Mike Lanza, a dad and tech entrepreneur from Menlo Park, California, thinks we’re experiencing a crisis in child-rearing: Boys aren’t allowed to play rough or run free, and moms hover nervously at the margins of children’s social worlds, chirping reminders about sharing and playing nice. The result, he explains in a profile in this week’s New York Times Magazine, is a panopticon of emasculation, an issue we’ve certainly heard about before. Helicopter parenting—a “mom philosophy,” as Lanza sees it—is ruining our boys and turning them into “sissies,” a bunch of whiny, Oedipal losers.
Like any self-respecting Silicon Valley big swinger, Lanza is certain that it’s up to him to develop a hack for this sorry state of affairs. In 2012, he wrote Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood into a Place for Play, which looks at a handful of case studies where communities have come together to make their neighborhood a place where kids can roam unsupervised. More recently, he’s made his own Playborhood: he’s built a top-of-the-line “high risk” play area in his backyard. I don’t mean real-world high-risk, like broken glass and cigarette butts. (Can you even buy cigarettes in Menlo Park anymore?) I’m talking about something built of durable, attractive materials by, you know, makers. These kids are going to play rough, but they’re going to do it on the best high-risk play structure money can buy.
Neighborhood kids are invited to play there anytime they want. His neighbors are nervous—especially the moms! Will those moms ever learn to chill?!—but he doesn’t care. He knows that ultimately, the kids will thrive on this freedom, and grow strong, brave, and self-reliant, maybe even like the kids from Stranger Things—only way, way richer, and smarter too, since they’ve all been going to Kumon classes since before they could grip a pencil. By “kids,” of course, I mean boys. Girls don’t seem to register on Lanza’s radar. Maybe it has something to do with the environment he lives in.
Despite his seeming disinterest in girls (he claims, on the Playborhood Facebook page, that the New York Times article mischaracterized him in this regard), I agree with him about the importance of free play. I was raised on a commune by a bunch of hippies who, by their own admission, weren’t always paying attention to us kids, and I too have opinions about helicopter parenting and its discontents. I believe the data about the cognitive and affective benefits that unstructured play provides kids. I’ve been raising my two sons with that data in the back of my mind. I think Lanza’s right that well-off parents should back off with the activities and classes. But this is all based on mythical presumptions in 2016 America: that most kids have a safe place to play in, and most parents have the time and energy to think critically about their kids’ spare time to begin with.
Children’s play has always been a gendered construct, but the degree to which it’s defined by class in 2016 is getting dystopian. From Sophie the Giraffe to rock climbing classes, kids’ leisure time is yet another broadcasting tool for their parents’ purchasing power. Now it looks like even benign neglect is grist for the mill; Lanza did market research before planning his Playborhood, hoping to optimize kids’ buy-in so that more of them would participate. Mike Lanza’s Playborhood has about as much in common with the regular outside world as Pee-Wee’s Playhouse has with my apartment. I’m sure his kids and their friends love it, and why wouldn’t they? It’s a funhouse, just one that happens to be masquerading as a moral crusade.
I believe that a lot of middle- and upper-class helicopter parents (very few if any helicopter parents are poor) are anxious about a lot more than just their kids’ safety. Many parents clinging to the middle and upper-middle classes have to work long hours, which can complicate their relationships to their kids. Parents who have to work all the time tend to overcompensate, and it’s hard to blame them. It’s no coincidence that the most notoriously hovering parenting cultures are found where the cost of living is highest. When competition for private school spots and college acceptance feels like a zero-sum equation between a kid’s success and failure, people tend to act crazy. This is not because they’re neurotic, it’s because there are so few decent options in the middle. Meanwhile, financial anxiety can swallow a person whole. When health insurance and sick days are costly and precarious, the prospect of having to tend to a kid with a broken leg for six weeks is enough to make a mom... nervously remind her kid not to climb too high on the jungle gym.
In the Times article, Lanza refers to himself as a libertarian. That might be the basis for my disagreement with him; his Playborhood movement focuses on communities that have come together on their own to arrange for safe public spaces for their kids. Yes, one of the ten communities his book profiles, the Lyman Play Street in the South Bronx, is low-income. These neighborhoods truly are remarkable, but they can’t possibly be leaned on as the basis for a national movement. An inspiration? Sure. But people can’t generally undertake this kind of project on their own—if they could, we’d see more of them.
This is why we have things like the New York City Parks Department Play Streets program, which, as it happens, enables the Lyman Play Street to exist—because most families don’t have the time or resources to mobilize their own Playborhood. The people who are most in need of safe common areas for kids are poor people, and they can’t do it alone. They need safer streets. They need jobs that give them both a living wage and enough time off to spend time fixing up their front yards. A friend of mine joked that in the context of growing American income inequality, Lanza’s backyard playspace contains a perverse whiff of the faux-rustic hamlet that Marie-Antoinette had built at Versailles, where she could play at getting her hands dirty every once in a while with the peasants she hired to live and work there. As childhood in a “state of nature” becomes an elite aspiration, it’s hard not to see some parallels.
Mike Lanza fondly remembers the 1960s of his childhood, the way he and his friends roamed around in a carefree pack. In the ’60s, my dad used his Bar Mitzvah money to put a down payment on that 80-acre commune I mentioned earlier. The ’60s were a time of American prosperity not seen since, and that prosperity had social ripples that enabled suburban kids to grow up like Mike Lanza. Today, roaming free in a safe place is an enormous privilege for most American kids. Helicopter parents are a symptom of outrageous income inequality, not maternal wackness.
So, what are middle class parents who don’t want to helicopter to do? For me, making a critical mass of like-minded friends was key (it’s also hard to do, and can take years—it took me about four years to find my “people.”). Often, fully unsupervised play is not an option, whether because of safety concerns, or traffic, or simple lack of space. But if you can at least hang out with a group of friends while your kids play nearby or in the next room, you might find a bit of that breathing room that the data indicates is so good for kids. It helps that where I live, we can drink in the park. (As long as there’s food! But granola bars count!)
Mike Lanza is pretty stoked on himself, having built his kids an awesome outdoor play zone complete with ladders leading up to the roof. He loves it when the local moms get nervous—he feels that he’s leading by example, teaching them all something about how to parent. But dude built a premium space within an elite environment. How would he feel about free play if there was a chance his kids could encounter people suffering from opioid addictions while ranging around, or if there was no place for them to climb besides a dingy public park? Mike Lanza’s accomplishment amounts to a rich person fluffing his already extremely fluffy nest. Congratulations, guy. You’re a visionary.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton is a writer and graduate student in Montreal.