We're killing our kids with caution

The opportunities to take chances, have adventures, take responsibility are the very things denied kids in good homes


Michael Ungar, a social worker, family therapist and associate professor at the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University, is the author of a new book, Too Safe for Their Own Good.

Q: In your book you talk about the phenomenon of the bubble-wrapped kid. What’s a bubble-wrapped kid?

A: I’m talking about kids who are being denied opportunities to experience risk and responsibility. I began to notice in my practice a group of young people who were coming from quite stable, nurturing, middle-class homes, and they were showing up for one of two reasons—either they were very compliant young people with depression and anxiety and an incapacity to take on responsibility or to show much common sense in getting on with their lives, or they were coming in with very dangerous, risk-taking behaviours that they had come up with on their own to cope with what they were telling me were very restrictive or overprotective environments at home.

Q: So in both cases it was rooted in the same phenomenon?

A: In either case what they didn’t have was an opportunity to sink their teeth into some adventure, to have some responsibility, to take some risks, and so—especially the more dangerous ones—they were trying to find some way of having that adventure from what they perceived as available options, and unfortunately many of those weren’t good.

Q: How were the kids coddled or restrained?

A: They were denied a whole bunch of different things. For instance, there are far fewer expectations that kids do paid work or volunteer or get certifications than there were a generation or two ago. Things that became rites of passage, such as lifeguarding.

Q: So what are they doing instead?

A: They’re being asked to study harder, or simply being excused of any responsibilities. They’re shuttled from one structured activity to another. They’re not developing a sense of personal responsibility. They’re doing a lot of screen time—we know that from study after study. Quite simply, they’re not being given opportunities to develop the work ethics or the common sense that I think we would hope that young people would develop.

Q: What age does this start at?

A: Very young. It starts in a pattern of being hesitant to let our children climb the monkey bars in the playground. You see little kids, a dog barks at them and the parents whisk them away rather than say, “Well, that’s a dog, and dogs bark—you’ve got to deal with it.” And then, of course, we’re taking away what we perceive as dangerous toys and we’re driving them, we’re not letting them walk or learn to navigate the streets on their bicycles or their skateboards.

Q: You hardly see kids on the streets, except right in front of their houses. Kids don’t go out and explore, especially not without helmets.

A: The helmets aren’t necessarily the problem. The problem is we’re not letting them develop street sense. When my children were younger, I would sometimes take a group of them for a bicycle ride, and some of their friends had no idea that you hang to the right, or how you cross a street. Nobody had ever given them those experiences that develop common sense and get them street-savvy.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about helmets because I think they represent an interesting tension in all of this. There was some talk in Ontario recently of encouraging kids who were tobogganing to wear helmets, and I think it’s mandatory to wear bicycle helmets. When I was growing up, nobody wore helmets when they were riding their bikes, and yes, you fell down, arid yes, you got scraped, and sometimes you even hit your head, but most of us survived without too much damage.

A: There’s some reasonable equipment that keeps us safe, and I have no issue with that. In fact, I applaud the movements to have our kids safer and buckled in, but what we’ve forgotten is that if they’re done up like that we still have to provide them with risk. The helmet shouldn’t mean that they’re not bicycling on the road, it should just mean that if they do crash they’re going to be safe when they fall down. That’s how the kids get the risk-taker’s advantage. If we wrap them up and keep them safe, and we don’t let them push the limits, they’ll find their own ways to do it and they may make bad choices.

Q: Why do some kids become docile and depressed when they’re not exposed to risk?

A: They don’t develop the self-confidence to control their world. They tend to slip away, they do a lot more screen time. I think the solution to getting a kid back out there is to start with the parents themselves. You know, it’s always a source of great insight to ask parents, “What were you doing in terms of risk and responsibility and adventure-seeking behaviours when you were whatever age? And what did you learn?” I was driving mopeds on the streets when I was 14.1 learned how to control that kind of speed and that kind of engine.

Q: What about kids who react more dangerously in risk-averse homes?

A: When I work in youngoffender facilities, or child welfare settings, I commonly meet kids who make bravado statements like, “Oh, I just took 60 Valium,” or some outrageous amount of drugs, and you get the sense that what they’re desperate to show you is what they can do with their bodies, and quite often you talk to them, you meet the parents, and they come from these very stable, caring homes. What’s sometimes lacking is an opportunity for these kids to experience some amount of danger themselves. Instead, they’re hearing the words no, abstain, stop, wait—those are the messages we give our kids instead of what we need to be saying, which is yes, go ahead, I see you’re becoming a sexual being, that if you want to make that jump then we need to also offer you some responsibilities. I mean, a lot of kids love to mow the lawn.

