Parenting styles are always evolving. Every generation brings new ideas on how best to raise children, but one particular type of parent persists. Whether they’re called helicopter parents, tiger moms or authoritarian parents, they all have one thing in common: They fall under the label of “strict.”
But where do the strictest parents in the world live? One study sought an answer to that question, and the results might just surprise you. The Policy Studies Institute at the University of Westminster in London collected data from nearly 20,000 kids in 16 countries — the United States was not among them — and found the kids on the shortest leashes live in South Africa, Italy and Portugal.
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The researchers used a definition for strictness that anyone who grew up in an overprotective or militaristic home can relate to: how much independence the children in the study were granted. That includes doing things like using public transportation or crossing the street solo and how much danger the children’s parents perceived their children to be in if they attempted these kinds of independent activities.
They found that parents in countries like Finland and Germany, where public safety standards are very high, play it pretty fast and loose, letting their kids ride bicycles solo around town or play outside after dark at around age 7 and giving them the go-ahead to hop onto a bus at around age 10.
The parents in stricter countries delayed both of those independence milestones by about three or four years, meaning most Italian, Portugese or South African kids won’t be playing any games of flashlight tag until they’re at least 10, and independent public transportation trips are a no-no until kids are well into their teens.
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OK, but what does it all really mean? Who fares better — kids on short leashes or kids with comparative free rein over their own comings and goings?
Well, technically the offspring of more relaxed parents, but the PSI isn’t drawing any causal lines between just laissez-faire parenting and positive outcomes for kids. It’s actually much more complicated than that. There’s more of a chicken-and-egg thing going on here.
In countries where public safety and education standards are higher, like Germany and Finland, parents are just more comfortable letting their kids explore the world around them. As a result, those kids tend to be healthier and readily solve their own problems.
In countries where that isn’t necessarily true, the parental protective instinct kicks in, and parents keep their kids under closer watch. The only problem with that, the PSI concludes, is that it only defers one problem (crossing the street at a busted traffic light isn’t suddenly safer when your child is a teenager) and ignores the overarching issue of safety. As a result, those kids aren’t able to reap the same benefits as their more independent counterparts.
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In fact, the study found that “unsafe environments for children are widely tolerated,” which may mean that parents consider the unsafe atmosphere to just be a fact of life and adjust their parenting around that fact.
Instead, the researchers recommend that parents should, well, make a bit of a stink about it. By demanding better safety standards and asking for policies to be implemented that consider the benefits of childhood independent mobility, the kids will be safer, and their parents can cut them a little slack. The kids will get their independence on, go on to be self-reliant young adults, and everyone can benefit.
Funnily enough, the researchers also recommended that countries adopt Daylight Saving Time to make sure kids are playing in the light of day. See, parents? That pesky back-and-forth with the clock might just be a good thing for kids after all, even if you’d rather stick pins under your nails than wake a sleeping toddler an hour early in the springtime.
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