Closeup of little boy's legs and hopscotch drawn on asphalt.

The Power of Parents: 2 Things I Learned People-Watching At The Airport

When you analyze public policy and news for a living, it’s easy to think the best way to track human behavior and cultural trends is to dive into what others write and say. There’s no doubt that’s instructive, particularly when you work, as I do, with the smart team of people at Locke. But every now and then I’m reminded of the power of first-person observation. As I sat in two airports and waited through a nearly three-hour delay over the weekend, several things became apparent.

Kids model their parents’ happy demeanor. It was joyous to watch smiling dads and moms connect eye-to-eye with their kids as they screened out the onslaught of noises and activities that can be delightful distractions to restless children. Kids of all ages – even the teens – were smiling back at their happy parents. You may be thinking, well, so what’s the big deal about that? To me, it’s huge. At that moment, in that microcosm of the world, kids were modeling their parents’ behavior. As I scanned the gate area, happy parents were creating happy families. Conversely, grumpy parents were seated with grumpy kids. It was stark and consistent. Outlook on life is contagious. It’s not a trite talking point to say that parents are their kids’ first teachers. Be careful what we teach them. They’re watching and internalizing, and then heading out into the world to put their outlook on life into practice.

We’ve jumped the shark on digital. When a very young child knows what wi-fi is, we’ve gone too far. I sat across from a child – perhaps four years old – who turned to her mom and said with a huff, “there’s no wi-fi.” The mom’s reaction was to complain about the service. The girl pouted and lamented that there was “nothing to do” without the device. Nothing to do? There’s plenty to do. How about talking? How about taking a stroll? How about pulling out a book or a puzzle? Count me among those who believe that digital technology is as much a curse as it is a blessing. The interaction reminded me of this post about how childhood has changed, and how parents have changed, from author Lenore Skenazy:

These technological tethers are particularly insidious. A Wall Street Journal article titled, literally, “Raising a Free-Range Child in 2020,” suggests equipping the kids with smartwatches that allow parents to track the kids. In fact, one of the pre-installed buttons sends the text: “When are you picking me up?”

A mom interviewed in the Journal piece waxed nostalgic about her childhood down by the creek. Spending time there, “was not just lovely but really important in creating independence and developing confidence,” she said, adding, “I wanted to find a way to recreate that for my daughter.”

So she gave her daughter a high-tech watch. And when the girl’s chain fell off her bike, the girl alerted her dad who immediately came and fixed it.

Presented as a win for autonomy, this is, in fact, the opposite—and the opposite of that mom’s independence-building creek-time. The girl didn’t figure out how to fix her bike, or how to get home without it working. She called childhood’s Triple A: the Always Available Adult.

Constant adult oversight is a stealth reason kids have less autonomy. Parents think they’re giving their kids freedom, but it’s actually a blanket of surveillance and assistance. The kids know they are never truly on their own, and from what I’ve seen, they often become accustomed to it. Being on your own starts to seem scary when it is never the norm.

Everything in moderation, including the attachment to digital. That’s the key, in my view. And that advice applies even to my people-watching at the airport. After taking in my fellow travelers for a bit, I pulled out a book.

No wi-fi required.

Donna Martinez / Senior Writer and Editor

Donna came to the John Locke Foundation in January 2003 after freelance writing for Carolina Journal and contributing to projects for the North Carolina Education Alliance. He...