Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How did we survive childhood?

I have to wonder how it was that I managed to survive my childhood. Not just me either, but my brothers and all the kids I knew.

The typical summer day would see us run outside early in the morning. We’d find our way home for lunch and then disappear again. We hiked through woods, and fields. We caught snakes and used them to terrorized girls who dared follow us. We were outside the view of any parent for much of the time. And, in a utopia without cell phones, our parents couldn’t call us every 15 minutes or use a GPS system to track our moves.

If they wanted to reach us they had to stand on the front porch and call out our names. And, if we felt like it, we answered. But, truth be told, we often heard them and didn’t answer

We just played. The rule was: Come home when the streetlights turn on. Otherwise we were free to wander the neighborhood and nearby forests at will.

During the school year I walked to grade school every day. It was about half a mile each way. But I wasn’t alone. All the kids walked, except for a handful. And none that I can remember were accompanied by parents.

There were parks nearby that we could play in. We went when we wanted and didn’t tell our parents where we were. We played on jungle gyms and slides without kneepads and rode bikes without helmets.

By the time I reached sixth grade I was at boarding school. On weekends I could, and did, leave campus. I would walk about a mile, perhaps two, to the local mall where they had a McDonald’s and a movie theater. I would usually see whatever film they were showing. I was entirely on my own from after breakfast until just before dinner.

Here’s the thing: Crimes against children have been declining. But the safer we get the more paranoid we, as a society become. From 1990 to now substantiated cases of child sexual abuse has dropped in half. Cases of physical abuse have dropped in half as well. Assaults on teens have also dropped by about 50%. In some states the declines were closer to 80-90%. (Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Washington)

But as kids have become safer parents have become more paranoid, a paranoia that politicians are always ready to exploit. In the world of politics the best problems to address are the imaginary ones, you always succeed at slaying monsters that don’t exist.

USA Today reported that:

Today's kids may never know the no-cares times of innocence, exploration and imagination that their parents recall about childhood.

Many parents rarely let their kids roam the neighborhood, use public transportation or walk to school alone. Play and sports are organized into play dates and teams, and extracurricular activities eat up kids' free time.

Experts say all this structuring and control is destroying childhood. It increases stress, anxiety and depression and destroys any sense of independence. It is, in reality, turning out kids who yearn for Big Brother to take care of them in every way, even at the cost of freedom.

One parent was quoted as saying that while she had a free childhood she can’t allow her children, including one 13-years-old, the same freedom because: “There’s a possibility of someone taking them. There’s too many things that could happen today.” The woman, I fear, is rather dense. Since she was child, and free, the risks have declined, not increased. Her kids today have even less of a chance of being hurt than she did. It is more likely that she would win the lottery than one of her children being kidnapped by a stranger.

Prof. Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, said:

"I've been examining this culture of fear for seven years and every year the situation gets worse. Things that weren't a problem three years ago are today.

"Before, it was argued that it was unsafe for kids to play outdoors on their own. Then they were unsafe playing indoors, so kids were encouraged to sit at a computer. Now there is the risk of pedophiles lurking in chatrooms.

"Whatever kids do, there's a health warning. I passed a park play area recently and for every child on the swings or monkey bars, there were about two adults watching to make sure they didn't get hurt.

"There was no chance for the kids to play around and have an adventure because they were under constant surveillance.

"We no longer think of them as being robust - we now see them as vulnerable and at risk. We think there must be constant adult supervision. But youngsters also need to be taught to be self-sufficient."

The risks I faced in life were greater when I was child, than what children face today. Yet parents today are blithering idiots compared to the parents of my generation. Sure child abuse takes place, more often from parents than from strangers, mind you. In the UK, for instance, the number of child murders has remained steady at about 70 per year; but strangers commit only 11 of them. Parents are the greatest threat to children today, not strangers in raincoats with lollypops. Parents are more likely to kill their child than strangers are, more likely to physically abuse their child, more likely to sexual abuse their child, and even more likely to kidnap their child, usually during a custody dispute.

Statistically kids are safer playing outside alone, than staying in the home with their parents. It used to be that one really had to only worry about the damage done by bad, abusive parents. But today “good” parents are damaging their children.

The incident that comes to mind was when I was sitting in an airport waiting for a flight. Due to our exaggerated fear of terrorism I had to arrive hours early just in case the TSA molesters were acting up. I sat near the window and was reading. Nearby a woman was standing with her young daughter. The young girl walked to window to watch the planes. She was literally about 10 to 15 feet away and directly in front of the mother.

But mom had looked away for a second and then looked at where the girl had been standing. Instead of just looking around and seeing where she was, the mother started screaming for her. The girl ran to her mother who continued berating the child with comments about how the airport is filled with strangers and strangers could take her away and hurt her. I wanted to slap the mother, instilling this sort of paranoid delusion into her child. What sort of harm is done when kids are terrorized by the world around them?

I fear the harm is not just to these children, who are emotionally traumatized by the dangers of having “good” parents, but our entire culture is harmed. I fear what sort of world paranoid children will demand when they grow up. If they have been reared on a steady diet of fear and paranoia, what sort of government will they want to control the imaginary dangers they face? Parents need to wake up and let go, let the kids be kids and stop being paranoid jerks.

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