Thursday, October 05, 2006

Diminishing Returns

After reading Not Calm (Dot Com)'s and Friday Playdate's Tuesday posts I examined a few of my own feelings about the state of things and how I can protect my children from the violence that seems to be everywhere:


My sons' favorite part of school is recess (no surprises there) but last week when I picked them up they were deflated. Northern Lights ABC Elementary School had outlawed Wall Ball. The world's fastest growing playground game, Wall Ball is a cross between handball, dodge ball and volleyball but was banned after a rash of Wall Ball injuries. The noon-duties shut it down, collected the balls and the principle made an announcement over the P.A. that in the name of safety henceforth and hereafter any child caught playing Wall Ball would be summarily executed.

During the eight years my children have attended this fine school I've watched one thing after another on the playground become "off limits": the group of twelve trees constituting "the woods" (evidently trees are a silent killer), the open field if there is a trace of mud (in Alaska, a weekly occurrence), the hill if there's any ice (ditto previous comment), the fence around the perimeter (because fences shouldn't be touched on general principle) and if there's even a trace of rain the whole thing is gone--it's indoor recess.

The situation is symptomatic of a larger issue which seems to continuously counteract my efforts as a parent: Regulation of the most basic aspects of everyday life in the name of protection, a societal attempt to sterilize humanity from the perils of existence. Life is a dangerous game, full of choices, costs, gambles, and consequences but in an attempt to improve our surroundings and eliminate unnecessary risks we are sanitizing childhood into oblivion.

Think about when you were young and learning to ride a bike. Did you know anyone who wore a helmet? The only kid I knew who wore a helmet was the boy next door who had a rare medical condition that had softened his bones. Other than that, I never saw anyone with a helmet, never saw one for sale in a store, and never would have thought of wearing one.

Moreover, I never knew a child to suffer a head injury while riding their bike. All the kids I played with in our neighborhood, all the hours I spent on my bike and there wasn't one head injury. As an adult I still have yet to see or hear of anyone who's suffered even a minor head injury while riding a bike, let alone a life-threatening fracture.

I know they exist out there--somewhere--I've read articles in the paper where emergency room doctors are quoted saying bike helmets have saved many lives. I'm sure there are even some reading this article who could tell gruesome tales but my point is: They are the rare exception. But when the Municipality of Anchorage passed an ordinance mandating bike helmets what was lost? Free choice? Accountability for one's actions? Learning cause and effect? How about the feeling of the wind in your hair? And the irony is that with the loss of these crucial life experiences the helmets still haven't eliminated the danger. There will still be bicycle fatalities.

But before you think this is all about bike helmets, let me expand a bit. My parents were children of the sixties lived through threats of nuclear holocaust, the Watts riots, riots at the Democratic National Convention, riots at Kent State, heck, riots everywhere, the fear dying in a controversial war, conflicts over civil rights, assassinations--JFK, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Bobby Kennedy--corruption in government and the resignation of Nixon. But they made it through and are well on their way to collecting social security.

But go back even further when my grandparents married in 1943, days before he shipped off to serve as a medic in World War II. They had lived through the Depression and knew what real poverty looked like, they lived through the trauma of Pearl Harbor, the possible world domination by the Third Reich, the death of friends and loved ones, and biological epidemics such as polio, influenza and countless other diseases. But even amid the turmoil someone was saying, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Have we reached that point? Are we running around with the televisions blaring fearing nothing of more substance than Fear Itself?

The problems and traumas of previous generations have been, if not irradiated, substantially diminished leaving us with so much leisure time and life expectancy that we have had to find new dangers to occupy our worrying hours. Smallpox, diphtheria, polio these are replaced by the fear of fluoridated water or allergic reactions to vaccines--ironically those same vaccines which wiped most childhood diseases from our collective memory.

Where there was once the threat of infiltration from Communist destroyers we now have Radon, allergens, nicotine, fluorocarbons, SARS, and DEET lying in wait to destroy our lives. Where there was once the reality of 25% unemployment at home and world-wide economic depression there is now the fear of not being able to retire by 65. Our life expectancy is roughly 80 years and our overall standard of living is higher than at any other time or place in human history but we're busy worrying about everything from child abductions to global warming to school shootings to a colliding with an asteroid.

