no problem and great to see you. "It's just rude!" How? That's more rude than foisting myself on them with a phonecall? Before cell phones, chat, and email, you couldn't "know" what someone was doing and kids were allowed to interfere with each others' parents'lives. Now, though, you can get up to the minute planning and this transfers to the parents a feeling of personal responsibility for their childrens' schedules because, now, kids are not expected to entertain themselves fully. They have to be monitored and entertained, so there is a direct imposition upon another parent's time. I feel like I could expound upon this point a lot more, but hopefully I made sense there.

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  4. The media coverage thing is strange, since you hardly see a "very special episode" of TV or a movie or, I guess more appropriately these days, a video game that tries to warn kids and their parents about dangerous people.

    The first couple seasons of Family Ties are almost all very special episodes, like the one where Mallory gets molested by a creepy family friend. About the same time, Diff'rent Strokes had that two-parter with the pedophile bike shop owner. Not to mention standalone "after school specials" on TV.

    As of the mid-'90s, you hardly see those, though. Maybe excepting My So-Called Life in 1995.

    Now the media coverage is things like To Catch a Predator. It looks so fake that you can't get really freaked out by it like you can by the very special episodes of the mid-'70s through the early '90s.

    In that Family Ties episode I mentioned, they not only show that there are bad men out there but also how confused Mallory feels, how nervous she is to tell anyone, how the first person she does tell (her own brother Alex) tries to rationalize the problem away as nothing real, etc. Justine Bateman really loses it emotionally and breaks down when she finally turns to her mother for help.

    The other thing about the To Catch a Predator show is that they send the message that, while there are bad men out there, all you have to do is keep your kids off of certain places online, and even if that fails there are cyber-police experts in white coats who can catch the bad men before anything happens. It's just like back in the '40s and '50s when everyone thought that experts in white coats could solve any problem -- the heyday of All We Have To Do Is _____.

    The very special episodes don't give any such smug message about how to keep yourself out of trouble. Danger is out there waiting for you, and you just have to be vigilant and prepared to respond to it on your own -- don't assume that just staying out of this or that part of town will make you totally safe, or that the experts and authorities will be there to prevent or repair bad things if they do happen.

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  5. I forget where I read it (somewhere on Dr. Eades' blog, I think), but in the past 10 or 20 years kids have a higher rate of broken bones and fractures. Part is probably due to the mainstreaming of nearly vegetarian diets, as well as keeping kids inside so they can't get sunlight and make vitamin D.

    But they also attributed it to kids not playing outside or horsing around inside. They're not meeting their Recommended Daily Allowance of rough-and-tumble play. So their body gets the message that things are so safe, why waste resources to make really strong bones? Then when the inevitable fall happens, their cushion is a lot weaker.

    I remember when I was 5, I went out into the front yard to pick up one of my toys and saw that the older boys on either side of our street were having what they called a "rock war" -- tearing up loose chunks of the road and heaving them at the boys on the other side. It looked just like primitive warfare.

    I'd never seen that before, thought I'd never get the chance to dive in to one ever again, so I started picking up rocks myself and throwing them at the 6th graders.

    The inevitable happened, and I got hit just above my right eye. I didn't feel much pain, but after I went in and looked in the mirror, the sight of blood streaming all around my eye freaked me out. My mom took me to the emergency room and I got 7 or so stitches, and that was that.

    The only lasting sign of that day is a small scar on my right eyebrow that doesn't grow hair. (Only visible if I tell someone and they look specifically for it.) Otherwise, no problems -- kids are built to be tough, but now they're treated as though they were elderly.

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  6. It might be helpful to see if there is a connection between declining birth rates and the rise of overprotective parenting. Due to the heir-and-the-spare phenomenon parents may be more risk adverse if they have fewer children.

    Peter

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  7. Just eyeballing the fertility data over time, there's no strong pattern one way or the other. The "baby bust" began in 1965, but Generation X did not have helicopter parents. There's also been a slight uptick in births during the '90s and 2000s, right when helicopter parents became entrenched.

    But births were shooting up from the mid '40s through the mid '60s, and while the earlier part of that had helicopter parents, kids growing up in the later '50s and '60s did not have them.

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  8. I agree that "play date" is a stupid term. I didn't even hear it until I was an adult (which makes sense looking at the graph) and it took me a while to figure out that it was what we used to call "having a friend over" and didn't have anything to do with dating.

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