The casualties in this world of parental paranoia:
• Walking to school – barefoot, in the snow, and uphill both ways – used to be the norm. But so few children walk to school today – about 10 percent nationwide – that Oct. 4 has been named International Walk to School Day.
A major reason the K-8 crowd is sealed into the backs of SUVs and transported: Parental concerns about safety.
And those concerns “have as much to do with ‘stranger danger’ – the chance that a child walking to school will be snatched off the sidewalk by a complete stranger – as a fear of traffic,” states a Salon.com article about “Safe Routes to School,” an effort started several years ago to get more kids walking and biking to school.
Wendi Kallins, project manager for the Marin County, Calif., program, describes one father who attended a Safe Routes meeting: Intellectually, he understood his child was highly unlikely to meet a grisly end on the walk to school. But emotionally? “With my pretty blue-eyed daughter, I’m convinced she will be the one.”
“When you’re dealing with gut-level fears,” Kallins is quoted as saying, “there’s not much you can do.
“The whole level of fear in our culture is increasing.”
And so a vicious cycle ensues: Fewer children walk, so they don’t travel in the protective packs that once gave parents comfort. The increase in traffic heading to schools makes it more likely that a kid will be hit by a car, most likely driven by a parent. (Fifty percent of the children hit by cars near schools are hit by parents of other students, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.)
And kids miss a chance for exercise, social interaction and a dose of self-reliance.
• The death of play.
Much has been written about the overscheduled child and the lost art of play. Structured fun does far less to bolster creative thinking, self-sufficiency, teamwork building and social and problem-solving skills.
Almost all parents wistfully wish that their kids could experience playtime as they knew it, when children organized their own games and came home when the streetlights were turned on.
Yet no one seems willing to let their children simply go out and play. There’s the fear – that word again – that kids will be left behind if they don’t take part in the requisite number of classes and organized activities. There’s also a hands-off approach to other people’s children that didn’t exist 30 years ago, so parents can no longer count on “the village” to discipline or even keep an eye on their child. And many kids simply don’t want to play outside – video games and computers are the new playgrounds of choice.
But a 2001 Time magazine article quotes a Sarasota mom who sums up many parents’ sentiments: Unsupervised play is also dangerous.
She lives next door to a park, but her children aren’t allowed to play there. She has heard that people expose themselves there.
“It used to be that in the presence of one another, kids formed a critical mass to keep each other safe,” says Roger Hart, a psychologist at City University of New York. “Gone are the days when children make any of their own plans.”
• The death of trust.
As children have been trained to look out for menacing strangers, adults have learned to fear false accusations. The fallout: teachers cautioned to never touch a child, Scout troops unable to find male leaders and men who must think twice before interacting with any child who isn’t his own.
A New York writer shares his story: “A new child molester is roaming South Queens, N.Y. – me!”
He tells of walking behind an 11-year-old girl who kept nervously looking over her shoulder at him.
“When I sought to comfort her with a kindly smile, she became even more alarmed.”
The story continues: “I wasn’t some stranger cruising the neighborhood (didn’t a man once have the right to walk any street in America?).” Turns out, his son attends the girl’s school.
He didn’t think about the girl until a few days later, when a letter went home to parents, describing the “incident.”
The child’s report: “While on my way to school I saw a man following me. I looked back and he smiled and nodded his head.” The girl went into a drugstore, notified a security guard, and received a police escort to school.
Better safe than sorry? Maybe. But has this girl been trained to be cautious, or to be fearful? Will she grow into a young woman too timid to take a solo rail trip across Europe, drive herself across Route 66, or simply to walk through life taking pleasure in her own company, secure in her own good judgment?
• The death of self-sufficiency.
On college campuses, our culture of fear is coming home to roost. We’ve reared a generation denied the chance to play or to simply walk to school, protected from all failure and risk, and taught that the world is a very dangerous place.
Now, they’re struggling to grow up.
Talk to any professor, any college administrator, and hear tales of comically overprotective “helicopter” parents and students tethered to their mothers via thrice-daily cellphone calls. And when they graduate? The “boomerang generation” goes right back home to mom and dad.
Not all of this is rooted in fear of physical harm, of course. But there’s no doubt that a lifetime of protection from both menacing strangers and life’s regular bumps and bruises has left its legacy.
“With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life,” an article in Psychology Today states. “That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they’re robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness.
“Whether we want to or not, we’re on our way to creating a nation of wimps.”
• The death of common sense.
The culture of fear, as every parent knows, is not limited to “stranger danger.”
On the Web site Kids in Danger (the site’s icon: the ominous opened safety pin from diapers of yore!) parents can read about the perils inherent in high chairs, “soft bedding,” strollers, swings, cribs, etc. They can peruse a 44-page report on Baby Bath Seats/Rings.
They can bone up on the common childhood menace, toys: “Meant to provide joy and entertainment, toys, however, are linked to all-too-many injuries.”
Provided they survive their toys, the well-parented child emerges, perpetually helmeted, into a world of car seats, padded playgrounds, sanitary hand gel, compulsive sunscreen applications, nut-free classrooms, sugar-free birthday parties, cell- phones-as-umbilical-cords . . .
To be continued …
This article is reprinted with the permission of the author, Nicole Neal, The Palm Beach Post.