Does this mean that that these new problems aren't a concern? Does it mean there isn't a danger of my child being involved in a school shooting? Does it mean I throw caution to the wind, bungee jumping off the nearest building? No, I still buy plenty of insurance, wear my seat belt, refrain from running with scissors, keep the batteries current in my smoke detectors and am thankful for restrictions on the consumption of alcohol. But I weigh the odds against the costs and consider the law of diminishing returns.

As a corporate attorney my husband reviews, drafts and negotiates contracts all day long; every person who comes to him would like to protect themselves from every eventuality, every possible problem they could encounter, every litigation that might ensue but there is a point at which the time, money and effort spent protecting against life's dangers hampers the basic purpose of business: to make money. At some point the work of covering one's bases becomes so large that trade is hampered in a mire of procedures and policies, decision-making is restricted in a morass of red-tape and production is countermanded by worry over who will take responsibility when something goes wrong.

This is what's happening to our children: in an effort to sanitize them from every germ, every chance of injury or violence we are wrapping them in a bubble where their creativity, intelligence, accountability and independence are compromised. This is what we're giving up by regulating and enforcing every precaution against danger--the old freedom v. protection argument so aptly being demonstrated in the airline industry since 9/11 We need to instead weigh the risks, examine the odds and take prudent but wise measures to protect against real dangers.

What real dangers? Well I'm not so much worried about my children becoming one of the 115 children abducted by strangers each year in the United States as I am about teaching them to work hard, to be kind and compassionate. I'm not so worried about the odds of them developing a life-threatening peanut allergy or breaking their neck on the neighbor's trampoline, as I am about teaching them to avoid materialism, dishonesty, corruption. The chances of my children being involved in a tragic school shooting--and my heart aches for those families who were--is less than the chance of them learning to cheat their way through school. One set of dangers is relatively remote while the others ever present and has ethical and moral consequences, which to me are in the end more important. I want to spend my time teaching my children to be the solution to society's problems rather than attempting to shelter them from society.

But even amid these abstractions, amid dangers that are harder to see than the latest bombing on the six o'clock news, I am comforted by hope. Hope that the violence, though well-publicized, will continue to be rare, hope that our families can survive a crazy world intact, hope that our children will turn out "okay," and that the good and decent people all around us--the ones paying taxes, volunteering at soup kitchens, donating to charities, standing up for goodness--will be doing their best right alongside us. Without hope we've lost what chance we might have had at success. So every morning I suck it up, give the kids a hug and a kiss, send them off to school and say a prayer. What other choice is there?

There is no way to protect ourselves--or our children--from every risk inherent in our mortality and when we try we pay too great of a price. What price? Well, now that the boys can't play Wall Ball they're left without their favorite form of exercise (what child in America today couldn't use more exercise?) without the satisfaction of playing a game they made themselves, without the social interaction and learning to get along the game facilitates and all they have left is the certainty that the adults are running every aspect of their lives. The final irony is that it won't eliminate playground scrapes and bloody noses--there will always be some kind of risk--they'd have to pass out surgical gloves and masks, individually bubble-wrap each child and stick them in a corner. And even then someone will be allergic to latex.

Technorati tags: parenting, danger, school shootings, bike helmets


nutmeg said...

Hi Michelle. I'm here by way of Bec at the Ladies Lounge.

I think the grouping of people in a society or community brings out the best and worst in people. A lot of its laws are created, unfortunately, to cater for the "lowest common denominator" and are thus more stringent then 99% of the community want or need. In this way, it informs the current mania for legislating against the statistically improbable or outlawing any event which "may" cause the slightest of injuries.

I completely agree with you; the risks must be fully understood, then the final choice should be left to the individual (or parent, in a child's case). It seems no one wants to take responsibility for their own actions. If things go wrong it is always the fault of someone else. Thus the laws and the bans to prevent law suits!

