You may have heard the story about the Minnesota mother who faced jail time after accidentally failing to properly strap in her child’s car seat. Or the cops who arrived to question a mom who told her neighbors that her 9-year-old could help them do chores. Or the police officers who went door to door hunting for a man after he drove off from the mall with a toddler—who turned out to be his daughter. They’d been shopping. An onlooker had assumed he was a kidnapper and called the police.
We live in an age of fear, especially where children are concerned. Even as the world has become safer and richer, parenting has become a paranoid exercise in removing all possible risk from a child’s life. This is exhausting for parents and even worse for children. Too many have been taught that they are fragile, weak, and in constant danger. Instead of getting experience problem-solving and bouncing back, they have grown up unable to rise to the challenges that life presents.
No journalist has more effectively chronicled the strange and dismal culture of contemporary child rearing than Reason contributor Lenore Skenazy, 59, who is not ashamed of being “America’s Worst Mom.” She got that nickname after she let her son, then age 9, ride the New York subway home by himself in 2008. “Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse,” she wrote in a much-read piece for The New York Sun. “As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids.”
Skenazy went on to found the Free-Range Kids movement, dedicating her career to investigating and explaining how today’s parents became so afraid and what effects that fear is having on their children. In 2017, she co-founded the nonprofit Let Grow with a mission of encouraging schools and families to allow kids to “have some adventures” and therefore “grow resilient.”
In January, Skenazy spoke with Frank Furedi, 71, a Budapest-born sociologist now based at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. When Furedi was 9, he had an adventure even more exciting than riding a subway by himself: His family got caught up in Hungary’s anti-Stalinist revolution of 1956. “The thing that I remember about that moment,” he told Spiked years later, “was the sheer optimism, the sense of power expressed by people who were normally extremely passive and fatalistic.” After the Soviets crushed the revolt, the family fled to Canada, where Furedi was drawn into the student left. Anti-Soviet and anti-statist—but not delighted with the West’s status quo either—he became a self-styled libertarian Marxist. He “saw the state not as a medium of liberation but as a medium of oppression, as something that limited the possibility for more radical change,” he explained to Spiked.
Over the years Furedi has frequently taken stands on censorship, technology, environmentalism, identity politics, and other issues that set him apart from the rest of the left. He is also the author of many books about fear, parenting, and campus culture, including 2002’s Paranoid Parenting, 2005’s Politics of Fear, and 2016’s What’s Happened to the University. His latest, How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century (Bloomsbury Continuum), looks at how fear has become the driving factor behind much of contemporary Western culture and the ways that has changed society for the worse.
In a wide-ranging phone conversation, Skenazy and Furedi discussed the origins of today’s fearful parenting, how schools and universities became incubators of scared kids, and why a refusal to tolerate risk has, paradoxically, led to a generation of children who are more fragile than ever before.
Skenazy: Tell me the basic idea of your book. How does fear work?
Furedi: What I’m trying to establish in the book is: What do we fear in the 21st century? There is a lot of material that is available on how people feared in the past, and it’s very clear that there have been a number of very important changes in the way we talk about fear.
For a start, in the contemporary era we talk much more about it. Fear is an overused word. We talk about it in relation to a lot more experiences than we did before—things that in the past would have been fairly uncontroversial, seen as being normal, not seen as a threat. I try to understand, Why is that?
For example, something as ordinary and banal as children making a transition from primary school to secondary school is seen as a big deal. You need to bring in all kinds of experts to make sure that children are not threatened by going to the big school.
My thesis is that the main reason we fear the way we do is because we have become increasingly prone toward medicalizing the threats we face. We tend to use the language of psychology rather than the language of morality or of politics or of social science to analyze the human condition. We tend to interpret the problems we face in terms of illness categories.
I see this all the time too. Even some grandparents who let their children walk to school and play outside now think that letting the grandkids stand on the sidewalk in front of the house to wait for the bus is too dangerous. But I don’t usually think of that as psychological or medicalized. I think of it as just fear inflation.
What you describe as fear inflation is absolutely right. But the reason fear is being inflated so much is because we have a different idea of what a child or human being is like. We now seem to think that children are defined by their powerlessness, their vulnerability. We believe that children haven’t got the psychological and the moral and the physical resources to deal with the challenges of everyday life.
One of the most interesting developments is that in the past, adults used to understand that fearing is not a bad experience for children. If children fear the traffic, that’s a good thing. In the last 50, 60 years, more and more, we’re arguing that the very act of fearing is itself a psychologically dangerous kind of knowledge. It can damage a child. And parents are told almost to insulate children from any possible experience that might induce a sense of fear in their kids.
There was a poll done in your country, England, of the worst fairy tales to tell children. I think the top result was “Little Red Riding Hood,” because it’s too scary. There’s a wolf. The grandma is gone. The child gets eaten. Parents were saying that they were changing the ending because it was too traumatic for kids to hear about Little Red Riding Hood encountering the big eyes, big claws, and big teeth of the Big Bad Wolf.
