A new trend has evolved among parents, schools, and government: the attempt to insulate children from all risk, however low the probability that they will be hurt by any given danger. It seems that among some parents, an obsessive fear of risk is eliminating the sort of free childhood many of us older folks experienced, where we were allowed to learn from our own successes and failures.
Across the U.S., schools and communities are tearing down playgrounds. Many elementary schools are eliminating outdoor recess as we have always known it, with its free play and release from the chair, desk, and blackboard. Parents expect almost continuous cell-phone contact with their children. They demand that kids away at camp be rquired to call home once a day, in some cases more often.
Is this justified? Is life for children more dangerous than it used to be? Here is a brief, unscientific examination of that question.
The trend toward over-control and obsessive worry about children's safety, along with the unending demand for laws and regulations to guarantee that safety, is based to a great extent on worry that there are dangers in our environment that place our children at much greater risk than in past decades.
It used to be more dangerous to be a kid. It also used to be safer. It depends on the kind of hazard we are looking at, and who you were, how much money you had, and where you lived. Keep in mind, I am discussing "how it used to be" largely from the standpoint of my own experience over the span of sixty years, during which time there has been great, rapid, and continuous change. So none of what I have to say is absolutely correct. There is a counterexample in somebody's experience for almost any assertion in this article.
Overall, the physical hazards were probably much greater. There were no helmets for bikes, no seatbelts or child seats for cars, no smoke alarms in houses. The air and water were saturated with lead. Auto exhaust contained lead from leaded gasoline. Lead was used for plumbing solder, and in some cases, old lead pipes were still in use in urban water supplies. Lead paint was used on everything, including toys. Playgrounds softened the impact of falls from swings and jungle gyms with gravel, if anything. The idea of pinch-proof children's furniture had not yet occurred to anyone. And we did get scraped and bruised on a pretty regular basis.
Overall, threats to health were probably greater. Medical science was less sophisticated; there were fewer and less effective drugs. Surgery was far more traumatic, with bloodier and more intrusive procedures. Anaesthetics had sloppier recovery profiles and longer recuperation periods. The vaccines for Polio had not been developed. During many summers, a visit to a movie theater, with exposure to strangers, was considered too great a hazard to risk.
Everybody smoked. Second hand smoke was a component of virtually all indoor air, and our cultural heroes all smoked. Between 1950 and the 1990's, the percentage of Americans who smoked (and consequently had tobacco related illnesses) increased through the 1950's and 1960's, peaking for white men at 67% (later for white women, and black men and women), then began to decline. Antismoking messages, campaigns, and regulations were unheard of when I was young. It seems very likely that the "car sickness" so common in my childhood was really a result of the thick clouds of smoke in most cars. The air was generally much dirtier from car exhaust, industrial emissions, and untreated coal smoke from heating fires and the generation of electricity.
Some of the social and emotional hazards were more prevalent and severe, simply because the culture did not recognize, much less address in the legal system, such things as the abuse of children by authority figures and within the family. Children exposed to such dangers did not have the benefit of the generally prompt discovery and relief which are now at least encoded in law, if not always effectively applied. Physical punishment, often rather violent, was the norm in many of my friends' households. There was little cultural discussion back then of its value for controlling behavior, let alone its moral acceptability.
Less was known about chemical hazards in previous years. There was generally a more simplistic view of toxicity; anything that didn't kill people outright was usually considered acceptable to use in consumer products, in industrial and agricultural processes, or to discharge into the environment. We no longer read of dead streams filled with industrial wastes that catch on fire. Overall, risks from chemical hazards are less acute than they used to be, and there is at least a broader and more precise awareness of the nature of these hazards. With the exception of the occasional toxic import, acutely poisonous consumer products are quite rare. As an example: we used to put an antiseptic called "Mercurochrome" on our cuts and scrapes. Its active ingredients were compounds of Mercury and Chromium!
