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Mnookin: 2014 Commentator Brunch Sampler 'In Plain Sight'

Before my daughter’s first birthday, she climbed to the top of the stairs without my knowing it. One minute, we were downstairs together; next, I heard her but couldn’t locate her. I raced around checking obvious places first - in the shower stall, behind the couch. Panicking, I opened locked cabinets and peered into heating ducts - just in case.

Finally I heard her squeals of glee from upstairs. She’d only climbed one stair previously; it seemed impossible that she’d now climbed a whole flight. But there she was, exhilarated and proud, kneeling at the top of the stairs. And I suddenly found myself wondering if our children are perhaps willing to take more risks when we’re not watching, and whether that might be a good thing.

In the provocative cover story of last month’s Atlantic, Hanna Rosin takes a close look at today’s “overprotected kid.” She describes her visit to an adventure playground in North Wales. “The Land” was created for kids to face what seemed to them like “'really dangerous risks,’ and then to ‘conquer them alone.’” It’s staffed by “playworkers” who watch the kids closely, but don’t often intervene, even as they use mattresses as trampolines, roll tires down a steep hill into a creek, and experiment with fires. For Rosin, as for many parents, this seemed like lunacy. Yet since the Land opened two years ago, injuries have been limited to minor scrapes and bruises. Equally as important, innovative play spaces like this one have been shown to build confidence, promote imagination, and teach kids how to think for themselves.

In my circle of friends in Brattleboro, attachment parenting is en vogue. This philosophy promotes extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, babywearing, and responding quickly to a baby’s cries. However charming attachment parenting may sound, it’s also incredibly demanding, particularly on mothers, who are expected to be near their babies at all times. It’s also easy to see how attachment parenting of an infant can develop into helicopter parenting of a child or teenager, a term that’s rarely intended as a compliment. Instead, helicopter parents are presumed to smother their children by hovering obsessively over their every move: shadowing a toddler on the playground, shuttling a child from one activity to the next, frequently texting an adolescent at summer camp.

Nevertheless, granting a child greater freedom is easier said than done. My daughter was unharmed, but children do get bruised, and worse, when they fall down stairs. And gains are hard to measure, but they may carry lasting influence. When I reached the top of the stairs, my daughter’s delighted face not only showed pride in her accomplishment, but also the self-confidence to tackle her next challenge.

Abigail Mnookin is a former biology teacher interested in issues of equality and the environment. She is currently organizing parents around climate justice with 350Vermont, and lives in Brattleboro with her wife and their two daughters.
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