Meet Mike Lanza, the anti-helicopter parent of Silicon Valley

Lanza is a supporter of the 'playborhood,' an ideal neighborhood in which children are allowed to play freely and unfettered by parental paranoia.

When Mike Lanza and Perla Ni purchased a swanky house in Menlo Park, Silicon Valley, they did what few people care to do these days: they made it visibly child-friendly. With a picnic table in the front yard, a whiteboard mounted on the fence with projected videos, a 24-foot play river, a map of the neighborhood painted on the driveway, a fountain for passing dogs to drink, and a two-story log playhouse and trampoline in the back, it is a paradise for kids. The Lanza family welcomes neighborhood children to come by anytime to play, even if they’re not home — something that’s absolutely shocking to most American adults who live in fear of litigation.

Mike Lanza is an outspoken anti-helicopter parent who believes that many American children nowadays are at risk of having worse childhoods than their parents, despite significant socioeconomic improvements. The problem is that they lack freedom and control over their own lives. They are micro-managed by uber-mothers (a.k.a. helicopter moms), who constantly hover and, as Lanza says, “are allowed to dominate passive dads.” As the father of three sons, Lanza believes that this approach deprives young boys, in particular, of important masculine experiences.

The New York Times cites Lanza:

“Think about your own 10 best memories of childhood, and chances are most of them involve free play outdoors. How many of them took place with a grown-up around? I remember that when the grown-ups came over, we stopped playing and waited for them to go away. But moms nowadays never go away.”

Lanza strives for an ideal that he calls the “playborhood,” also the title of his self-titled book. This is a world in which neighbors’ fences are knocked down (unfortunately his neighbors in Menlo Park did not agree to do this) and children are able to roam and explore on their own time, unfettered by parental paranoia. The irony is that he lives in a place where parents spend inordinate amounts of time actively molding their children into highly skilled, successful little beings who dabble in everything, thanks to expensive extracurricular activities and tutors.

This is ironic because, “to a comical extent, parents here justify the perverted ambition through appeals to research (enlarging the language center of the brain and so forth) while ignoring research on the negative effects on children of being micromanaged.”

Kids should not be micromanaged, especially not to the extent that America inflicts on its young ones. Even Silicon Valley, with its great affluence, has seen a rash of recent teenage suicides that points to a parenting system that’s clearly self-defeating:

“Basic developmental psychology posits that if children develop a fundamental sense that they (not their parents) are masters of their own destiny, they will be successful adults, and that without that belief they will flounder: It’s easy to want to rid yourself of a life that doesn’t feel truly your own.”

To achieve this, you begin with play, hence Lanza’s focus on creating a welcoming and unsupervised yard. Parents need to trust their kids to follow general rules and to use common sense. (Lanza’s kids love playing on the roof of the house, although he trusts them not to play tag up there.) Parents also need to de-schedule their children’s lives, because kids need other kids to play with, otherwise they will default to screens.

Melanie Thernstrom writes for The New York Times:

“There’s a quirky, utopian libertarian quality to Mike’s philosophy; he is a man guided above all by his theory of how life should be. For him, low-probability events are very unlikely and therefore dismissible.”

Lanza’s philosophy is refreshing, and hopefully it will inspire other parents to step back, too — creating more time to enjoy their own lives, one might add — and let their kids be kids. As we all know, those years are fleeting yet crucial.

Tags: Kids | United States

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