Play and Stranger Danger

From Sunday’s New York Times Book Review:

Does Our Cultural Obsession With Safety Spell the Downfall of Democracy?, by Thomas Chatterton Williams, reviews two books, including THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (the latter being the author of one of my favorite books, The Righteous Mind).

The book,

which expands on a widely circulated 2015 article in The Atlantic, identifies what the authors refer to as “the three Great Untruths” of the current moment: “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”; “always trust your feelings”; “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

An excerpt from their book is in the Sunday Review section of the Times: How to Play Our Way to a Better Democracy.

The key word is play, and the culprit is over-protective parents and the ginning up of fear of strangers by right-wing sites.

Young mammals play, and in doing so they expend energy, get injured and expose themselves to predators. Why don’t they just stay safe? Because mammals enter the world with unfinished nervous systems, and they require play — lots of it — to finish the job. The young human brain “expects” the child to engage in thousands of hours of play, including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and even (within limits) acts of exclusion, in order to develop its full capacities.

Another trend that reduced outdoor free play is the grossly exaggerated fear of “stranger danger.” The spread of cable TV gave us more programming focused on rare but horrific cases of child abduction. Those fears, combined with the long, slow decline of trust in neighbors and fellow citizens, gave rise to a belief by the 1990s that persists today: Children who are not in sight of a responsible adult are at risk of abduction, so parents who allow unsupervised outdoor play are bad parents. The authorities should be notified.

This ties in to availability bias, the way TV news, for example, makes us think that isolated examples of child abduction (or terrorist rampages) are to be greatly feared, no matter how rare they actually are.


My own background is curious in this regard; I should document this separately. I grew up with parents who themselves grew up in small Illinois towns, what I think of as Bradbury-esque Green Towns, small enough for everyone to know one another, at least by reputation. (I did in fact live in one of these towns, Cambridge Illinois, for three or four months over one semester and summer.) In my earliest life we lived in a remote desert town, Apple Valley, where I took a school bus to the elementary school at least 5 miles away, and where at home we had virtually no neighbors, let alone neighbors with kids I might have played with. I was an isolated child, and learned how to entertain myself on my own – not with books, at that young age, as far as I can recall, but with toy cars and playing in the desert sands. My father’s career took us to the suburbs of Los Angeles when I was 6 or 7, and once settled there, in Reseda, I would walk to elementary school, about half a mile, and then walk straight home again. The option of going over to other kids’ houses after school to play simply never appeared, not even to those of my best friends at school – Milton Lewis and Gary Wein – because they lived in other directions from my walking straight home. This is the kind of thing you don’t realize until decades later. I’m certain, after all this time, that this was a legacy of my parents’ fears, especially my mother’s, about their children being loose in the big city, where life wasn’t as safe as living in the small towns they grew up in. And so I would always come straight home from school.

(Of course, these days young children aren’t allowed to walk back and forth to school; they are driven by parents. And this is part of the point of the book mentioned above.)

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