Sunday, July 20, 2014

Not Seen and Not Heard

On the 3.5 miles from my house to my office this morning (yes, I go there on Sundays) I weaved around no fewer than twenty bicyclists, the bulk of them in a single pack. Their profusion on local roads is to be expected on Saturdays and Sundays whenever the weather is better than dreadful. As usual, all were adults. As I mentioned in a recent blog on hitchhiking, kids on bikes have all but vanished from the roads. It is notoriously harder to notice an absence than a presence (e.g. Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark), but for some reason the bikes prompted me to notice one today. Where are the kids? Not just on bikes, but anywhere? It is summer vacation.

I suppose the answer is that they are at prearranged activities that no adults but parents and guardians see. Take my own immediate cul-de-sac neighborhood. Altogether, 36 homes ultimately share a single exit onto the main road. I’d venture to guess 30 are occupied by families with kids. During the school year at least that many soccer vans carrying them pour out of the driveways in the morning en route to the schools. But in the summer I never see any signs of them. Not walking, not on bikes, and not playing Frisbee in the yards. I should point out that I live in about as safe a town as any in North America. It is well to obey the traffic laws here because the local police have little else to do but enforce them. Yet, family homes apparently are in lockdown.

This is such a divergence from my own childhood and adolescence in this very same town. I fully realize that the 1960s are as far back in time as the 1910s were in the 1960s, and I fully know how ancient the 1910s seemed to me in the 1960s. Nonetheless the change since then is startling. In the summer in the ‘60s the whole town was crawling with kids. In droves they were in parks, at the shopping center, in playgrounds, on the downtown sidewalks on foot, and on the back roads on bicycles – all unsupervised and with no cell phones. I was one of them. Families were larger then on average, but thanks to ongoing construction there are about twice as many households in town today, so there must be at least as many kids. They are just invisible. At age 10, I was likely to walk down the road and bang on a neighbor’s door to ask “Can Bobby come out and play?” We’d then disappear into the woods for hours. (Maybe ADD was less prevalent then because we tuckered ourselves out.) Such a thing today might get a parent cited by Social Services for having allowed it. Today, playdates are scheduled and activities organized – and supervision is the rule.

I often hear “It is a different world” as an explanation for the change. I think this means that the world is a more dangerous place today. Yet it really isn’t. All the crime stats say the opposite: violent crime has declined dramatically. There undeniably are predators out there, as we hear repeatedly in grim detail on the news. The overwhelming majority of them, however, are not strangers but people known and trusted by parents. Random predators on the street are rare, but I certainly can understand a parent’s fear of them. Sadly, though, such people seem to find ways around precautions.

Nonetheless, we prefer extreme precautions for ourselves and we require them of others. We arrest a dad  for making his son walk a mile home from school. (I walked a mile home from grammar school every day as a matter of course.) We arrest a working mom in South Carolina for letting her daughter play “alone” with 40 other kids and their parents in a park.

Is our modern hyper-protectiveness justified? Is it a belated adjustment to a more realistic assessment of a hazardous world full of evil people? Were my parents (and all my friends’ parents) shockingly negligent? Maybe. But I’m not so sure. 

Marianne could be arrested for the deeds in this song: women cited for eating doughnuts in playground-


  1. That may be part of it, but I think the other huge impact is video games. When the Nintendo Entertainment System came out in the mid 80s, I think that pretty much changed everything as far as playing outside goes. Sure Atari came out first, but once we hit games like "Super Mario Bros" and "Legend of Zelda" where you could play level after level and with different story lines, enemies and graphics - well going outside was less appealing. I can't tell you how many times I told my parents (or my friends parents if I was my buddies' house) "just one more level" or "we are almost to the boss!"

    Combine that with the interwebs and I'm not sure kids even need to go outside anymore. If they want to see what the outdoors looks like, they can always find it on Youtube. :)

    1. There is surely something to this. I can’t dispute that there is much more attraction to the Great Indoors for kids than there once was. The exotic on-screen game worlds are pretty fascinating compared to the world of the backyard. When assaulting a castle, the virtual one is more convincing than the imaginary one in the woods.

      Modern parental overprotectiveness redoubles the effect. It is hard to see how such shielding is justified. A recent “Economist” article notes that the risk of a child dying in the US was (while still low) five times higher in the safe old 1950s than today. The odds against a child being killed by a stranger are in seven figures. (They are vastly more at risk from their own parents and trusted friends/relatives.) How these kids, having experienced this type of upbringing, will raise their own in the future is anyone’s guess.