Play, supervision and pressured parenting

Americans about my age and older all seem to have stories about how we survived our school playgrounds without today’s cushy soft surfaces, safety-oriented climbing structures, and running water.

Here is a picture of the playground at my elementary school. I myself survived a fall off one of those seesaws onto the broken-glass-strewn asphalt, with nothing but a scrape to show for it (attended to by the school secretary — there was no “school nurse” back then either).
In the safety craze in recent decades, sadly, real seesaws were one of the first things to go.

Go back another few generations, and you’ll find stories like this — about 200 children killed in the streets of New York in 1910 (from the NYT Jan. 1, 1911).

Most of those kids weren’t in cars or wagons; they were playing in the streets, doing work for their families, or just wandering around unattended — there were no public playgrounds. In contrast, in 2009 there were about 10 pedestrian or cycling children killed by vehicles in New York City. Ah, the good old days.*


A USDA program uses digital cameras to analyze food selections and waste content as trays come and go from the lunch line in schools with high obesity rates.

As things have gotten safer for America’s children, of course, parents have become ever more concerned with their safety, as well as with their learning and development. Somewhere in America on a Sunday a few weeks ago, in an affluent community, a public playground was bubbling with activity. Every child seemed to be enjoying a rollicking good time on the latest safety-designed play equipment, cushioned by a luxuriously deep bed of mulch.

Also, each child seemed to be within a few feet of a parent or other adult caretaker — coaching, encouraging, spotting, supervising.

In recent years, concern about the physical fitness of children has increased, especially among poor children. Some researchers have asked whether the proximity of safe neighborhood playgrounds is one cause of the social class disparity in obesity rates. That would make sense because obesity rates are lower among children who play outdoors. But the relationship between social class and playing outdoors is not clear at all. Rich children have more access to some kinds of facilities, but poor children have more free time — and, where there is public housing, it usually includes playgrounds, like this one photographed in the 1960s:

Photo by Ann Zane Shanks.

In Annette Lareau’s analysis of family life and social class, Unequal Childhoods, children of middle class and richer parents spend more time in organized activities, and poorer kids spend more time in unstructured time (including play and TV). But as these pictures show, there’s play and there’s play. Are middle class parents hovering more than poorer parents do, and with what effect?

Consider a recent article by Myron Floyd and colleagues (covered here), which attempted to assess the level of physical activity among children in public parks by observing 2,700 children in 20 public parks in Durham, NC:

[The] presence of parental supervision was the strongest negative correlate of children’s activity… the presence of adults appears to inadvertently suppress park-based physical activity in the current study, particularly among younger children. … This result should be used to encourage park designers to create play environments conducive to feelings of safety and security that would encourage rather than discourage active park use among children. For example, blending natural landscapes, manufactured play structures, and fencing in close intimate settings can be used to create comfortable environments for children and families. Such design strategies could encourage parents to allow their children to freely explore their surroundings, providing more opportunities for physical activity.

Interestingly, park in the pictured above has a fence around it so that parents can hang around at a distance with little fear for their children.

Under social pressure

In Under Pressure, one of many books bemoaning the excesses of over-parenting, Carl Honoré wrote:

Even when we poke fun at overzealous parenting … part of us wonders, What if they’re right? What if I’m letting my children down by not parenting harder? Racked by guilt and terrified of doing the wrong thing, we end up copying the alpha parent in the playground.

The point is not just that some parents have overzealous supervisory ambitions, driven by unequal investments in children and a threateningly competitive future. I think there is a supervision ratchet that feeds on the interaction between parents. In an article called “Playground Panopticism,” Holly Blackford summarized her observations:

The mothers in the ring of park benches symbolize the suggestion of surveillance, which Foucault describes as the technology of disciplinary power under liberal ideals of governance. However, the panoptic force of the mothers around the suburban playground becomes a community that gazes at the children only to ultimately gaze at one another, seeing reflected in the children the parenting abilities of one another.

This plays out in everyday interaction, whether one wants to engage it or not. If everyone else’s kid is closely supervised while yours is running around bonkers on her own, is a parent to do? If the other parents insist that their kids not go “up the slide” and yours just scrambles past them, you feel the pressure. (You also put the other parent in the position of violating another taboo — supervising someone else’s child.) So it’s not just fear of underparenting that drives parents to hover — it’s also the cross-parent interactions. These are the moments when contagious parenting behavior spreads.

*I started looking at this after reading about it in Viviana Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child, in which she writes, “The case of children’s accidental death provides empirical evidence of the new meanings of child life in twentieth-century America.”

Reminder: This blog post does not constitute research, but rather commentary, observation and recommendations for reading and discussion. The description of my childhood playground, and of one recent afternoon at one park, are anecdotes, something that stimulates reflection on wider issues, not empirical evidence or data.

18 thoughts on “Play, supervision and pressured parenting

  1. Hi Phil
    A really interesting post. On this subject I would also recommend Markella Rutherford’s recent book “Adult Supervision Required”. She makes an interesting observation about increased outdoor and decreased indoor supervision. Worth checking out.


    1. Correction to previous comment: it’s really the difference between *public* v *private* supervision though that ssometimes translates into outside/inside.


      1. Thanks. I used her article for my chapter on parents and children (Rutherford, Markella B. 2009. “Children’s Autonomy and Re-sponsibility: An Analysis of Childrearing Advice.” Qualitative Sociology 32(4):337-353) — but forgot about it for this post. Didn’t realize she had a book, too.

        Interesting shes bases it on advice literature. I looked around a little and it doesn’t look like any sociologists have done a playground ethnography, though that seems like an obvious approach.


    1. The Evil Dr. Laura was talking about this 20 years ago: self-esteem comes from accomplishing something, not from getting a meaningless trophy.


  2. I was sad to see the seesaws go, and equally sad when they removed the merry-go-rounds because one child somewhere a long time ago died. Parenting is far too involved these days with protecting from normal life.


    1. Agreed. My grammar school (early 1970s) had a climbing tower for the children. Must have been 6 feet tall. Easy to climb, but as a 1st or 2nd grader I was *terrified* to climb down. A couple of (female) teachers came out to coax me down, but no one actually went *up* to get me.

      Finally, I *jumped* down. Scared me a *lot*. Hurt my shoulder; held in the tears and an hour later everything was fine.

      Same with dodge ball. A big ball slapping you in the face stung *hard*, but it was a *proud* moment to be the “last man standing” running around avoiding the enemy’s fire.


  3. I don’t know if this will “thread” with my earlier comment but, yes, it really does seem odd that the one playground ethnography is by someone who is in English? (That looks really interesting). This seems like a perfect thing for a sociologist to do — there are several good exemplars for studying social construction of gender (Thorne) and race (VanAusdale & Feagin) but what a great place to be able to see the construction of parenthood… You might be able to do the same thing with kids’ sports too…


  4. As far as “priceless children”… the solution is to have lots of kids. One or two accidental deaths are hardly noticed when you have 6 more to take care of…



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