Friday, May 07, 2004

A little pre-Mother's-Day appreciation

I gave my mom the address to my blog the other day (not, of course, without some slight trepidation), and her response to the nostalgiathon in my previous post was:

    Your mother would have blistered your bottom if she had known you were crawling around in that dirty creek. . . That's the other side of the reminiscence thing - if you could have properly appreciated it then, just think what I would have thought!

    . . . but on second thought, I don't think I'd have stopped you. Children need episodes such as these - you just grit your teeth & pray that any hurts are transient. Modern parents are unfortunate - they have to be so panicky about children alone - pick them up at school even when they are perfectly capable of walking a few blocks. Uphill both directions, of course.

Right on. And thanks, Mom. Thank you.

One of the difficult, and more than a bit creepy, aspects of parenting in this decade is the apparently widespread, paralyzing fear that Something Bad Will Happen. I was walking six blocks to school and back when I was five years old, stopping to watch trails of ants, float leaf-boats in the rain gutters, feel the sticky sap oozing out of a pine tree. But these days? Do five-year-olds still get to do that? It sure doesn't seem like it.

I mean, it was nice to see families playing at the Hidden Parks the other day, but you know what I didn't see? I didn't see kids playing unsupervised in the open courtyards of my old apartment complex, where thirty years ago there would have been armies of 'em. Nor did I see any children walking by themselves for the pure joy of it. And actually, maybe a casual observer wouldn't have seen those things so readily back in the 70s, either. Perhaps I only remember them as uibiquitous sights because I was a kid, and tended to be out and about when kids were out and about.

But I don't think so. I think America--at least the suburban America I'm familiar with--has undergone a real shift and become, in the words of Barry Glasser, a Culture of Fear [gratuitous partner link]. We fear insane things, ridiculous things, like Anonymous Lurking Kidnappers (who do, unquestionably, exist, but in such tiny numbers you'd be better off worrying about lightning strikes). And razor blades in Halloween candy (though nothing of the sort has ever happened).

And we fear cars hitting our children, so we keep the children in the back yard, or safely tucked away in the house watching TV, and we drive them to and fro in our SUVs and minivans, and the sidewalks become dead zones while the streets fill with deadlier vehicles. And you know what studies have shown happens when there are fewer kids along the sidewalk? People drive faster. Which makes the street even more dangerous, and discourages even more families from letting their kids play out front--and, probably, drives the sales of even more SUVs and minivans.

Now, one of the great joys of my life is acting snooty and elitist and superior and pretending I'm above the concerns of Ordinary Dumbshit Americans, but of course I'm not. I'm part of this culture too. I may intellectually know them to be irrational, but I still feel the same fears.

It's already a real challenge for me, and I know it will get harder as time goes on--to let go, restrain my control-freak instincts, and let my son have the mad adventures every kid deserves to have. It's a struggle. Ben likes to play with electrical outlets and plugs: Should I stop him? Yell at him? Slap his hand away from outlets? Inculcate in him a fear of something that is, properly handled, harmless? Or teach him the proper method of handling a plug, and just be ready to comfort him when he gets the inevitable shock?

Until a few days ago, he was afraid to go down slides at the playground. Wednesday evening, in a moment of sudden impatience, I plopped him down on his butt and pushed him down a slide. "Yes yes yes yes yes!" he said, all the way down, and has been sliding down slides fearlessly ever since. Before, I would have said that a parent who forces a child to play a game he clearly doesn't like is a fool or worse. . . but somehow it turned out to be the right thing to do.

I realized several things just then. Principally, that I'd been coddling him--and that helping him face and overcome fears is a better thing to do than helping him maintain them. But also, it dawned on me that he may well have gotten that fear from me. I'm afraid of heights myself (a fact I wasn't aware of until I learned to fly). I love heights and wide views, but I'm afraid of falling, and so naturally I'm afraid of my son falling. I tense up when I see Ben tottering high along a play structure, jerk my hands out to steady him. Surely he notices it. Surely it sends the message that he's not in a safe place, and that I don't trust him to keep himself secure. I must, I must, learn to stop doing this.

And, as he grows, I must face my own fears, and let him out of my sight more and more, so he can learn about the world without me acting as fretful nervous intermediary.

Given the incessant yapping of our cultural messengers of doom--Our schools aren't safe! Our streets aren't safe! Our food isn't safe! Is your child at risk? Film at 11!--it may be harder, this decade, for parents to overcome that fear than it was thirty years ago.

But you know something? It can't ever have been easy. It obviously wasn't easy for my mom.

And she still did it.

Thanks. And Happy Mother's Day. I love you.

Bligs (6)

Lovely post. I remember walking 8 blocks or so to & from school, from 1st through 6th grade. Exploring the woods & ponds in our neighborhood on the edge of town. We never thought anything of it. The biggest danger was the bullies in the higher grades. Sad to think that most kids these days won't feel that freedom. Or get that exercise. Surely there are places where it's still possible?
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