We worry that if we don't follow our kids at the playground they will fall and suffer some horrible injury. We worry that if we let our kids ride their bicycles to school they will be hit by a car. Few among us let our children go anywhere alone – to school, to the store, to the library. Stranger danger lurks everywhere. Parenting has become paranoia.
Most parents know the benefits of taking off the bubble wrap: They will raise children who are resilient, self-confident, independent and, let's face it, probably happier. ParticipACTION's annual report card on physical activity in children and youth, this year titled The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors, emphasizes the fact that by protecting kids from the bogeyman of playing outdoors, whether alone or with minimal supervision, we are exposing them to very real and pressing health problems. "Is your safety net actually worse than the imaginary monsters that are outside," asks Dr. Mark Tremblay, chief scientific officer of the ParticipACTION report card. "Yes, indeed. That is the case."
This year, the overall physical activity of Canadian kids received a grade of D- for the third straight year, in the report card on physical activity for children and youth. Only nine per cent of kids ages five to 17 meet the physical guidelines of 60 minutes of heart-pumping activity each day. Not getting that daily activity puts a huge number of children at greater risk of developing a host of diseases, including type-2 diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.
"It's pretty clear we're creating problems with long-term health by setting lifestyle trajectories on ones that are going to be associated with accelerated chronic disease," Tremblay says.
Our fear of exposing kids to risk is largely to blame, according to the new report.
"We may be so focused on trying to intervene in our children's lifestyles to make sure they're healthy, safe and happy, that we are having the opposite effect," the report states. "We overprotect kids to keep them safe, but keeping them close and keeping them indoors may set them up to be less resilient and more likely to develop chronic diseases in the long run."
Personally, I'll be the first to admit that I am terrified – cellular level, the-world-is-ending terrified – of what might happen to my kids if I let them out of the house to go play alone wherever they wished, just be back for dinner. Never mind that that is exactly the childhood that me and everyone I grew up with had. Something has changed, and it is difficult to pin down exactly what that is. There is the pressure to enroll kids in organized sports and sign them up for piano lessons. We don't want the added stress and complication of dealing with an injured kid when we're already juggling too much as it is. We've been exposed to too many awful stories of child abduction. Mostly it is an issue of control, and our fear of what might happen if we were to give some of it up.
The report goes on to list the many benefits of outdoor play that multiple studies have identified: better-developed motor skills, social behaviour, independence and conflict resolution skills, among others. It also makes kids much more likely to meet Canada's physical activity guidelines.
Culturally, we have spent a huge amount of time and effort detailing the problem of helicopter parenting. And for good reason, too. Not only is it the defining parenting problem of our time, it is also incredibly complex and multifaceted. The growing backlash against the culture of hyper-protection, particularly when police or security are called when children are allowed to walk home from the park without an adult, is proof of how out of control the problem has become.
But as the problem becomes more and more clear, we need to spend a proportional amount of time and effort creating solutions.
Regardless, being told to just "Get out of the way and let them play," as the report does, is something that rationally I know makes sense. But in terms of the real life anxieties of parenthood is not in the least bit persuasive. Nothing this deeply-rooted in the cultural psyche is so easily solved.
We can't simply blame scaredy-cat parents, either, says Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Kids movement.
"Most articles about what's wrong with kids today point directly at the parents," she says. "There's not much a parent can do if you want to send your kid outside to play and the playground is closed after school because of liability concerns, there are no other children outside because everybody is in an organized sport."
As well, some parents are concerned over how they would be perceived if they did let our kids roam free.
"They're worried that when the neighbour looks outside the window and sees a child outside calls 911 to report a neglected child," Skenazy says.
Blaming individual parents ignores the scope of the problem. "It's the whole culture that has determined that children should not be outside," Skenazy says.
To its credit, the ParticipACTION report includes recommendations for a wide array of people and institutions to help address the problem, for parents to schools to the media.
The recommendations range from asking health professionals to promote children's connection with nature to asking attorneys general to create reasonable liability limits for municipal governments.
Alone or together, the recommendations won't solve the problem. But they are a step in the right direction. As the report reminds us, we need to keep our kids safe in a way that is good for their health and well-being. Otherwise, are we really keeping them safe?