The statistics don't support helicopter parenting

The story of a mother from the Canadian city of Winnipeg, Manitoba who received an aggressive visit from the provincial Child and Family Services unit because she allowed her three children to play in the family's backyard has received international attention.

It's a frightening tale, and certainly adds fuel to the fire for calls to severely curtail -- and in many cases, eliminate -- the powers of government agencies whose role is purportedly to ensure the safety of children. As the case at hand illustrates, it is all too easy for the overly broad and intrusive powers to be misused and employed by unscrupulous individuals both inside and outside the bureaucracy for the sole purpose of harassing private citizens engaged in legal activities.

But even those commentators who see this case correctly are misinterpreting the historical trends that got us to this point. In the Globe and Mail, Leah McLaren writes about the phenomenon of helicopter parenting, but gets the statistics wrong:

Now let me just say that I am not one to take a hard line on the subject of so-called "helicopter parenting." Compared to the incredibly relaxed standards most of us were brought up with, most parents today seem like raving neurotics. I walked a kilometre by myself, in the rain or deep snow, to kindergarten at the age of five -- a journey my parents thought nothing of. And yet I wouldn't dream of letting my seven-year-old stepson walk to the corner store on his own -- for good reason.

It's not that my parents' generation was innocent of the possibility their kids might be hit by a car or abducted, they just thought we were sensible enough not to cross the road without looking both ways/not to get in the van if a stranger offered us candy (we were actually coached on both these scenarios in elementary school). And while it's flattering how much credit they gave us kids, I think parents in the seventies and eighties were a little overly chilled-out when it came to child supervision and safety. In fact, the statistics bear this out: Child injury and accidental death rates have plummeted since the mid-nineties, when so-called helicopter parenting became the norm.

The historical datasets simply do not support McLaren's claims. In fact, child injury and accidental death rates were declining much more rapidly before the era of helicopter parenting.

We see this trend across the industrialized nations. Among the OECD member states, death rates among children aged 1 to 14 were declining rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s and then started to flatline by the mid-1990s -- just when helicopter parenting was taking off.

In 2006, researchers from the Public Health Agency of Canada published a study on the trends in childhood injury mortality in Canada between 1979 and 2002. Their data clearly shows that age standardized unintentional mortality rates due to injury were declining far more quickly during the late 1970s and 1980s than they were in the post-helicopter parenting era.

A 2013 study from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research also doesn't support the helicopter parenting syndrome. The researchers found that since the mid-1990s, there has been no declining trend in the occurrence of serious injuries reported by young Canadians "despite the fact that injury has been recognized as an important public health issue in Canada, and considerable resources have been put into prevention efforts... [t]his is of obvious concern to public health officials in Canada."

The same patterns are evident in the United States, where some of the best public data on child injury and accidental death rates are available. Rates of fatal unintentional injuries were plummeting during the 1980s and then they stopped plummeting, exactly when helicopter parenting came into vogue in the mid-90s. Same goes for non-fatal injuries, whose rates have barely changed since the 1990s.

Helicopter parenting and the reign of terror from government "child services" departments need to end. Both are causing more net harm than good, as are parenting columns in the mainstream media. A return to the sensibilities we had in the 1970s and 1980s is in order -- for the sake of the children.

The story of a mother from the Canadian city of Winnipeg, Manitoba who received an aggressive visit from the provincial Child and Family Services unit because she allowed her three children to play in the family's backyard has received international attention.

It's a frightening tale, and certainly adds fuel to the fire for calls to severely curtail -- and in many cases, eliminate -- the powers of government agencies whose role is purportedly to ensure the safety of children. As the case at hand illustrates, it is all too easy for the overly broad and intrusive powers to be misused and employed by unscrupulous individuals both inside and outside the bureaucracy for the sole purpose of harassing private citizens engaged in legal activities.

But even those commentators who see this case correctly are misinterpreting the historical trends that got us to this point. In the Globe and Mail, Leah McLaren writes about the phenomenon of helicopter parenting, but gets the statistics wrong:

Now let me just say that I am not one to take a hard line on the subject of so-called "helicopter parenting." Compared to the incredibly relaxed standards most of us were brought up with, most parents today seem like raving neurotics. I walked a kilometre by myself, in the rain or deep snow, to kindergarten at the age of five -- a journey my parents thought nothing of. And yet I wouldn't dream of letting my seven-year-old stepson walk to the corner store on his own -- for good reason.

It's not that my parents' generation was innocent of the possibility their kids might be hit by a car or abducted, they just thought we were sensible enough not to cross the road without looking both ways/not to get in the van if a stranger offered us candy (we were actually coached on both these scenarios in elementary school). And while it's flattering how much credit they gave us kids, I think parents in the seventies and eighties were a little overly chilled-out when it came to child supervision and safety. In fact, the statistics bear this out: Child injury and accidental death rates have plummeted since the mid-nineties, when so-called helicopter parenting became the norm.

The historical datasets simply do not support McLaren's claims. In fact, child injury and accidental death rates were declining much more rapidly before the era of helicopter parenting.

We see this trend across the industrialized nations. Among the OECD member states, death rates among children aged 1 to 14 were declining rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s and then started to flatline by the mid-1990s -- just when helicopter parenting was taking off.

In 2006, researchers from the Public Health Agency of Canada published a study on the trends in childhood injury mortality in Canada between 1979 and 2002. Their data clearly shows that age standardized unintentional mortality rates due to injury were declining far more quickly during the late 1970s and 1980s than they were in the post-helicopter parenting era.

A 2013 study from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research also doesn't support the helicopter parenting syndrome. The researchers found that since the mid-1990s, there has been no declining trend in the occurrence of serious injuries reported by young Canadians "despite the fact that injury has been recognized as an important public health issue in Canada, and considerable resources have been put into prevention efforts... [t]his is of obvious concern to public health officials in Canada."

The same patterns are evident in the United States, where some of the best public data on child injury and accidental death rates are available. Rates of fatal unintentional injuries were plummeting during the 1980s and then they stopped plummeting, exactly when helicopter parenting came into vogue in the mid-90s. Same goes for non-fatal injuries, whose rates have barely changed since the 1990s.

Helicopter parenting and the reign of terror from government "child services" departments need to end. Both are causing more net harm than good, as are parenting columns in the mainstream media. A return to the sensibilities we had in the 1970s and 1980s is in order -- for the sake of the children.