Acton Institute Powerblog

Parenting after the pandemic: More freedom, less ‘safetyism’

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Whatever one thinks of the prudence of the lockdowns as a means for containing the virus, they inadvertently doubled as an extreme experiment in what happens to children when they are over-sheltered and over-protected from the outward journeys of daily life. Yet, to a lesser degree, that experiment was already well underway before the pandemic ever began. […]

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Should parents prioritize extreme safety or thoughtfully push their kids toward independence and self-reliance? It’s a question that moms and dads have long grappled with, and in light of the recent waves of lockdowns and school closures, there are likely plenty of lessons to be learned.

Alas, in addition to the many lives lost to COVID-19, the pandemic has led to significant suffering among children. While some have experienced severe learning loss with tilting disparities, others have struggled to cope with the effects of social isolation, leading to an increase in teen suicides and a string of other mental health-related issues.

Whatever one thinks of the prudence of the lockdowns as a means for containing the virus, they inadvertently doubled as an extreme experiment in what happens to children when they are over-sheltered and over-protected from the outward journeys of daily life. Yet, to a lesser degree, that experiment was already well underway before the pandemic ever began.

“Childhood was already shrinking,” writes Lois Collins at Deseret News. “The footprint of tasks that children were allowed to do was growing smaller along with the boundaries of the area many have been allowed to roam. Many tasks are now done for children, rather than by children. Then COVID-19 landed hard on childhood and play and socialization were largely put on hold.”

According to AEI’s Naomi Schaefer Riley, the destruction appears to be significant:

It is not just the learning loss, though the fact that 2 million kids were missing from school this year does not bode well for future academic success. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 31% increase in mental health-related doctor’s visits for kids in 2020 compared to 2019.

In an article published in February, NPR found after conducting interviews with providers in seven states that “more suicidal children are coming to their hospitals.” Dr. Vera Feuer, director of pediatric emergency psychiatry at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of Northwell Health in New York, has seen a slight increase in 10- to 11-year-olds attempting, but the majority are teenagers. The number has doubled from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020 at the emergency room at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, in California, says psychologist Marisol Cruz Romero. Kids have suffered from the isolation of the lockdowns — and many are looking forward to going back into the world — but a year of being at home has also instigated or exacerbated anxiety about social situations for many children.

These are not just data points. They represent real stories of real struggles from countless children and families across the country.

ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis has written at length about many of these situations, chronicling the loneliness, anxiety, and sense of isolation that many children have faced, as well as the ways such tragedies spread across families and communities. When life is lived in a vacuum of meaningful relationships and independent discovery, it can be hard to remember one’s purpose.

Given that previous pandemics lacked the technology for life to go on remotely, there isn’t a strong historical precedent for the levels of prolonged isolation that many have recently endured. For this reason, the lockdowns are likely to represent far more than a minor blip on the path of many children’s emotional and psychological development.

“There’s a difference between a stressor that makes your life unpleasant and intolerable and a stressor that takes away good things,” says Nick Allen, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oregon (quoted by MacGillis). “What’s happening is that we’re taking away high points in people’s lives that give them reward and meaning. That may have an effect over time. The initial response is not as difficult as something that’s stressful, but over time, the anhedonia, the loss of pleasure, is going to drive you down a lot more.”

Allen is commenting on extreme situations, of course — spurred by school closures, marked by teenage suicides, and routinely explained away as necessary precautions that protected other vulnerable people from other external threats.

As the pandemic begins to fade, we are shifting away from taking away freedoms out of supposed necessity. Yet we should be careful that we don’t revert to those parental “lockdowns” of old, replacing “necessity” with our cultural preference for safety at all costs.

In their book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt examine those cultural forces at length. Writing in 2018, well before the rise of COVID-19, they observe a decades-long cultural shift toward highly monitored play environments and heavily structured days and weeks for children. Given recent evolutions in smartphone technology, many children were living “device-driven lives” well before the rise of virtual schooling. And the results have not been good.

Surveying studies from an intersection of psychologists, social scientists, and economists, Lukianoff and Haidt conclude that parenting trends are pushing kids toward social deprivation, which in turn is leading to increased anxiety, diminished social skills, and fragility in the face of conflict and adversity. Sound familiar?

The individual effects are tragic, and they have plenty of bearing on the flourishing of all else. Reminding us of Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion about the “spirit of association,” Lukianoff and Haidt note that healthy, free societies rely not on intrusive government rules and protective policymaking, but on connected communities through free, virtuous, and “antifragile” human beings. Even without the boogeyman of pandemic-era lockdowns, parents have plenty of cultural restrictions that are worth resisting when it comes to the ways we disciple our children.

Using the decline of free play as one example, Lukianoff and Haidt explain how it is in the mundane corners of everyday life (in this case, parenting) that we can begin to prepare our children for democracy in a free, prosperous, globalized, and (now) post-pandemic age:

Citizens of a democracy don’t suddenly develop this art on their eighteenth birthday. It takes many years to cultivate these skills, which overlap with the ones that [psychologist] Peter Gray maintains are learned during free play. Of greatest importance in free play is that it is always voluntary; anyone can quit at any time and disrupt the activity, so children must pay close attention to the needs and concerns of others if they want to keep the game going. They must work out conflicts over fairness on their own; no adult can be called upon to side with one child against another.

[Economist Steve] Horwitz points out that when adult-supervised activities crowd out free play, children are less likely to develop the art of association: “Denying children the freedom to explore on their own takes away important learning opportunities that help them to develop not just independence and responsibility, but a whole variety of social skills that are central to living with others in a free society. If this argument is correct, parenting strategies and laws that make it harder for kids to play on their own pose a serious threat to liberal societies by flipping our default setting from “figure out how to solve this conflict on your own” to “invoke force and/or third parties whenever conflict arises.”

Correcting these norms will help our kids become stronger, happier, and more responsible members of society, and in turn, it will help our society remain free.

Rather than relishing some kind of “new normal” of safety and security — continuing to over-insulate our kids in their interactions outside the home — we have the opportunity to empower them with freedom, raising young people who have the health, virtue, and wherewithal to confront social challenges with wisdom and strength.

Perhaps the lockdowns were necessary. Perhaps they were not. Regardless, now that most children have largely resumed the mundane churn of daily life, the fruits of even the slightest return to freedom and human relationship are more evident than ever.

We should be grateful for that glorious return. But in celebrating the end of the pandemic, we should take the chance to reconsider the status quo of safetyism that long preceded it.

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.