Film & Television

‘Chasing Childhood’ — A Helicopter Mother Repents

In 2015, my then 17-year-old daughter had tickets to see some band she loved in Boston. The day before the show, we suddenly learned that she and her best friend planned to leave the house at 4:45 a.m. so they could catch the first train into town at 5:20 a.m. so they could be in line outside the House of Blues by 6 a.m.

The reason for the pre-dawn departure was that the first two people in line with disposable cameras were going to win a “once-in-a-lifetime” prize. The venue’s official photographer would take those cameras backstage and snap candids of the band before, during, and after their set. The only way our girls could win was if they guaranteed their place at the head of the line, so of course they had to be there as early as humanly possible.

After much drama, my daughter wore me down. She could go, as planned, but I expected a check-in text every 30 minutes. True to her word, she did text me every half hour. They were informative and affectionate messages:

we’re here
still here

Even I, arguably among the most neurotic mothers on Boston’s North Shore, began to see how silly it all was. It occurs to me now that it was also vaguely hypocritical. In 1976, when Elton John was playing Madison Square Garden, I went down to 34th Street in the middle of the night and sat outside the box office for hours until it finally opened so I could get tickets. I was 14.

According to the absorbing and persuasive documentary Chasing Childhood, I’m a bit of a “helicopter parent” (I use the qualifier because I’ve certainly seen worse!) — even though I myself was a “free range kid.” Directors Margaret Munzer Loeb and Eden Wurmfeld make a very strong case for the latter, as do the experts and activists they feature.

Journalist Lenore Skenazy, who became notorious on national television as “the world’s worst mother” when she allowed her 9-year-old to take the New York City subway by himself, is the author of Free-Range Kids and cofounder of Let Grow, an organization that strives to make it “easy, normal, and legal” to give children more autonomy and independence. Skenazy asserts that today’s parents operate from a position of fear that is grossly overexaggerated. Crime rates are lower than they’ve been in decades; the odds of a child’s being abducted are 1 in 300,000. Yet preschoolers are taught (or more aptly, scared straight) about “stranger danger.” Children’s schedules are micromanaged and overloaded with supervised after-school and weekend activities, and parents are too deeply involved in homework assignments, class projects, and college applications.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult, agrees. As Dean of Freshman for elite Stanford University, she witnessed a disturbing trend. New students were ever more accomplished in terms of test scores, AP courses, and resumés. But, they could barely function on the most basic level. Without their helicopter parents, they couldn’t make the simplest decisions. In fact, she refers to them as “veal-like.”

So there are really two issues revealed in Chasing Childhood. The first is that parents and communities have become so afraid for children’s safety — Skenazy dates this fear back to Etan Patz’s much publicized 1979 disappearance — that they don’t allow them the freedom or time to play. Dr. Michael Hynes, school superintendent in Patchogue, Long Island, has made it his mission to bring back recess, and has seen tremendous improvement in student behavior and mental health because of it. Dr. Peter Gray, a biology professor at Boston College, also stresses the importance of play, which can involve all sorts of power skills, like problem-solving, communication, compromise, teamwork, leadership, and resilience. A traditional playground provides the perfect metaphor. Parents have become so scared that their children might fall off the jungle gym that they don’t allow them to climb. In fact, entire playgrounds around the country sit empty.

The second issue is that from an ever-younger age, children are being groomed for college — and not just any college, but the most prestigious and competitive schools, which are becoming harder and harder to get into. The quest to get into “the best school” is creating unprecedented levels of childhood anxiety and depression, and in the most extreme cases, addiction, self-harm, and suicide.  

Wurmfeld and Munzer Loeb, both of whom are mothers themselves, introduce us to a warm and thoughtful family to demonstrate the very real dangers of over-parenting and the much happier alternatives. Genevieve and Rob Eason live in Wilton, in toney Fairfield County, Connecticut. Their daughter Savannah was a high-achieving student who was encouraged — and pushed — by her teachers and parents to excel. The pressure, much of it self-inflicted, increased to the point that her mental health deteriorated; she was hospitalized in high school, and once she went to college, became addicted.

Fortunately, Savannah’s family was supportive, and Savannah (who is honest, articulate, and so appealing in the film) has changed course and redefined success in a much healthier way. Her parents, particularly her mother, Genevieve, accept some accountability and have evolved as well. Genevieve has become a local activist, serving as the executive director of the Wilton Youth Council and chairing the town’s Free Play Matters Task Force. She admits, however, that it’s an uphill climb. While communities like Wilton are quick to fund more advanced academic programs, they tend to balk at the value of downtime. If it doesn’t look good on a college application, what’s the point?

As Lythcott-Haims says, “In some ways, we have mortgaged our kids’ childhood, in exchange for the chance at a grand future.” 

I’m reminded of the song “She’s Leaving Home” by the Beatles. In the last verse, the runaway’s parents, who “never thought of ourselves” and “sacrificed most of our lives,” struggle to understand why she left:

She (What did we do that was wrong?)

Is having (We didn’t know it was wrong)

Fun (Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy)

Something inside that was always denied

For so many years (Bye bye)

But, the loss of childhood fun as we knew it isn’t just something to feel wistful about. Chasing Childhood points out that the disappearance of free play can have tangible and terrifying results.

Chasing Childhood is a Watch Now @ Home Cinema Release. You can find all the participating virtual cinemas and purchase an online screening at this website.


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