Posted by: Kenn Hermann | January 22, 2006

Suffocating Parents and Immature Children

Several Sundays ago the New York Times carried a column on the over-scheduled children of the present–rigid schedules, play dates, demanding organized (and expensive) sports, adults everywhere, no spontaneous play. That column set off a torrent of emails and calls from boomers who recalled a very different childhood. Those emails rekindled my childhood memories of growing up in a small town just west of Minneapolis (and 90 miles south of Lake Wobegon) in the 1950s.

Our ‘organized’ baseball was so very different from that of today. Where today’s children seem to be suffocated by the presence of adults wherever they turn, we were blissfully free of adult supervision. No fathers to coach us; in fact, we would have probably teased any guy whose dad showed up at our games. Our only coaches were older guys — like sophomores. Baseball fields kept neatly groomed by the city? Not a chance. We rather met up just behind St. Paul’s Lutheran school, with its gently rolling and pock-marked field, to choose teams and establish the local ground rules. (Any ball hit past the swing set or hitting the rear wall of the school on the fly was a home run. The game was over when Ted’s mom called him home for dinner.) If there were only a few of us, we played whiffle ball home run derby. (You stand a fixed distance away from the house and try to hit a whiffle ball over the house.) New equipment from Dick’s Sporting Goods? Not a chance. We rather picked up cracked bats from the town team, took them home, pounded a few nails, applied electrical tape, and . . . . voila, a ‘new’ bat. My favorite was a stubby Duke Snyder bat. New balls, gloves, and spikes? Hardly, hand-me-downs were the order of the day. Most summer days we rode bikes all over town, from the river to our friends’ houses, finally ending up at the soda shop to play pinball (a nickel a play) while gulping down a cherry coke. Delightful. Not an adult in sight.

I had a morning paper route for three years, from sixth grade to eighth grade. It never occurred to me or my parents that they should drive me around my route to be sure that I was safe, warm, and not late for school. No, I got up every morning at 5:00 a.m., walked down to the post office to pick up my papers, and delivered 50 papers on my side of the river. Two hours was good time. (I shaved 45 minutes off that time after I saved up enough paper money to buy a new 3-speed Schwinn.) I did this in all seasons and in all kinds of weather, whether 10 below (my dad did agree to drive me when it reached 15 below) or raining cats and dogs. Scared? Do you know how scary it is for a 12-year-old walking on a pitch black snow-covered street at 5:00 a.m.? Do you know how loud snow crunches under mukluks in the stillness of a sub-zero morning in central Minnesota? No wonder there was more than one winter morning when I threw the papers off the bridge and declared they never arrived. Were my parents being callous and uncaring for not driving me around? Of course not. It never occurred to me that they were. Did they love me? Without question. It was just the way things were for me and all of my friends. Were there real dangers I faced? Absolutely, probably more dangers than most kids will ever face today.

My granddaughter visits us frequently to play with friends in our neighborhood. This past summer she asked to go ride bikes with her friends at the newly-tarred parking lot of the school administration building. I said she could, but immediately I felt a heavy obligation to watch her from our front porch. What would her mother think if I wasn’t watching? Here they were, seven-year-old girls, riding their bikes less than a block away in an open parking lot – and I felt she should not be out of my sight. To make matters even worse, another girl’s father actually walked over to the parking lot and sat on the side while they rode bikes.

As I sat there on the porch, my mind reeled with the disconnect with my own childhood. How embarrassed I would have been at her age to have my parents ‘watching’ me ride bikes! What dangers was I protecting them from? How likely would it be for a child molester to grab one of them while they were playing? When was the last time you saw children building forts in the neighborhood out of scrap lumber – without dad’s help? Last summer Diane Rehm interviewed the author of a book (name and book escape me) who lamented the cocooning of today’s children, many growing up under the careful supervision of adults and isolated from their natural environment.

It is easy, too easy, to write this off as nostalgia. I believe that I see some of the evidences of this regimentation and overbearing parenting in my university students. We have known that industrialization brought with it a delay in emotional maturity and an adult sense of responsibility. (Clearly, my father, who ‘grew up’ on the farm in the depression, was forced to assume a measure of adult responsibility that I never had at his age.) Over several decades of teaching I have noticed that students are becoming less emotionally and even intellectually mature than students were when I first began teaching. I see more and more university students acting like we did as high school students. And I am having to ‘spoon feed’ them more and more, far more than I ever got in college. They seem increasingly unable to do the kind of intellectual work I expected from my first students. How much of this is due to hovering parents who, in their desperate but misguided desire to ‘protect’ their children from harm and give them all the ‘advantages,’ have robbed their children of the very experiences that creates the maturity they desire? I wonder.


  1. Wow! Very thought provoking, Kenn. I suspect I may be guilty of (a tiny bit of) overparenting myself, particularly with my youngest. His life is so much more structured and observed than mine ever was, growing up in the 70’s, wandering all over the neighborhood and even back in the woods. You hit the nail on the head!
    (heard about your blog from rick. rock on, kenn!)

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