Despite the fact that I don't have children of my own, I've been a big fan of Lenore Skenazy's blog, Free Range Kids. She is a champion of the idea that we have become ridiculously overprotective of our children and that this is likely to have a negative impact on our society. I couldn't agree more. The attitude that we must make our society "risk-free" is crushing innovation and is weakening the fundamental social fabric of our culture.
A lot of the problem has to do with our media and news. Negative stories draw more attention and generate more ratings/hits than positive ones. Every bad thing that happens across the country gets presented as it could have happened right next door. And of course, it could have. But that isn't the same as saying it is likely. Crime rates are lower than they were during the 70's and 80's when I was growing up. Yet the general feeling seems to be that there are sexual predators and violent criminals lurking in every shadow. This has led to entire generations of kids that never get a chance to be independent, to explore neighborhoods and find out what it feels like to strike out on their own adventures.
I recently had a conversation with one of my co-workers who uses his daughter's iPhone so he can track her location at all times. He was also frustrated that he couldn't prevent her from texting with anybody she wanted, or from deleting texts and messages from the phone. Essentially he wanted to be able to know the details of every communication she had, as well as where she was at all times. I can't blame him for this. If I had a teenaged daughter (or son for that matter) I would be very tempted to try and monitor everything she did. I would like to think that I wouldn't do this though. I would like to think that I would be able to develop some trust and allow her/him a bit of freedom. Hopefully I could teach my children how to behave themselves, how to take some basic safeguards, and how to function in the world on their own. I cannot imagine what my childhood would have been like had I never been able to do anything without my parents supervision or knowledge.
I did some things I probably shouldn't have. I took some risks, got into a little trouble here and there. It happens. It was part of the process of growing up, of learning about limits; society's and my own. Ultimately, I think I'm a far better adult because I learned to take some risks as a child. I'm a little worried about what our society will be like after a few generations of kids that never had the opportunity to function on their own grow up and start running the show. In some ways I think I already know. I'm a beekeeper and have tried finding places to put hives. I wanted to put one at the community farm run by the university where I work. I was told it was too risky because there was a school half a mile away. I contacted a nature museum at a local park about placing a hive there and teaching kids about bees and beekeeping. Once again it was deemed too dangerous. Someone might get stung. I understand the risk, and that a sting can potentially be serious. I also know I got stung several times as a kid and that had nothing to do with being near a beekeeper's hives. It was just part of nature.
I see the attitudes at my local neighborhood watch meetings. People are upset that there are children outside without direct parental supervision at all times. I hear people talk about what terrible things could happen, how kids could be molested or abducted. Once again it is hard to argue. It is possible something bad could happen. And the overwhelming tragedy of such horrendous crimes being committed against children makes it easy to look at worst case scenarios and say rather safe than sorry. But the truth is that odds of something happening are extremely low. Most children that are abducted, molested, murdered or otherwise abused are victimized by someone in their family or that they otherwise have social contact with. Stranger danger is extremely rare. The odds of a child being victimized at home, school, or church are way higher than by some random stranger that sees them on the street. Driving a child anywhere in a car is several factors of magnitude more dangerous than letting them walk down the street on their own or text with their friends, yet we still create these horrible bogeymen of what could go wrong if we take our eyes off the kids for a second.
I really feel sorry for kids today. Helicopter parents and silly laws prevent them from just being kids and having fun. They don't get the chance to grow into well adjusted adults and learn how to stand on their own. And I feel sorry for all of us trying to live free under the smothering blanket of risk-aversion and government nannying that is springing from the resulting adults that still live in fear of the bogeyman.