iPads, Martinis and Bubble Wrap: The New American Parenting Style

Playing children

Did you ever have one of those "lightning bolt" moments when your kid says something so shocking you almost spit out your drink? I did -- only I composed myself so I didn't waste a perfectly good martini. Here's what happened: My youngest son handed his iPad to me to show me one of those stupid memes about kitten marshmallows or pandas on go-carts. This one read:

"Kids who grew up in the '80s knew that street lights coming on meant get your @ss home!"

He noticed me laughing and asked, "Why is that funny? What does that even mean?!"

I put down my drink and explained it to him. "When Daddy and I were kids, we would play outside all day long with no way for our parents to reach us because we didn't have cell phones. We had an understanding; it was time to come home when the street lights came on. If we didn't do it, Mom would flip out on us and tell us she thought we were dead."

My son looked at me with this pathetic stare like I just told him I was forced to eat dirt and wear bags as a child (which I thought was empathy over little me getting yelled at by his Gram) and gasped, "What did you DO outside for an entire day?!"

That's when the lightning bolt hit me.

When did kids become more afraid of boredom than they are of parents?! Those memes are funny and all, but they may as well be talking about having to wash your clothes down by the river or hitch up the wagon to go to the store. The concept of leaving our children outside all day without contact is not only ancient history, it's unfathomable to parents today. An ideal from the good ole days that most cannot even wrap their heads around. It's not an issue of lazy children who refuse to play, it's an issue of fear-based parenting which won't allow us to leave our children out of our sight for a nanosecond -- let alone several hours. We used to call this phenomenon "helicopter parenting," but in recent years, we've flown right by the helicopter and gone straight to packing our kids in bubble wrap! It's the transitional equivalent of going from walking our toddlers on leashes (very bad), to giving our 1st graders tablets and smart phones and pushing them in strollers because walking and being bored makes them whine (even worse).

I realized the depth of our madness when I visited Europe recently. I had expected to find parenting styles much like the U.S., only slightly more. Instead, I found a whole new world of parents and children who not only spend a great deal of time outside, but sometimes, the kids were out there ALONE and they didn't even have PHONES!!!! Kids on the playground unsupervised, playing soccer, riding skateboards, walking home from school in groups, at the grocery stands, walking dogs, sitting on walls... all without adult supervision. Once in a while, I would see them doing stupid stuff and not get hurt! (or maybe only a little).

I did see some parents too, but they weren't Bubble Wrap Parents. I could tell because they did things like let their kids ride the big wheel across the street next to them without screaming and holding on to them the whole time. They also let their kids play on the cobblestone of the piazza (even though it was kind of dirty) while the adults leisurely drank wine and ate tapas with their friends. And here's the kicker: If the kids got up and ran to another kid, they waved to the other family! No jumping out of their seat and chasing them, no explaining that their child struggles socially or that they have a "no touching rule"... they just waved! It was eye opening... and it got me thinking:

Bubble Wrap Parents can't possibly expect their kids to play outside alone all day. How could they?

They can't even let them go down the sliding board by themselves for fear they might scrape a knee or discover a fear of heights. What Bubble Wrap Parent today is going to trust their child to pay attention to the street light cue when they won't even make them listen to an alarm clock or egg timer because it "disturbs their natural circadian rhythms" and "causes them excessive stress?" Bubble-Wrapped Kids would never be allowed to play a pickup game of ball without a coach and referee to make sure rules are followed and everyone is treated fairly. And why would a child want to make mud pies or flower wreaths when they know they'll just have to listen to their Bubble Wrap mom scream about bacteria and allergens for the next four hours and have to visit the nutritionist for a juice cleanse?

Let's face it: Playing outside all day without structure and protection just poses too many risks to the perfect developmental needs of today's fragile, Bubble-Wrapped Kids.

Fortunately, like the person who created that streetlight meme, I am one of those kids who grew up in the '70s and '80s. We were what you might call "free range" kids. It was the best of times, and it was the suckiest of times. Not only were we free to just be kids, we also had a ton more responsibility... and accountability. Many of us were babysitting other people's kids by 12 years old and holding down paper routes by 13. We weren't harmed or traumatized by our freedom or responsibility... we were enriched by it.

Kids today don't have the level of independence we had back then and they don't have even a fraction of the responsibility either. But it's not entirely their fault. If today's parents really want to be able to get back some of those good ole days that we enjoyed and which made us the great people we are today, they need to realize that kids cannot breathe, grow and thrive in a protective, layered world where nothing ever goes wrong and no one ever gets hurt. If they could even fathom following a few of the hands-off parenting methods that our parents and grandparents used with us, they may find their kids might actually take the opportunity to cut off the bubble wrap, get off the iPads and go play outside all day long... or at least until we text them for dinner.