Having said that, I am sure if it were my child abducted or shot I would find it harrowing to deal with. However, ultimately, a life lived positively (learning those qualities that you list here), however long, has got to be better than a life spent cowering in fear about what might be. Life can be scary, especially when children come on the scene; we've just got to grab the joy when and where we can get it :).

Susan said...

I want to spend my time teaching my children to be the solution to society's problems rather than attempting to shelter them from society.


This is a beautiful post.

moonstruckmama said...

I've recently been lamenting the multitude of things I feel compelled to protect my children from, making their childhood ever so much less carefree than mine was--from worrying if their new friend's parents own guns (thus preventing them going to their house to play) to wondering if I'll ever let them walk home from school by themselves before puberty (likely not). It's deeply saddening to me, and yet, I can't help it!

Damselfly said...

Hey, you made me think today...thanks! Excellent points.

scribbit said...

I agree, MM, it feels like life is so much more restrictive today. I have a difficult time sorting the various statistics--seems you can find statistics to support any theory--but I have seen several reports showing that in certain areas it's no more dangerous than it was when my grandparents were kids. My grandmother, when I asked her about it, said that yes things were still scary then, that in her small town of Bellingham, WA growing up there was a child abducted and murdered which sent the whole town frantic. This is only anecdotal of course and unscientific, but it shows rather that I think many things we fear--our kids being snatched while on the way to a friends' house for example, and I certainly have worried about this myself--are rather remote likelihoods. One article I reference in my post suggests children have a 700 times more likely chance of getting into Harvard than abducted by a stranger in America. So the cost to me, outweighs the risk. Thanks so much for all your comments, I love having "grown up" discussions!

Julie said...

Excellent post -- very thought provoking. Last year my son's school outlawed tag on the playground (and yes he thought the world was ending). They told the kids they could play tag on the grass, but not on the playground because it was too dangerous. What's the fun of tag on the grass?

My Mom always tells us it's a wonder we all survived childhood because we slept in cribs with slats too far apart and rode in cars without carseats and drank orange juice before we were one and.... well you get the idea. The thing is, we had a pretty great childhood and I keep thinking that it was so much less stressful than the childhood my kids are getting now.

Leslie said...

Very well written. I totally agree.

Ni Yachen said...

Hear! Hear!

I remember hearing once while I was learning to ski, that if you are not falling you are not pushing yourself enough to learn to be better. We all want our kids to reach great heights and they can not do that without the freedom to fall and make mistakes. Without risk there is no glory in achivement. So tell your kids to say no to strangers and then have a well stocked first aid kit on hand.

AKTrout said...

Dear Michelle,

We are very proud. Could not have said it better ourselves.

Mom & Dad

mom2werogers said...

Wondeful post! This is an ongoing topic of discussion at my house, and my children are only 4 and 2. I specifically was taken with this stat you shared in your comments:
One article I reference in my post suggests children have a 700 times more likely chance of getting into Harvard than abducted by a stranger in America. So the cost to me, outweighs the risk.

I could not agree more. As a child I became obsessed with fear, to the point that I was not doing anything outside of my home. My parents had to talk me through it (and some meds helped of course). I think we need to focus on putting things in perspective when making decisions for our children, and guiding them to make their own!

Anonymous said...

As a child I was sexual abused by my father. (Great beginning to a comment, huh?) I am now a well adjusted, contributing member of society. Life was more dangerous for me at home then it was away. Do I think that this is a norm for others? No but a reality for me.

I used to always hear the saying that you're more likely to get in a car accident within 5 miles of home.

I'm glad that I was able to take risks when I was a child. I was also taught to calculate the risks. I wouldn't be who I am today if I didn't learn that from a young age.

But I still do not let my 5 year old go to a public rest room on his own. I can't handle that one. :)

jen said...

you are right - and it is so important to mitigate our fears with a dose of reality. And the lesson you wrote about is the most beautiful lesson of all.

girlymama said...

very true. as much as we want to shelter our children from the world... its relaly not what is best for them.

i agree - we have to say a prayer and send them out the door.

Georgia said...

Now don't laugh when I tell you this. Your "Diminishing Returns" should be submitted to Reader's Digest. Soon! Leave the title the same and give it a is excellent writing, thought-provoking and would get accepted.