Q: Yeah, but if the kid wants to become sexually active, or to smoke pot, giving him an opportunity to mow the lawn isn’t going to…

A: Not in that case. If you’re going to encourage kids to substitute dangerous behaviour with more manageable risk, the substitutions have to match. For instance, the kid might be selling drugs. You’d be surprised at the number of kids I’ve worked with who will accept an employment opportunity in lieu of selling drugs. It sounds a bit out there, but it’s not that unusual. And speaking of drugs, there’s been a lot of hype lately about the dangers of caffeine. Now, sure, one Red Bull after another is not a great thing, but if we keep saying, “Look, no pot, no harder drugs, nothing”—those are good messages but what are we giving them back? Would it hurt to have a drink at home with me over a meal?

Q: So you give them a couple of Red Bulls, let them bounce off the walls a bit, and…

A: Well, which would be better? If we just keep saying no-no-no-no-no, the kids are going to find other solutions.

Q: On the other hand, we hear a lot that parents can’t say no to their kids.

A: I’m actually saying the complete opposite. I’m saying we’ve got to figure out how to say yes. We can’t shut our kids down. It’s not about suppressing, it’s about substituting. A single mom had a 14-year-old daughter who kept wanting to go out to these beach parties, and there’s going to be older guys, drugs, alcohol, the whole bit, and the mom didn’t want her daughter doing this. Initially some other parents offered their daughters things like, “Well, you come home and we’ll get some pizza, and you and your girlfriends can watch movies,” and the kid basically flips you the finger. So this mother, she negotiated with the daughter and said, “Look, you don’t go to this party, I’ll pack up the car and I’ll take three of your friends over to Shediac, New Brunswick, where they have this blowout concert for 12 hours, and I’ll pay all the expenses. You can go to this concert, you walk by those great, hulking guys with the black T-shirts, and you’re going to have an adventure that’s going to surpass anything that your peers are going to have.” The girl said, “Sure, I’ll take that as a substitute.” The girl came back, she felt mature, she felt older, it was a great experience.

Q: But two weeks later, there’s another party on the beach—isn’t she going to want to go?

A: Possibly. But what I’m learning from the kids is that once they see themselves as more mature they’re willing to negotiate. Instead of the 14-year-old running out the door, the girl who has something to say doesn’t necessarily need to go to an unsupervised beach party to feel mature, she doesn’t need to become precocious in her sexuality, she doesn’t need to let her body be used that way in order to feel mature, she’s already begun to make that jump in a more responsible way. The trick then, of course, is to offer her other bodily experiences rather than this kind of unsupervised situation with drugs, alcohol and sex.

Q: You mean like tattoos or piercings?

A: Well, the piercings I can get my head around. The tattoos I have a problem with because what looks good at 14 is probably not going to look the same when you’re 44. But clothing and hair, and how we decorate our room, what we eat, some of those decisions can be put back into kids’ lives.

Q: One of the things I liked in the book was the notion that we do more damage to our kids by overprotecting them than the world woidd do if we just let them run free.

A: The research has shown that kids who are exposed to some risk-taking and who have that sort of get-out-there-and-do-it kind of attitude actually injure themselves less than kids who haven’t been challenged enough. It’s also true that every statistic shows our communities are safer today than a generation ago. Our children are less likely to be sexually assaulted, are less likely to be physically assaulted, are less likely to be sexually active, actually—no matter how you crunch that number, more likely to use birth control-more sensible in many regards in terms of alcohol use and drug use than we were a generation or two ago.

Q: Why are we hysterical about risk, then?

A: Because we have this perception every time somebody walks into a child’s bathroom in a school and sexually assaults a child…

Q: We start believing there’s a pervert in every bathroom stall.

A: Yes, the truth is that the riskiest place for our children is home. Being solicited on the Internet, physical and sexual assaults, all happen in our homes. I joke that the best thing we can do is probably send our children out the front door.

Q: Why is working, having a job as a teenager, a good thing?

A: Well, there are two sides of the coin. One is adventure and the other is responsibility.

Kids are not being raised to look after younger siblings much. We aren’t asking as much of our children, and I think that work or volunteer experiences are an opportunity for kids to have their own experiences and say, “Look, I’m older. This is one way that I can be an adult.” Work is related to status as an adult, If you’re not given that status, then how else are you going to get it?

Q: Is the fact that families are smaller contributing to coddling and risk-averse parenting?

A: One young fellow said to me, “I wish my mother wouldn’t make me her project. I’m not her project. I wish she’d have her own life.” I think we’ve made our children into our projects as parents. We shouldn’t live vicariously through them. I think sometimes there is too much focus on the child. I often say to parents, “Let’s think back to when you were growing up. Did your parents go to every single practice of every single soccer game? Not just games, practices?”

