As Childhood Overprotection Goes Up, Entrepreneurship is Going Down

The drive to make things happen begins as soon as children start to explore the world. But what happens when they don’t?

In today’s USA Today, North Dakota State Business Professor Clay Routledge and I consider the fact that entrepreneurship has fallen by 50% since the 1970s, in tandem with childhood freedom.

Correlation isn’t causation, and plenty of things have changed since the ’70s, but one of those things is the amount of time kids get to do things on their own. Instead, there has been a gradual “takeover” of childhood by adults.

Not only are kids spending 7.5 more hours on school a week than they did in the ’90s (the equivalent of a whole workday!), they’re spending much of the rest of the time in adult-supervised activities. The kiddie gym franchise “Tumbles” even offers a class for kids starting at four months old. What do they learn there?

How to crawl and listen and look around. Really! Babies enrolled in the class “start gaining a better awareness of the things around them” and their “understanding of speech improves,” according to the website — as if those things don’t happen automatically! As we explain in our piece:

Tumbles is a perfect illustration of the moment we’re in, when adults are expected to oversee and orchestrate almost every aspect of children’s lives, lest the kids do it wrong, get hurt, or—God forbid—fall behind.

Adults worry kids will waste time and potential without constant guidance

Once a culture’s confidence in kids’ safety and development has been undermined, adults feel they must be ever-present. This explains parents waiting at the bus stop every morning with their kids, and the fact that when you see kids playing a game outside, often they’re in uniform. Adults have organized the activity to make it safe and fair, and ensure the kids get practice in particular skills. Nothing wrong with that! “Kids are learning things,” we write:

…but not how to organize a game of flashlight tag (leadership), or build a treehouse (management), or do a wheelie (risk-taking, persistence, and resilience).

Those “soft skills” are the ones kids need to build a business — and bounce (or crawl!) back from the inevitable shocks.

The childhood trait entrepreneurs share

Business and lifestyle researcher Jodie Cook has studied the childhoods of hundreds of entrepreneurs. She discovered a couple of things they shared as kids, including independence — and not just a little bit. As she wrote in Forbes:

Once these children had a taste of independence, they searched for it everywhere. They started to make their own decisions, welcomed the chance to take ownership of a process, and fiercely protected their solo pursuits.

Their parents, she added, “became their biggest champions, giving them the confidence and belief required.”

Our culture is undermining kids by undermining our basic trust in them — trust that they can solve some mini problems and take some mini-risks without our wise counsel and assistance.

Adult-run childhoods make kids into “employees”

The issue isn’t just that overprotected/over-directed kids might not create the next Microsoft. It’s that their basic curiosity and competence don’t get a chance to blossom. Kids expecting to be told what to do and how to do it with very little “break time” are employees in their day-to-day lives, not entrepreneurs.

Routledge, a fellow at the Archbridge Institute, and I conclude our essay by noting that:

Wordsworth wrote, “The child is the father to the man.” Who we are as children is the oldest part of us—the seed of who we become. When that little shoot is pruned and perfected by doting, assisting, optimizing adults, the kids can become beautiful bonsai trees. But they’re stunted.

Could it be America has been losing its entrepreneurial edge by giving its kids every advantage—except freedom?