I think that’s happening everywhere at the moment. Old wonderful fairy tales are being Disneyfied to the point at which anything that is remotely scary is immediately censored, and there’s this really silly assumption that children are unable to deal with these kinds of stories.
Whereas I’m sure that when you were a kid, you remember, these were precious moments. We remembered those scary stories quite well. We might have been a little bit frightened, but they did teach us a thing or two.
At the moment, what we tend to do is seek refuge in the mundane: banal story lines where everybody’s got big smiles on their faces. That seems to be the way we think that children should be socialized and brought up—all the while forgetting that it’s totally impossible to shield young kids from the experience of fear. Whether you like it or not, things are going to frighten them. That’s part and parcel of growing up.
I think it’s a good part. Fairy tales exist to teach you what not to do, but also to inculcate a certain sense of, “Ooh, that was scary….Tell it again!” You get used to it. You get a little comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable.
Fairy tales communicated some very important moral messages about what is right and what is wrong, about good and evil. They really helped socialize young kids into a moral vision of the world.
We’ve become very estranged from using the language of right and wrong with kids. In fact, in America, teachers often tell children there is no right and wrong answer. Everything is possible. Instead of teaching young people what’s good and bad and giving them very clear rules, we tend to rely on what I call the therapeutic technique of validating them—making them feel good. We seem to believe that the way to bring kids up is continually raising their self-esteem by smiling at them, by not criticizing them, by not using a red pen to correct their essays.
Children need to understand that failure is no big deal. They need to learn how to fail. They need to learn the difference between success and failure as early as possible, because that’s what will give them strength later on.
How did we get to this point? You seem to suggest that something happened after the ’70s. What was it?
At a certain point in Anglo-American culture, parents began to believe that they needed to be much more nurturing and caring [and] far less disciplinarian. Some of those beliefs were quite fine. But around the ’60s and the ’70s, these ideals mutated into ones that basically suggested it was really important that children were under adult protection as much as possible, because unless you were supervising them, they were likely to have very negative experiences.
It takes about two or three generations of parents before these ideals pervade the entire parenting culture. By the time the new parents that are bringing children up in the 1980s begin to become fathers and mothers, these kind of ideals have been totally internalized.
On both sides of the Atlantic, if you look at the elder generations of parents, people at my age or even older, they are far more permissive and far more chilled out than the youngest groups of parents. In fact, the younger generation of parents, the 26- and 27-year-olds, are more likely to be worried about virtually every dimension of a child’s experience.
I still don’t understand what happened in the ’70s that made us start thinking we had to watch over them more closely. Was it a crime wave? Was it a certain movie that scared everyone?
The most important overall development that occurred in the 1970s was a shift in culture away from a confident, future-oriented belief in the capacity of society to do big things. You had President [Lyndon] Johnson talking about the Great Society in the 1960s. If you compare that to President [Jimmy] Carter’s  speech where he talks about the crisis of confidence in America, you can see a very big shift has occurred.
As you have this loss of confidence, and this happens all over the world, it’s paralleled by an emotionalism becoming institutionalized, where psychology becomes the dominant medium through which we interpret everyday human experience, and where problems that used to be seen as normal are increasingly recast in medical terms, as medical issues that we need to have a diagnosis for.
It’s in this context that you have a complete redefinition of what a child is, what they are capable of, what kind of risk and pressure they can handle. The whole therapeutic imagination that develops in North American societies fundamentally alters the way we view the child and the relationship of the child to the adults.
Yeah, the idea that fear damages them is really what we’re talking about. I read articles that are so disheartening, because they teach parents who might not feel worried that their job is to be worried and their job is to be supervising their children every single second. I feel bad for them. I never put down helicopter parents, because they’re being taught that only this kind of helicoptering is good parenting, is safe enough.
The key point for me is the underlying assumption that the real threat is not so much the physical injury that a child might have but the emotional one.
Let’s talk about the word vulnerability. You did a study where you looked at how much it’s being used today—and not with kids that are chained to the crib in an orphanage. How did we start seeing regular children as all vulnerable to depression and every other kind of trauma?
Mainstream psychology used to argue that children were much better at dealing with mental health issues than adults were, that when it came to trauma of all sorts, children could recover much faster than adults. That was the conventional wisdom. Then what happened was a number of studies were carried out in the late ’70s and early ’80s which began to suggest, bit by bit, that in fact we were wrong. Almost every dimension of childhood was reinterpreted as a potential threat to their mental health.
If you look at the way children then became educated, we became so focused on preventing them from having major mental health issues that, actually, we create problems that did not exist before. If you go to university in America or in England, you’ll find that mental health issues are like the No. 1 priority that all the administrators are focused on.
Right. I’ve seen that at my own kids’ universities. There are a lot of signs around: “Worried? Depressed? Don’t hold it in. Come to the mental health center.” On the one hand, it’s nice. If a kid is having a tough time, I’m glad there’s no stigma. But it does seem to assume that these problems are everywhere and that the university’s job is to be proactive about noticing and having kids notice any time their emotional temperature is even a little out of whack.