Q: Couldn’t you argue that if kids are safer than ever before, maybe bubble-wrapping them has worked?

A: Well, most of those things that have changed haven’t actually been because of parenting. They’re almost all attributable to the rather unsexy and unglamorous world of public health, occupational health and safety, road safety. It’s all about injury prevention.

Q: But many of those things are driven by government reacting to parents, by public pressure. It’s the same impulse, no?

A: Yes, but if we continue to suppress every aspect of kids’ risk-taking behaviours then inadvertently we’re not giving them the advantages that they could find in our communities now that we’ve made those communities safer. We still have to make sure our kids have unstructured time, have the responsibilities, have the dangerous toys— the pocket knives, the chemistry sets and the scooters.

Q: What are the long-term consequences of riskaverse parenting? What happens when the kids hit their twenties attd thirties?

A: What we’re seeing in the universities now. It used to be that the biggest cohort of kids who came in for counselling came for relationship issues. Now it’s anxieties.

Q: Anxiety?

A: Anxiety is the biggest referral item. And a lot of it—you know, homesickness, anxiety around performance, and anxiety about being away from home and expectations placed on them—it’s as if somehow they just don’t have the work habits or the sense of themselves being able to be in riskier situations and know that they’re going to survive it.

Q: Is it being away from home, or… ?

A: In some cases it’s an inability to function on their own away from home. If from a very young age you’ve not had to deal with the knocks of life, you’re not going to be ready for what inevitably happens to all of us. At some point we fail. You know, we need to give our kids some sense of their own responsibility for themselves, as opposed to always being the ones saying, “Well, you know, you’re great, you’re great.” Sometimes they also need to hear that, “No, that wasn’t a very good job.”

Q: That you’ve been cut, that you didn’t get the job, that you failed the test, or you didn’t make the team.

A: We’re seeing a huge amount of plagiarism at universities, a sense of no boundaries on cheating, or a sense of entitlement. Here you have anxious young people who are desperate to succeed and feel like the chips are down and they have to perform, and they haven’t, necessarily, been in opportunities where they’ve had to develop common sense or work habits.

Q: So they don’t have the tools to respond to adversity?

A: They often don’t, actually. In the other hat I wear, studying resilience-related themes—that’s where my research for this idea originally came out of—I wanted to understand how kids came out of adverse circumstances and survived and thrived. What I found was that all the conditions that are not being given, these opportunities to take chances, take responsibility for others and for yourself, those were all things that predict positive outcomes for kids growing up under very difficult circumstances, and I began to see the very same things that we know help kids get through tough situations were actually being denied kids who were in very, very good living situations, very, very safe environments at home and in the community.

Q: I would expect most parents would want to strike a balance between finding opportunities for kids to take chances while at the same time not pushing them too fast. How do you read your child to know whether or not he or she’s getting enough risk?

A: The kids themselves say they want boundaries and they want limits placed on them, they want to know that someone’s watching them, that they’re being monitored and cared for, but they really do want opportunities to strut their stuff.

Q: That’s why it’s so complicated, because they want it both ways, right?

A: Well, they do, and so usually I return to the parents themselves. I sometimes get asked, “What is the one substitution for all those bad behaviours?” and in fact the substitution that each of the families I’ve worked with—and I’ve worked with hundreds like this—if they do find a perfect substitution it usually fits with their culture, their community, their context, their ethnic backgrounds, their racial backgrounds, the way they’re seen by others, and the risks that are really present in their communities. So, you know, in one case it’s sending your 17-year-old daughter off to Europe and letting her pay if she works at Tim Hortons for a year. In another case it was just simply having a job that you can work ’til 3 in the morning at Domino’s Pizza. I had this one family where stepdad and son were fighting it out, and the rite of passage was stepdad took his son out to a bar, got him drunk. I mean, I’m not promoting that, but in a particular context in a particular family, that was the way that this kid jumped the maturity gap.

Q: Do we, as a society, have a lot of tolerance for risk-takers, people who do things their own way? It seems that we’re less and less comfortable with these sorts of behaviours.

A:  Well, there is a moral panic about kids just having any kind of fisticuffs. We’ve criminalized that, whereas a generation or two ago your parents were called to the schoolground. We’ve also medicalized exuberant behaviours, or any sort of behaviours of children that don’t fit the norm in terms of orderly fitting into classrooms. We keep kids in school so much longer. A lot of kids, frankly, who are not academically inclined would probably do a lot better if they were given opportunities to apprentice or transition out into the workforce, find vocations and occupations much earlier, and instead we box them into these wait-waitwait mentalities, sit them down in classrooms and try and teach them in academic ways. It doesn’t work.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.