Friday, July 18, 2008

Can Our Kids Really Be Too Safe?

It's amazing any of us made it through childhood alive, given all the things in widespread use to keep kids safe today that our parents never made available to us. Things like car seats, bike helmets and bottled water. My sister and I used to enjoy riding in the back of my dad's pickup on the highway, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't secretly hoping we'd somehow bounce out.

We went to visit my mom's family in upstate Vermont regularly when I was a kid. Some of my fondest memories involve playing in an old gravel pit behind my grandparents' house. I used to imagine I was commanding a band of special covert operatives that included everyone from Han Solo to Captain America in an endless variety of missions. Running through rotting wood and rusty nails to rescue a damsel in distress. Sliding down steep embankments to sneak into enemy territory. Except for the tadpoles I'd sometimes catch in rainwater puddles, it was usually just me and my imagination. And I had an absolute blast doing it.

Some of my neighbors and I were talking tonight about the types of things we did as kids that we'd never dream of letting our own children do now, like playing in that old gravel pit. I read a great article on the subject recently by Lenore Skenazy, an op-ed columnist at The New York Sun. She actually has an entire web site devoted to the premise that we're not letting our kids truly embrace life and learn to make tough decisions which I highly recommend checking out if you're a parent with young children. Whatever your position on the topic, it's thought-provoking stuff.

In her article Skenazy observes that "these days, when a kid dies, the world — i.e., cable TV — blames the parents." She stops there and doesn't go a step further to suggest that protecting OURSELVES -- however subconsciously -- may be part of the underlying motivation for today's acceptable standards of protective parenting rather than just protecting our kids. Protecting ourselves against the potential guilt, shame and grief that would come from anything happening to our children, to the point where we see virtually NO risk as acceptable. We buy into the same flawed logic that champions of some causes hold that if something saves just one life it's worth it, with no consideration of the cost.

But Skenazy believes passionately that there is a cost associated with our increased standards for what's required to keep our children safe -- a cost in independence, freedom and decision-making that our kids need to prepare themselves for later in life. An interesting parallel to some of the sacrifices in personal liberties we as a nation have made in recent years in the name of security, regardless of what Benjamin Franklin said.

This is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for Danelle and I to deal with as Zak and Taryn grow older. I hope we employ the right balance of common sense and caution as we make our decisions, and that our kids benefit as much as possible from whatever our decisions are.

Fortunately for Zak and Taryn, Danelle's mom just has another patio home behind her house and not a gravel pit. Or unfortunately, I suppose.

UPDATE: Skenavy e-mailed me with the following message:

I really do think fear of blame is terrifying us parents as much as fear for our children's safety. In a society that supposedly has gotten beyond "blaming the victim," we still feel ready -- nay, eager -- to blame the PARENTS of a victim: "Why did she let him cross the street?" "Why wasn't she in the same room with her?" "Why did she blink?" Anyway -- great blog and great points. Your fellow tree in the forest -- Lenore "" Skenazy

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