Our kids are safer than ever. So why are we still afraid? by Lenore Skenazy
June 2, 2009
What do the DVDs Sesame Street: Old School and Showgirls have in common? Besides enduring popularity, that is?
Simple: They are both for adult viewing only.
Swear to God. If you go out and buy the deluxe DVD set of Sesame Street‘s early days – 1969 to 1974 – you will have a delightful night ahead of you, watching kids play follow the leader, and climb through a giant pipe in a vacant lot, and laugh as they go hide-and-go-seeking through laundry on the line. It is childhood at its most PBS pure. But be forewarned: you will be watching something labeled – seriously – “For adults only.”
That’s how much childhood has changed in just one generation.
I should know. I let my son do a time-honored rite of passage here in New York – that is, I let him ride the subway by himself, last year, at age nine – and got labeled “America’s Worst Mom.” Yeah, worst. Because I listened to my son, who’d been begging me and my husband to let him do this “grown up” thing for months until we finally thought, “Well – okay.” We made sure he knew how to read a map, gave him money for the trip and quarters for the phone and then, one sunny Sunday, I left him.
In the handbag department at Bloomingdale’s.
There’s a subway station right underneath, which he found, of course. But I didn’t stick around to watch, because I knew he would. In fact, if I’d thought he was in mortal peril, I never would have let him go at all. But really – I said, “Goodbye! Have fun!” because I trusted him, I trusted my city (with its crime rate now on par with Boise, Idaho). And I even trusted the training I’d given him in how to get around in the world: “You can talk to strangers – just don’t go off with them.” (A way better lesson than plain old “Stranger danger!”)
My son got home safe and sound – and practically levitating with pride – about 45 minutes later. He knew he’d achieved a milestone. But leaving our kids to their own devices is not the way we are expected to do it anymore, at least not if we pick up a parenting magazine, or turn on the TV, or venture into the great maw of a baby superstore. The message we get from all those places is that TIMES HAVE CHANGED! Our kids are in greater danger than ever before.
From what? From everything! Risky rattles! Toxic toys! Or at least not-developmental-enough toys! Or plastic toys! Or cribs! Or the wrong food, the wrong bottles, the wrong stroller. Really – did you read that flap a few months back about how our kids are going to end up with less than 800 on their SAT verbals because in most strollers, they sit facing the street and not their mother? And that therefore, they are deprived of time that would have been better spent discussing, I guess, Hegel? (And not the Knocked Up kind of Heigl, either. Hegel Hegel.)
Every single second is presented as a chance for us parents to either protect and perfect our kids, or leave them alone at their peril. That’s why the old Sesame Streets suddenly seem so “inappropriate” (the favorite word of the parenting establishment. Whatever happened to good ol’ “wrong”? Guess that’s for another rant.). Now activities like walking to school, playing in the park sans a security detail and even babysitting are considered ridiculously, terrifyingly dangerous. See-you-on-a-milk-carton dangerous. Calling-Nancy-Grace-dangerous. It’s one of the fastest societal sea changes I can think of: what was wholesome just one generation ago is reckless today.
But as I discovered in a zillion interviews with historians, sociologists, psychologists, criminologists, teachers and even children, it turns out that kids today are as safe as we were. So maybe it’s time to give them a childhood again – and give ourselves a break from all that worry. Let’s talk about safety for a second, and then we’ll discuss how kids might benefit from a little loosening of the reins. (And how we parents might benefit from having a second to breathe.)
Crime-wise, we are back to the levels of 1970. In the ’70s and the ’80s, crime started going up until it peaked around 1993. After that, it started going down again, steeply. So if you were playing outside in the ’70s or ’80s (are you ready for this?), your children today are actually SAFER than you were.