The documentary Chasing Childhood debuts at the Doc NYC festival Nov. 11. It’s a fascinating look at kids’ busy lives, and Let Grow is thrilled to be part of it. The film features three of our founders—Jonathan Haidt, Lenore Skenazy, and Peter Gray—as well as real-world kids blossoming when their teacher assigns them the Let Grow Project: “Go home and do something new, on your own.”
We caught up with co-director Eden Wurmfeld to chat about the film. Take a look at our Q&A.
Let Grow: What is Chasing Childhood about?
Eden Wurmfeld: It’s about the unintended consequences of overparenting. How, with the best of intentions, we may be doing our children a disservice.
What do you mean by “overparenting”?
Being involved in our kids’ lives to the point where they have very few minutes without the supervision of an adult or [when kids are] in an organized activity where they’re being told what to do.
Is this just happening in the upper-middle class?
I was wondering that myself! The movie started out from a really personal place. [Co-director] Margaret [Loeb] and I were talking about how we grew up in New York City and how differently we’re raising our children. I have a photo of myself in my first-grade classroom, and my house key is around my neck. So I’m not misremembering that I would come home, let myself in, crawl up on the counter to get a cookie, and at some point an adult would show up.
We focused on three distinctly different environments: One was very upper-middle class—Wilton, Connecticut, which is mostly white. One was a New York City public middle school. And one was the Patchogue-Medford School District on Long Island, which is largely cops, firefighters, teachers, and a large [Latinx] population. It’s not a wealthy place. And all these locations were struggling with the same issue: rates of anxiety and depression in young people that are absolutely flabbergasting.
And that’s due, at least in part, to overprotection?
There’s a real danger to look at the past through rose-colored glasses. I went to Studio 54 in eighth grade on a semi-regular basis, and I don’t think you want your kids in clubs at age 13! But I also think that we’ve gone too far in the other direction.
The age at which we send our children out of the house has remained unchanged for around 100 years—it’s 18. But the age at which we let them do every other milestone has gotten so much older. So the time in which they’re going to acquire all these skills they need has been shoved into like a two-year period.
There’s not enough time for them to develop competence and confidence.
Which brings us full circle to that photo of that key around my neck.
Give us an example you saw of how the culture is undermining today’s kids’ autonomy.
Kids are not allowed to get off the bus if there’s not an adult to meet them. One girl in our film—the bus stops literally in front of her house. But her mother had to come out to greet her, or the driver couldn’t let her off.
Where does this overprotection come from?
It’s really multi-factorial. In the movie we look at “stranger-danger,” and the Etan Patz and Adam Walsh [kidnapping] stories. And we look at changes in education—the idea that “American schools are failing,” and we have to “teach to the test,” which puts incredible pressure on students and teachers to perform. And the culture leaning toward hyper-specialization. If you want to play competitive baseball now you have to play it all year long.
And what prompted you to contact Let Grow?
In our initial research, Lenore Skenazy’s name came up so many times, she was our very first interview. [And then we started visiting] schools doing the Let Grow Project.
That’s when teachers give the students the homework assignment to go home and do something on their own.
Honestly, it was like some kind of magic. Suddenly kids were allowed to be the way you hope they’ll be, which is discovering something new, getting joy and confidence out of having done it, [and] being proud. And the parents being excited and proud—it was kind of amazing. And that’s not to say that there was no fear or struggle with any of it. But kind of incredibly, it gets to all the points you hope for.
Like the story you show of Zach [a New York City middle schooler who wants to take the subway to his dad's house alone] doing his Let Grow Project.
Zach felt he was really capable of taking the train to visit his dad, and he felt bad that his dad had to schlep down every Friday just to pack up a pair of underwear, pants, and a retainer and then ride back. He was like, “I can do that.” He certainly knew his way. I feel like Zach was trying to reassure very nervous parents that he was going to be okay and that he really had this. And he was absolutely right. He did fine!
Score one for the Project. Should kids see this movie?
Definitely. Kids who’ve seen it feel like it’s a kids’ rights movie.
What do you think parents will get from your film?
I really hope this movie can lead to change. We all adore our children and want the very best for them. Maybe we have to reexamine some of what’s happening.
What are teachers saying?
They’ve been seeing that something is “off” in childhood. I’m betting some will do the Let Grow Project because it’s one step toward a healthier culture for our children.