It normalizes the conviction that sooner or later, if not in your first year then in your second or third year, you’re going to have a mental health problem. When I go to my university and I’m going into the toilet, I look up and there’s an ad for if you’re thinking of suicide. If you’re lonely and you haven’t got friends, there’s a clinic where they have therapy dogs so you can feel more relaxed. If you look around, there’s about six or seven of these mental health adverts. That to me seems to be a very, very real problem. These days, almost the entire university is meant to be a safe space. The argument is, whenever you feel that you’re under pressure, you’re traumatized.
In your book you say, “powerlessness, fragility, and vulnerability are considered normal characteristics today.” Do young people overcome these finally when they leave the university?
Well, not really. I think that unfortunately we now see the human condition—in other words, what it means to be a human—very much in these terms. So the idea of being vulnerable and being powerless is something we carry on with us, or we’re meant to carry on with us, for the rest of our life. Even when we become adults, biologically mature individuals, we still are meant to have what they call “issues.” We expect people to have a variety of problems dealing with uncertainty. As a result of that, there’s a whole industry of professionals, from life coaches—I don’t know if you’ve ever met a life coach?
I actually have a friend who was very much helped by her work coach. She was doing poorly, and somebody was advising her, like, “Don’t say this to your boss” and “Don’t do things that way.” I don’t think she knew how to succeed in the work world, so the coach really helped her.
I’m sure that a lot of coaches can help. But I think there is a problem. If we’re now relying on people to tell us how to speak at work, what to say or not to say to our friends, how to bring up our children, how to make love to our partners, how to decorate our houses—so virtually every aspect of our life is subject to some kind of professional expertise—then it does have that effect of undermining our autonomy as individuals where we are, in a sense, making choices on the basis of our experience. [It diminishes] our own capacity for independent behavior and our ability to take responsibility for our action and to live with the consequences of the action that we’ve taken.
What interests me is that the fear is not just, like, “Oh, I might screw up and then I’ll have to deal with the consequences.” The fear is that if something bad happens, it’s the end of the world and you will never recover. We go to the darkest possible place.
When my mom let me walk to school, I don’t think her heart was in her throat every day, thinking, “I will feel so bad for the rest of my life if she’s kidnapped, raped, and murdered.” She didn’t think that way. She might have thought that I would fall down and I would have to get up, but I don’t even think she was worrying about that. So how come today we all go straight to “kidnapped, raped, and murdered” every time we let our kids out of our sight?
Worst-case thinking has become the norm in all institutions of society. That’s been very much the dominant way that risk aversion—the fear of taking risks, the fear of experimenting, the fear of trying stuff out—takes. I think that “responsible parenting” these days is defined as a kind of child care that assumes the worst thing [that could possibly happen] and takes precautions to make sure that doesn’t happen. Very often when you have discussions with intelligent people, they in their heart of hearts actually know that worst-case thinking is not very helpful.
My mom quit her job to stay at home with her kids. So obviously her first priority was us and our well-being. And yet she could let us go outside, ride our bikes, walk to school, go to the beach, even—the big bad beach. How did we get to “I could never forgive myself if…” being this line that all parents say and feel now?
Safety has acquired this enormous significance in our lives. It almost has a quasi-religious quality to it, where people regard everything that is safe as being, by definition, really, really good. And of course, the more we talk about safety and the more we focus on that, the more we become drawn to seeing a growing dimension of life and the world as unsafe.
Experiences that in the past we would have called a good risk are today seen in a very different way. Even that expression—”a good risk”—sounds irresponsible. Risk is by definition bad. It’s not an opportunity to make things happen. Risk is entirely a negative phenomenon. So we have this very one-sided way of dealing with risk, where we want to shield ourselves from it.
Safety has become an obsession in a way that is quite unprecedented. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in human history where so many things were deemed problematic or unsafe.
How do we turn the ship around?
That’s not an easy question to answer. It’s something I struggle with. I think the way one does it is by personal example. You often get parents who demonstrate through their actions that having a robust orientation to their children’s lives is going to make their kids stronger and more independent. I think that helps. The kind of work you guys [at Let Grow] are doing is really important in that respect, because it demystifies the reality that most parents live under.
In their heart of hearts, most parents know they need to give more space to their children, that they need more independence and more freedom to explore the world. I am quite optimistic that it’s possible to make headway. Not overnight, but certainly possible.
The other thing that we need is to have more discussions on why taking risks can be an exhilarating and positive experience, not a road to disaster. I just think we need to challenge a lot of this stuff.
In many ways, I regard our safety culture as not unlike the story about the emperor having no clothes.
When the little boy says the emperor is naked. I think that if we basically ask some questions—some pointed questions, and point out the ridiculousness of all the stuff that’s happening, maybe use a bit of humor alongside of it—I think we can make a positive impact.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.
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