The Politics of Playtime (and my obsession with helicopter parenting)

It’s been brought to my attention by some friends that I’ve repeatedly (maybe excessively) brought up the trend/accusations of “helicopter parenting” and “millennial growing up in a bubble” in my interviews. Well, here I go again, revisiting the topic…But wait! There’s a reason!

As I am emphasizing in these blogs, my own brand of leftism rejects the overly sensitive stereotype that elicits derisions like “snowflakes” and “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” or, the worst, “participation trophies.” In short, the fact that there is a considerable contingent of the left – particularly in Montgomery County – that embraces this coddled-ness actually drives me insane. I’d like to embrace the idea that the left can reclaim the grit and rough-and-tumble wildness that define a healthy existence and personal growth.

Sure, I call myself here The MoCo Millennial, but I certainly can’t claim to speak for all millennials. Among people I’ve known to varying degrees over the years, I have noticed a desire to….er…make childhood great again (sorry)… lamenting the phasing out of unstructured and unsupervised play. This sentiment isn’t shared among everyone, though. I’ve likewise known a handful of people my age who have been content with a more indoors, screen-based “safe” upbringing. I don’t want to look down on this preference – as I’ve said, the civil libertarian in me resents telling people what they should like and dislike – but I can judge them in that someone with this outlook would not make a good life partner for me down the road.

I brought this up briefly in my first interview with millennial  X-ennial MD House candidate Mila Johns:

Here, we distinguish trends that overall differentiate “late” millennials from “early” millennials with our fond recollections of having a 90s childhood.

In the first half of my interview with Councilmember Marc Elrich (I’ll talk about Part 2 in another blog), we touched on the negative side of virtual reality and the impacts of violent video games on empathy. It’s worth mentioning that Marc and I weren’t trying to get at wagging our fingers at those who prefer video games to playing outside, so much as delving into the idea of “too much of a good thing” with respect to technology. I had come up with this idea for discussion after listening to Sam Harris and Joe Rogan hypothesize that in the not-too-far future, people may end up living entirely in a VR world due to the irresistability of instant gratification versus the rewards for patience and effort and real social interaction.

Anyways. Back to “helicopter parenting.”

The reality we can’t ignore is the changing paradigm of safety, and there’s an irony in this. What may have been considered “safe” 30, 40, 50+ years ago – letting children play outside unsupervised from sun-up to sundown – has been hampered by milk carton-provoked stranger-danger of the 80s and 90s all the way to scares of child abduction that carries on to the present.

F.F.S., my mother still brings up the Chandra Levy murder from SIXTEEN YEARS AGO when she hears about me running alone, especially after dark. This, and I’m going to be 30 this year.

The irony is, though, that the greater threat of abductions and predators and abuse of children exists less so in the woods behind the house and more so on the internet.

Now enter Danielle Meitiv.

I could tell the entire story of her interactions with the Montgomery County Child Protective Services, but I’ll redirect you to read about it here. Or you could watch the interview above. “Free Range Mom” Danielle Meitiv argues that her way of parenting – that is, letting her children develop reasonable street smarts on their own – is actually standard parenting, or just, “parenting.” The idea is that children will eventually need to learn and develop life skills, and that this is accomplished best by gradually increasing the amounts of freedom and responsibility instead of sheltering children until college (and then being surprised when they go wild and/or get themselves in trouble without the capability to work their way out of it).

In the interview, I described my own childhood to Danielle, characterizing my upbringing as not overly sheltered but not particularly lenient either. I described my “healthy” tendency to break rules, such as exploring the woods across the street from the house without an adult…to which Danielle said, “You may as well put a big neon sign that says GO TO WOODS HERE.”

The thing is, my fixation on millennial “helicopter parenting” (either millennials doing the helicopter parenting or being a result of it) stems from how I lament the disappearance of the proverbial “woods behind the house” (or its urban/suburban equivalent). The childhood rite of passage of outdoor misadventures and learning experiences (again, urban or rural escapades apply), is being replaced with virtual “experiences,” which, as cyber predators have shown us, may not be superior in the safety element.

Danielle and I also addressed the role of elevated societal and academic pressure in cramping unstructured play. In a wealthy, educated, and competitive place like MoCo, what privileged child has time to play outside between school, homework, extra courses, exam prep, music lessons, organized sports, the obligatory checklist of extracurriculars…?

Bethesda Magazine even noted MoCo’s lousy physical education requirements as the focus on academic competitiveness has edged out physical activity.

As a side note, to be brutally honest, all of this is why I’m ambivalent about becoming a mother someday. I’d be torn between trying to foster an outdoor, creativity, unstructured adventure-centered childhood (probably by trying to replicate my 90s childhood) and not making my children anachronisms by making them socially and academically disadvantaged without the latest gadgets.

I would absolutely put my foot down on any kind of physical implant tracking device.

Anyways, to make this political (because we have to), I’d like to push against the idea of making this a left/right issue. The left might say helicopter parenting is a right-wing practice, being authoritarian in nature and embracing corporate dominance through material attachments and gadget loyalty. The right, meanwhile, calls out left-wing “snowflakes” for their perceived inability to be self-sufficient, being “coddled,” and for loving “big government.”

Indeed, incidents such as the Meitivs’ invoke the role-of-government debate, but “free-range childhood” is a civil libertarian position – not solidly left or right. Viggo Mortensen’s character in Captain Fantastic embodies a left-wing survivalism in distinction from the more right-wing troupe of the rugged, Wild Western huntsman.

At the end of the day, I’m a left winger, and I’m an advocate of a screen-limited, outdoor-oriented, rough-and-tumble childhood. I hope there are others out there and that we’re not a dying breed.

 

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