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Why helicopter parenting may jeopardize kids’ health

Has protective parenting gone too far? Several high-profile news stories, along with increasing rates of childhood obesity, anxiety and depression, have sparked a movement encouraging parents to allow their children greater freedom. The nonprofit Let Grow is leading the call for what’s known as “free range parenting,” in which kids can just be kids. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As childhood obesity, anxiety, depression and suicide rates continue to grow in the United States, some blame in part a facet of modern life, so-called helicopter parenting.

    There's concern that a growing culture of what some see is overprotective parenting may actually be causing more harm than good

    William Brangham is back with this report on a budding movement for everyone to take a deep breath and let kids be kids.

  • William Brangham:

    With just a few steps, these little feet, all six of them, recently kicked up a nationwide debate about parenting in America.

    The two sneakered ones belong to Dorothy Widen. One afternoon in this tony suburb north of Chicago, 8-year-old Dorothy was walking her dog Marshmallow. It was one of her regular chores.

    Someone saw them, and called 911.

  • Corey Widen:

    The police showed up at the door, I mean, like you know, bulletproof vests, squad car, you know, gun on her hip. And Dorothy was just like, "Mom, the police are here."

  • William Brangham:

    Corey asked if her daughter had done something wrong.

  • Corey Widen:

    And she said, no. There was no other issue other than she was reported to be very young and alone.

  • William Brangham:

    Child Protective Services launched an investigation.

  • Corey Widen:

    So one of the first things it talks about is the removal process, because that's basically what they do is.

  • William Brangham:

    And Widen was warned her children could be taken away.

  • Woman:

    That mother fighting back against mom-shaming after being investigated.

  • William Brangham:

    The case made national headlines. Corey and Dorothy appeared on morning news shows.

    And while the investigation went nowhere, Widen became part of a growing and outspoken group of parents who have been investigated or charged for things that seemed ordinary not long ago.

  • Kim Brooks:

    Yes, so you're going to meet up with the other — with the bad moms club.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    Take Widen's friend Kim Brooks. She's a fellow Chicago area mom who, on her way to the airport, recently left her 4-year-old son in a locked car on a cool day in suburban Virginia. She was gone for five minutes.

    Brooks comes out of the store, gets in the car. Her son is fine, they go to the airport, she thinks nothing of it. What she didn't realize, though, is that while she was in the store, someone had seen her leave her son behind, came over, videotaped her son, and called the police.

  • Kim Brooks:

    Almost a year later, I got a call and learned that they actually had filed a warrant for my arrest in Virginia. Somehow, I had never been contacted about it until then.

  • William Brangham:

    A warrant for your arrest for what?

  • Kim Brooks:

    For a misdemeanor, contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

  • William Brangham:

    Brooks flew back to Virginia, turned herself into the police, and did 100 hours of community service. She wrote a book about the whole ordeal. It's called "Small Animals."

    And she's concluded that paranoia about parenting has run amok in America.

  • Kim Brooks:

    Statistically, for a child to be abducted by a stranger — because most child abductions are not by strangers, they're by family members — to be abducted by a stranger, you would have to leave a child in a — alone in a public space for 750,000 years.

  • Lenore Skenazy:

    People are fantasizing an insane level of danger that doesn't — that almost doesn't exist in an action movie.

  • William Brangham:

    Lenore Skenazy is something of a patron saint for these moms. She says it's time for parents to push back.

    Her nonprofit, which is called Let Grow, aims to make it easy, normal and legal again for parents to give kids back some of their independence.

    Skenazy herself came under fire several years ago after she allowed her 9-year-old to ride the New York City subway all alone, and then wrote a column about it. It's hysteria, she says. The world is safer today than it's ever been, even as the push to bubble-wrap children keeps growing.

  • Lenore Skenazy:

    Crime is less today than when you were growing up, so there is no factual, statistical reason that you shouldn't let your kid have at least as much freedom as you had.

  • William Brangham:

    In communities nationwide, like Wilton, Connecticut, Skenazy's ideas are now bring together parents, law enforcement and elected officials to dial back all the judgment and fear.

