In Writing

Yesterday’s post on nostalgia and the feeling that things “used to be better” left me thinking about how life has changed in the time since I was a child and teenager.  It’s a fairly pervasive way of thinking that we live in more dangerous times.  But do we?

When I was five, one of my favorite things was to walk with my mom from our little basement apartment to the house of my best friend.  Our moms were friends too, so while they chatted inside about whatever it was that grown-ups talked about, my friend and I joined a big posse of all the kids on the block and played games until dark.  Sometimes, we’d ride our bikes all the way around the block, stopping to snatch roses that peeked tantalizingly through a fence.  (The old man never failed to catch us doing it and yell at us).  Other times we played out in the street, games of Manhunt and Tag and jump rope or the hand-clappling games like “Miss Mary Mack.”

I thought of this the other day when my daughter, 15 years old, told me with surprise, “Wow, jumping rope is really a workout.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Today in gym they gave us the option to either jump rope or run and I decided to jump rope because I figured it would be easier.”

Because, yes, people, my fifteen-year-old never went through her “jumping rope in the street” phase.  Because she never played in the street.  So she didn’t know how strenuous it is.

Childhood has changed radically since my own.  Asked if we live in more dangerous times, 74% of people say yes, although crime rates are lower today across the board than when we were children.  Those of us who were “free range kids” in the 70s (and before) have raised a generation of kids on playdates and constant monitoring, all due to the erroneous notion that they’re growing up in dangerous times.  The fact is that stranger abduction remains extremely rare – just 115 in the latest year we have statistics, out of a country of over 300 million – and murder by stranger is even rarer.

I know this, and yet I participate in the culture of helicopter mothering.  My children didn’t walk home from school until middle school, although I did at a much younger age to a school that was much further away and required a ride on a public bus, as well as a long walk.  My children never played “out in the street” because no child in my neighborhood did.  We all loaded our kids into our cars, drove them to the playground and watched them for all the hours they were there.  I babysat my newborn brother at age ten and a half while my parents went to the store.  When my own children were ten I wouldn’t have dream of letting them do that, even though I loved the experience as a kid.

Why?

Some of it has to do with peer pressure.  The mothers around me didn’t leave their kids unattended, so neither did I.  They drove their kids everywhere, so I did too.  I arranged playdates because that’s what you did.  And some of it has to do with fear.  115 is an impossibly low number, but it’s not zero.  What if I let go and I was one of the horrifically unlucky ones?

Have I served my children well?  I don’t know.  They are safe, and that matters a lot.  They feel loved and cared for, and that’s important too.  But they’ve never taken a bus to New York by themselves, as I had on countless occasions by the time I was their age, and they never knew the freedom and adrenaline of biking away from the rose man at top speed at five years old, free and subversive.  Will this make them more docile and afraid as adults?  Or will it be a wash and will they catch up with their experimentation and risk-taking as they get older?  I wonder.  For their sake, I hope it’s the latter.

Click here for an interesting page full of comparative crime statistics.

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