So happy I found your blog!

edj said...

You make so many excellent points! Living overseas has given me a different perspective, and I find American society almost comically overprotective now. I was in a mall in Oregon this summer and watched a mother stop her little girl from drinking at a water fountain. "Oh that's icky water. Come on; I've got bottled water in the car." I gaped at her, thinking of how most of the world would be so grateful if their water was anywhere near the quality and quantity of her "icky water." Perhaps this isn't exactly on topic, but in my mind it fits--we overprotect because we want control, to compensate in our minds for the fact that ultimately, we are not in control.
Keep up the good work.

Marianne said...

What a wonderful, thought-provoking post! I think something important to me is to teach my (eventual) children to be critical thinkers. To understand that there's more to the world around them than rules that keep changing. That compassion, kindness, and thoughtfulness will always be assets. This is the first post of yours that I've read, but seriously - Just Wonderful! Thank you

Anonymous said...

It all comes down to one simple answer, Michelle: Tort reform. The very system that allows people to litigate ad nauseam is what keeps your husband employed. For every person with a legitimate claim against a faulty product that should never have made it out the door, or that simply fulfills it's statistically-derived failure rate, there are 100 who will still 'get paid' by juries for their Darwinian stupidity that they manage to blame on someone or something else. You call it Diminishing Returns, I call it the death of personal accountability.

tracy m said...

Hey Michelle- I'm Dandelion Mama (Tracy M) and I followed your link here... Thank you SO much for this post- and the link.

I feel just as strongly as you do about the over-protective, fear-based culture we inhabit- seriously, I could have written this! I mean, really, kids on tricycles need helmets?? Puh-leeze!

My family all tend to think I err on the side of too permissive- and while I am a stay-at-home mom who is involved in my kids lives, I give a lot of lattitude in exploring, getting dirty, and figuring out things for themselves... and beleive this is a fundamental part of childhood and the forming of one's identity.

I am adding you to my blogroll, and if you don't mind, I'm going to post a link to this post. Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, but as a teacher, I can safely assure you that many of the rules that are imposed are as a result of someone being hurt, or parent complaint/wishes. It is getting harder and harder to do anything, because parents are becoming more and more stringent about the most minute detail.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, but as a teacher, I can safely assure you that many of the rules that are imposed are as a result of someone being hurt, or parent complaint/wishes. It is getting harder and harder to do anything, because parents are becoming more and more stringent about the most minute detail.

Jamie J said...

I fell off my bike when I was 11, was knocked unconscious and got a concussion. I still don't remember that day...but you know what??? I totally agree with you! I love how you said rules are santizing childhood. It's okay for children to fall down and get hurt. It's part of childhood! Well said!

The Daring One said...

This is awesome Michelle. I feel like sometimes I'm so afraid of fear that I create fear itself for me and my children, if that makes sense. This is such a great perspective.

Mo Mommy said...

First off, I'm happy tracy linked you because it's nice to find another AK blogging mama.
Second...Hear, Hear!! Recently we heard about a high school that cancelled the rest of their football season because the coach thought the kids sucked so much they'd get hurt. The kids and parents BEGGED to have their season continue. Schools here have also banned tag, along with dodgeball and kickball. When my kid falls and I don't rush to his aid other people act as though I'm a poor parent, but my kids usually just get up and brush themselves off. I am smart enough to know when he's really been injured ya know.
I believe that our society as a whole functions in a state of fear. Remember when acid rain was going to destroy all our crops and we'd all starve? How about killer bees taking over the country and killing hundreds? It's no different now, except we have discovered a whole slew of new things to be afraid of.
Of course if a child is seriously injured, something should be done. But don't take away a child's ability to be a child for pete's sake, all in the name of preventing hurt feelings or bruised elbows. And don't be so quick to point fingers and find fault. People get hurt, things happen. Sometimes it's nobody's fault. Pick yourself up and continue moving forward, don't sit there crying until someone comes to coddle you and stroke your ego.
I could seriously go on forever, but in short, I agree!!!