I have long lamented what we, as parents, have been doing to our children. Many years ago, our daughter --- an only child --- came home from school in the fourth grade overly concerned about her grades. Her friends with older siblings were warning her that she had to do well in school or she would never get into a “good” college.
To write that I went ballistic is an understatement. After calming down, I explained to her that I didn’t want her worrying about such nonsense and that she would go to college somewhere --- community college was fine with me.
It seems to me the wonderful documentary CHASING CHILDHOOD, directed by Margaret Munzer Loeb and Eden Wurmfeld, is long overdue. Our daughter graduated from college --- a very good one --- five years ago, and now she occasionally tutors and does test prep work for elementary and high school students. She is constantly regaling me with horror stories about impossible “helicopter” parents who micromanage their children’s lives, always thanking me that I was never one of those.
But it is an issue, as so adeptly pointed out in this informative and eye-opening film. As we watch a group of children in a classroom in New York City recount their daily activities once school is over, it becomes painfully obvious that these kids are over-scheduled beyond belief.
Lenore Skenazy, who appears often in CHASING CHILDHOOD, was a journalist who wrote a column entitled “Why I Let My 9 Year Old Ride the Subway Alone”, for which she was vilified and labeled “America’s Worst Mom”. The insanity is astounding. Now Lenore, who founded “Free-Range Kids”, spends her time travelling the country to work with communities who wish to tackle the problem of over-protected children --- and the consequences.
Munzer Loeb and Wurmfeld didn’t just want to focus on the problems, but also offer some solutions, which they have accomplished. They focus on one family, the Easons, in particular. Savannah Eason, the oldest child of Genevieve and Rob, allows her story to be told in stark detail.
Once a happy, outgoing child, Savannah began to experience headaches and trauma in high school as she pushed herself to be the student her parents were pushing her to be. After surviving a crisis of addiction and reevaluating her educational choices, she is able to get her life back on track.
This experience also forces Genevieve to take a step back and change her thinking process. She becomes a local activist in their community of Wilton, Connecticut and fights to restore free play for children.
Another leader in these efforts is Dr. Michael Hynes, the superintendent of schools in Patchogue-Medford, Long Island, a blue-collar community where he grew up. He was determined to re-institute recess, stressing the importance of play, mental health, yoga and mindfulness. Together these activists are making strides to bring back the ever-important option of playtime.
The statistics are astounding. Only eight states in this country require recess. That alone is shocking and disturbing. Peter Gray, a professor of biology at Boston College, is featured. His research has revealed how important play is for children. It is practice at getting along with other people. It may be dangerous, and not always idyllic, but it is paramount in a child’s development.
Unfortunately, as stated in CHASING CHILDHOOD, “We live in a culture that judges parents based on their children.”. And, as suicide rates spiral out of control, these issues need the attention of everyone --- not just parents. Munzer Loeb, Wurmfeld and their crew have given us a good start.
Opinion: See It Now!
In 1983 singer Cyndi Lauper released her signature song called “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. Now there’s a new documentary that embraces the similar idea that “Kids just wanna have fun”. It’s called CHASING CHILDHOOD and is especially worthwhile for parents currently raising children from toddlers to teens, but is still interesting to anyone who has been a parent.
Filmmakers Eden Wurmfeld and Margaret Munzer Loeb realized a need to research why kids around the country were not playing outdoors and generally not experiencing some aspects of life on their own without constant parental control. They acknowledge their native New York City environment in the 70s and 80s was far more dangerous versus current day, so they became curious why that was the case.
The pair interviewed dozens of kids, from six-year-olds through college age, along with many parents and educators. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on a couple of these individuals.
Genevieve and Rob Eason raised their daughter Savannah on a very strict academic schedule which ultimately led Savannah to undergo rehab for an extended period of time. The good news is that Savannah has turned out fine, establishing for herself a career as a culinary expert in baking. This also allows for some fascinating footage of Savannah creating incredible pastries. In addition, Genevieve became a catalyst for culture change in her town of Wilton, Connecticut, and her efforts led her to Lenore Skenazy, another mother at the forefront of how children should be allowed certain freedoms.
Skenazy, from New York City, authored a column entitled “Why I Let My 9 Year Old Ride the Subway Alone” which led to talk show appearances and ultimately earned her the title of “America’s Worst Mom”. But rather than flinch she created a movement called “Free-Range Kids”. This morphed into “Let’s Grow”, whose charter is “working to make it easy, normal and legal to give kids back some independence.” In the film, Skenazy laments that our culture is moving in an unhealthy direction.
CHASING CHILDHOOD frequents the phrase “helicopter parenting” to indicate families whose parents hover over their kids to the point they may never learn how to handle things for themselves or cope with certain situations by thinking on their own. Not surprisingly, the younger children interviewed in the film universally want some space --- even if it’s as simple as going to school alone or with a friend.
The doc wonders how we got to this point, and the answer is fear. Although child abductions have been around for a long time, instances in the late 70s and early 80s seem to have resonated more with that generation of parents. In 1979 six-year-old Etan Patz was abducted from lower Manhattan and murdered --- but never found.
However, the filmmakers claim that the odds of a child being abducted are 1 in 300,000. Even so, most parents today seem reluctant to allow their kids to take a train, walk anywhere or engage in any other form of independent activity until the age of 14-16 --- or older. The sight of an empty swing set on a vacant playground underscores the fact that kids today are so busy with school and extracurricular activities that they are not having fun.
When I was a kid a million years ago, I played pickup games of baseball and football all day long, taking time off only to ride my bike home for lunch or to the local store for a snack. Did my parents worry? Not really. But today’s kids, as they get older, are under intense pressure to earn high test scores and grades to get into the best schools. Of course, only a handful end up in Ivy League or other such institutions, but parents still seem to burden their children with these unnecessary and often unattainable expectations.
I would encourage parents and grandparents everywhere to view CHASING CHILDHOOD. It’s a sobering --- and extremely well done --- presentation of a problem that I suspect most people haven’t seriously considered --- but should.
Opinion: See It Now!