Sara Millhouse

In about five minutes of news consumption last week, I went from being an anti-regulatory freedom advocate to a “nanny state” public safety proponent.

Both situations deal with the rights of children and parents. I am no longer a child (though occasionally I act like one), and I am not a parent, so my “standing” on these issues is shaky at best, but that didn’t keep my gut from responding.

The first story covered the conflict between “free-range parenting”—which aims to teach children responsibility and independence at a young age—and the idea that such practices could constitute neglect.

In the example that stuck in my mind, a mother is being investigated for letting her 10-year-old child walk alone to a park a mile away.

Seriously? At that age, I was certainly capable of—and did—navigate similar distances. (For a historical perspective, at the same age, my mother was grocery shopping and doing laundry for her family in downtown Chicago. My father was hopping a freight train from Galena to his dad’s workplace in Dubuque.)

Unless the child was sent alone through a near-war zone, I think the parent was acting appropriately. Are kids less capable than they used to be? Or are we just more frightened of the world around us?

In the second story, my gut twisted the other way. The Iowa state legislature is considering a bill that would ban tanning by minors.

As far as I’m concerned, seasonal depression is the only excuse for turning yourself a carcinogenic shade of orange.

The International Agency for Research of Cancer has given tanning beds the same risk classification as cigarette smoking, and women who tan more than once a month increase their risk of cancer by more than 50 percent.

Some states require parental consent for minors tanning, and I squirm to think that some parents might actually encourage their teenager to tan.

So much for defense of parental freedom.

I guess I’m more comfortable with a parent allowing their child to navigate an unknown or potential safety risk than allowing their child to take on a known health risk. 

And maybe my gut-check also has to do with values—I fear that tanning teaches teens to sacrifice their health for a false beauty ideal, but I hope parents are teaching their kids to value independent problem-solving.

We are very good at creating young adults who excel in specialized areas of achievement—academics and athletics, for example—but our culture may not be doing as well at teaching them to  make bold, independent choices or come up with original solutions for problems.

When I hear dire statistics about how the U.S. is “falling behind” other countries in math and science scores, I want to point out that America’s success did not stem from test scores but independence, innovation and creative problem-solving.

No tests can accurately measure those, and in our increasingly test-driven educational system, these lessons fall squarely on parents’ shoulders.

Not being a parent, I don’t have room to talk about the personal fear that parents feel for their children’s safety. But if we’re not careful, our culture will create adults who are increasingly fearful of the forces that shape their world.

And then, as the saying goes, the bad guys will have won.