What's the scariest thing you've ever let your child do?
A couple months ago Spencer and David asked if they could ride their bikes to the mall and I did a bit of a panic: should I let them ride that far? What would happen if they got lost? Would they get hit by a car in all that traffic?
Well I suppressed my mother worries and let them go. They navigated the traffic, including several construction zones, wandered the mall for an hour or two then came home very pleased with themselves.
They told me that they'd run into someone we know who asked where their mother was. When they told her I'd let them ride by themselves all that way the woman was shocked.
Unfortunately her response is pretty common--things have changed to the point that children are no longer allowed to grow, and are instead stunted by the restrictions of overprotective parents who are so afraid of the dangers speeding toward them they over correct and try to control every aspect of their children's lives.
I see this at my children's elementary school constantly--the kids are corralled on the playground, with a list of about three acceptable activities and more noon-duties than children--because, after all, it's safety first. But it's not entirely the school's fault because parents are just as guilty. School officials repeatedly tell parents to let their children come into the school and find their way to their classes by themselves but many parents still insist on walking their children to the door or even to the classroom (maybe even to their desks, who knows?) as if it's the first day of kindergarten.
I asked a friend of mine why she felt it was necessary and she said that she was worried that if she didn't walk her children to their class that someone might abduct them. I didn't laugh because obviously this was a serious concern for her but instead of finding it funny I actually found it sad, nearly tragic. Do parents now live in such fear that they'll sacrifice their children's growth and development on the alter of urban legends? Has the media worked us into such a frenzy over the shadows of "what ifs?" that we're willing to risk the next generation's ability to cope with the dangers inherent in mortality?
The truth is that children are no more at risk of abduction than they were 50 years ago. The odds of a child being snatched or stalked on the way to school are much less than the odds of them being in a car accident while being driven to school. But few seem to have the facts and we're becoming obsessed with sterilizing our children's lives: we refuse to let them travel anywhere alone, we encase them in pads, booster seats and helmets, we walk around with hand sanitizer, spraying up a fine anti-bacterial mist as we go and we blame anyone within reach--businesses, toxins, pollutants, governments--when something bad manages to get through our defenses.
When I was about 11 or 12 my sister--my younger sister--and I wanted to ride the bus to the mall. We got our quarters and permission from mom, looked up the bus schedule, then walked a quarter mile to the bus stop and hopped the city bus to the mall where we gorged on chili dogs. On the way home we got back on the bus but as it pulled out of the parking lot we realized we were heading in the wrong direction. Panicking as we got farther and farther from home we didn't quite know what to do and had no idea where the bus would ultimately deposit us--we were probably going to die.
Instead of going south to our house the bus took us north to the main terminal downtown. Too afraid to say anything to the driver we quietly got off the bus in the middle of the city and wondered what we should do next. Luckily I had another quarter and we found a pay phone (no cell phones you know) and called home. We told Mom what had happened and she came down and picked us up.
While it was a little scary at the time it was a wonderful experience. We learned how the bus system works, we learned good problem-solving skills, we learned Mom was there to help when we were in a tight spot and we learned it's good to plan ahead with extra quarters. But if I were to put my own 11 year-old on a city bus today I'd be vilified as a negligent parent.
We must stop babying our children. There are laws restricting how old they can be to get a job, how old they can be to be left alone, how they must wear bike helmets and ride in booster seats and when there aren't laws to keep them imprisoned in a cocoon of eternal dependence there's peer pressure from other adults who are convinced that the way to be a good parent is to make sure your child has everything they could possibly want but nothing that might possibly distress.
We've been so effective at protecting our kids that the age of children getting their driver's licenses has crept from 16 to nearly 18--kids are safer inside playing video games than doing anything so dangerous as driving a car, right? We've coddled and cozied them so that they languish in college for six years rather than the typical four trying to find themselves. Instead of leaving home at 18 or 19 to head into the world via education or work now kids live at home with mom and dad until their nearly 26, 27 and no one thinks it's the least bit odd. Who needs a fountain of youth when you have society's permission to be an adolescent forever?
And the irony of it all is that while we've managed to stretch adolescence into an eternity because we're so focused on the physical dangers in our environment we've lost sight of the moral dangers to the point that children are becoming exposed to degrading and inappropriate behavior at younger and younger ages: dressing immodestly, viewing pornography, even participating in sexual activity (though I'm told it's all okay as long as they're wearing helmets--or condoms, same thing).
So what would I suggest? Sigh. Well a bit of education first. Forget urban legends, a child isn't in danger of being abducted by a stranger nearly as much as being compromised in their own home. Random abductions aren't the worry--but mommy's boyfriend, unrestricted internet access or daddy's drug use is a very real concern when you look at the facts of where children really find trouble. Learn about where the real danger lies.
Second, let them run around outside, finding their way in the world within reasonable parameters, rather than staking them in the yard on a leash. Think about what you did as a kid and then relax a bit. Being able to do something that is hard or scary is one of the most important emotions a child can experience, it's what has fueled the greatest achievements of humanity and if you deny your children this they'll be crippled just as surely as if you raised them strapped into a wheelchair.
And finally, spend your energy making sure they're not spending all their time in front of a screen or on the internet. Instead of pulling out the Purell, work to keep the real filth--inappropriate music, television, music and media--from leaking into your home to ruin their minds. It's hard--much harder than making sure they have an allergen-free environment--but it can be done and it's the way to grow happy, productive adults.
There are so many worse things that can happen to a child than falling off their bikes or scraping their knees and the sooner parents acknowledge this the sooner we'll be able to go after the real things that endanger our children and the sooner we can teach them to be brave and to truly live a good life.
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Monday, October 05, 2009
What's the scariest thing you've ever let your child do?