A boy presses his face against the glass of a subway car at the Wall Street station in New York
Eric Thayer/AP

When grown-ups cow to the youngest passengers, we’re doing them a disservice.

On the subway, our sympathies and antipathies are on full display. So too are our overly precious attitudes toward children.

The other day, for example, my friend Svetlana and I were on a Brooklyn-bound D train when a family boarded with their son, who looked about six. The mother kept staring and rolling her eyes at us for not giving up our seats to her child. She testily said aloud: "Don't worry, sweetheart, someone will get off soon and you can have a seat." Huh? Really? The kid looked hearty and healthy to me—and very pleased to be standing on his own two hoofs. When someone nearby finally got up, the woman rushed her son over to the empty seat as though he desperately needed it.

As a parent myself, I understand how wearying motherhood can be—especially on a crowded train. And it’s true that a person’s disability or need for a seat may not be visible to the naked eye. But, generally, I think giving up one's seat to a kid old enough to stand on his or her own is a bad message and a symptom of a culture of parenting in America that enfeebles kids. While some systems, such as Portland, Oregon’s, remind families to yield the priority area to riders with disabilities, others treat kids like special passengers. Underlying the unspoken pressure to surrender our seats to youths is the belittling belief that they are limited and delicate. But when we treat them that way, we’re not giving them enough credit—or enough room to grow.

Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me and the forthcoming iGen, sees this phenomenon as a larger trend of over-babying our young. “It used to be,” she says, “that a seven-year-old could walk home from school. If you allowed your kid to do that today, people would say you’re crazy.” So crazy, in fact, that your child would be picked up by Child Protective Services: In 2015, a Maryland couple’s six–year-old daughter and ten-year-old son were scooped up by the authorities while playing unattended at a park two blocks from their home. In order to retrieve their kids, the parents had to sign an agreement promising never to let them play unsupervised again.

It’s hard for me to understand the coddling impulse because it’s so different from my own experience. When I was 10, I walked one mile from my home on Cord Street to Gallatin Elementary School in Downey, California, every single day—and then back. With the $5 I scabbed off my mom, I bought a Happy Meal at McDonald’s after school and swapped Garbage Pail Kids with a small posse of friends. Granted, today’s world is rife with risks—rampant gun violence, terrorist threats, a plethora of high-tech means for inappropriately accessing, stalking and harassing kids—that didn’t exist in my day. But I can’t over-emphasize how much the free range my parents allowed me instilled a sense of independence and agency that informs my steely belief, even today, that I can take care of myself.  

My mom, a no-bullshit, grouchy Greek who prides herself on being “un-nurturing,” epitomizes the kind of parenting that would get her ticketed today—or at least have some helicopter parents apoplectic. She smoked and cursed in large sums in front of me and my brother throughout our entire childhoods. If we took a spill off a bike and gnashed a knee, she’d immediately say, “Stop crying, you’ll live!” To our childhood whims, she said “no” far more often than “yes.” Her approach to parenting gave us a kind of grit and self-discipline. And she never would have expected an adult to forfeit a spot on the subway for our sake. In fact, she'd expect the opposite: That we'd give up our seats for adults.

The subway provides a good vehicle for entrusting kids to hold their own among the masses. Sure, it’s not always comfortable to steady yourself on a moving train with your hands wrapped around a filthy pole, but learning to exist with grace in a state of discomfort is an important formative milestone. It’s called learning to stand on your own two feet.

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