  • Woman:

    It really borrows quite heavily from Lenore's packet. Kids need some old-fashioned freedom to explore, goof up, get lost, get brave, and become part of the world.

  • William Brangham:

    The state of Utah, with Skenazy's help, recently passed what's called a free-range parenting law, her term, to enshrine these same ideas.

    But Skenazy says it's not just about society's judgment. Parents themselves need to learn to let go, and sometimes let their kids go wild.

  • Lenore Skenazy:

    What you're seeing here is called play club, one of Skenazy's let grow ideas being piloted in the Patchogue-Medford School District on Long Island, New York.

    It looks like old-fashioned recess, but once a week, schools like Eagle Elementary are throwing open their doors open an hour early and giving kids the run of the place. Adults keep their distance, letting them tear through the halls, jump, shake, send things flying.

  • Peter Gray:

    We're seeing kids running in the hallway, running in the hallway and nobody stopping them. Can you imagine that?

  • William Brangham:

    Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College. And he worked with Skenazy on this program. He says restricting kids' freedom is partly why anxiety and major depressive disorders are five to 10 times higher than they were in the 1950s.

    And the suicide rate for kids has increased sixfold. Play, he says, helps them learn crucial resilience and social skills.

  • Peter Gray:

    How do you develop the capacity for all of these things if you're growing up just doing what you're told to do, right? You absolutely need freedom. You need to be able to take risks. You need to learn how to fail. You need to learn, I can fall down and get hurt, and I can get up again and recover.

  • William Brangham:

    Gray says this loss of unstructured play is partly why childhood obesity and other health issues are on the rise.

  • Peter Gray:

    There are a lot of people who think that adult-directed sports would make up for that. Children are not designed to lift weights, and run track, and swim laps.

    They're designed to chase one another around, laughing, and screaming until their sides are splitting. This is how children get exercise, and there's no substitute for that.

  • William Brangham:

    Once the school day starts, Let Grow follows these kids into the classroom and eventually home.

  • Woman:

    Try something…

  • Student:

    New.

  • Student:

    New.

  • Student:

    I set the table by myself.

  • William Brangham:

    Starting in kindergarten, the program also assigns students to try something new once a week, with no help from mom and dad.

    Second-grader Nathaniel Ames recently started venturing into the backyard to feed the family chickens. Fourth-grader Gia Rosello learned to pop her own popcorn.

    Connor Hayes is a fifth-grader who has never walked more than a block from his house by himself.

  • Maggie Hayes:

    Watch both ways before you cross the street.

  • William Brangham:

    The next day, he convinced his mom, Maggie, that he was ready.

  • Maggie Hayes:

    I love you.

  • Student:

    I love you too, mom.

  • Maggie Hayes:

    All right, have fun.

  • William Brangham:

    She knows this freedom is important, but it's hard for her.

  • Maggie Hayes:

    When I was younger, I was outside all day long, riding my bike all around the neighborhood, and I was doing it probably younger than him.

  • William Brangham:

    Connor made it to the playground that day, two blocks, and he said the feeling he got lived up to the hype.

  • Student:

    Mostly because I kind of wanted to like see how cool it was to just like be alone for the first time without anybody watching me. Makes me feel pretty proud of myself.

  • William Brangham:

    Skenazy says, of course these are just baby steps. And while she knows it makes many uncomfortable, she says this can help parents across the spectrum.

  • Lenore Skenazy:

    Well, certainly, a free-range parenting law that says that you can take your eyes off your kids, and it's not illegal, is great across the entire economic spectrum, because some people want to give their kids freedom, and they don't want to get arrested.

    Some people have to give their kids freedom. So, whether it's by choice or by necessity, the idea of giving children some independence or some unsupervised time shouldn't be illegal.

  • William Brangham:

    After being investigated for letting her daughter walk the dog, Corey Widen says Dorothy is now nervous about being out alone now. She's worried she's going to get in trouble. They're both hoping that will change soon.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Wilmette, Illinois.

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