In the 1950's, there was generally a less critical use of pesticides. DDT, an effective mosquito killer, now banned, was sprayed freely into the air in the village streets where we vacationed at a lake in 1950. Conventional pesticide use, which includes agricultural and home and garden applications, steadily increased in the U.S. through the 1950s before declining slightly in the 1960s. The amount increased again until 1979, when it reached a peak of 1.46 billion lb of active pesticide ingredients used per year. The total amount of pesticides used in the U.S. is actually much higher, about 4.6 billion lb reported in 1997, when nonagricultural uses are factored in. These uses include preservatives for treating wood; chlorine-based bleaches for water treatment and disinfectant applications; and specialty biocides for plastics, adhesives, and paints and coatings. [Pesticide use in the U.S. from 1931 to 1997: http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/87/8707cover1a.html ]
And yet, we survived, we thrived, we were healthy. Looking back on life as was then, it seems to me we relied on experience, alertness, and judgement, at first that of our parents, and then of our own, to avoid the impact of all these dangers. We did not have laws, regulations, and civil liability to do it for us. When we did fall victim to one of the hazards of life, we got what help was available and used our own hard-earned resilence to deal with it.
It also used to be less dangerous to be a kid - if you were white and either educated and middle class or part of the steadily employed, financially secure blue collar workforce that defined America's best decades. The kinds of inner city (and now, even suburban) gang violence that arose during the 1960's and '70's, along with the widespread use of addictive drugs, were not seen in prior decades.
Drugs like marijuana and cocaine were simply not widely available until the great social changes of the 1960's and '70's. It used to be a matter of who you knew. In 2011, no part of our society is free of the use of these and other illegal drugs, particularly among teenagers and even younger children.
Although there have always been gangs and violence in cities, they are now found in areas outside the city centers. The obsession with the free availability of firearms has made this violence infinitely more deadly, more frequent, and no longer occurring only in connection with criminal activity. Mass shootings in schools and other places just didn't happen in earlier decades.
The routine use of antibiotics in animal feed has resulted in the evolution of dangerous strains of drug resistant germs. [http://www.keepantibioticsworking.com/new/indepth_keyevid.cfm] The use of growth hormones have certainly led to real, although more subtle hazards. The pesticides used in the past may have been more toxic, but fifty or sixty years ago a great deal less of them were used.
Many new industrial chemicals are introduced into the consumer pipeline and the environment each year. As industrial technology evolves, we face new chemical hazards that are always poorly understood when they first appear, yet are presented to consumers as harmless.
Sexually transmitted diseases have been with us for centuries, but up until the 1980's, they were generally curable with available medicine. With the advent of HIV, sex became truly dangerous for the first time in the modern era.
21st Century Dangers:
The toxic, 24/7 information stream and the obsession with regulation
One kind of hazard faced by today's children was unknown to people of my generation, and seems to grow worse with the passing years. This hazard arises from our culture, from the nature of our society itself. Television, and then the internet, have accelerated the speed and volume and removed most of the boundaries of information available to almost everyone of any age. Along with all the useful information comes a flood of perceptions that one might expect would require considerable maturity, judgement, and perspective to process rationally.
The sensible control parents used to have of their children's information input is either lost or much more difficult to maintain. Children are now exposed to the full range of human behaviors which have always been a part of our species, but the rare extremes now seem to be shown as the norm. Commercial and artistic producers of content have been compelled to venture farther and farther from previous norms in the ideas and behaviors they depict, just to make their work visible amidst the flood. The result is a distorted view of humanity that is powerful enough to feed back into the development of actual cultural change. The fantasy is made so powerful and real that virtual and artistic reality becomes the mundane reality in real time.
For cultural, commercial, and political interests, and for players in the information industry (the media) struggling to get the profitable ears and eyeballs focused on their channels, the infinite information stream is a gold mine that grows larger and richer. This trend has greatly increased the difficulties facing parents in raising their children, by presenting them with a bewildering kaleidoscope of threats, promises, cures, and magical solutions. The "must believe" or "must have" of today becomes the "never mind" of tomorrow, as scientists, medicine, educators, politicans, and merchandisers announce the latest thing.
It has been credibly argued that the relatively recent epidemics of such "disorders" as ADHD, bipolar disorder, and autism, are as much creations of these interests as they are of some yet undiscovered environmental or biological factor. (There has never been any good evidence that behavioral disorders are "genetic"; but that is an argument for another time.) Parents with children whose behavior they don't understand and cannot cope with are the targets of all these competing interests.
One result is the increasing medicalization of children, sometimes appropriately, mostly not. This vast topic is beyond the scope of this short article. To offer just one recent, unfortunate example: The fashion of using antipsychotic drugs to medicate even very young children diagnosed with "ADHD" or "bipolar disorder". None of these dopamine receptor antagonists are as selective or free of side effects as the drug companies claim. Sooner or later, obesity, diabetes, and most horribly, untreatable Parkinson-like motor symptoms will afflict people of any age who take these drugs chronically (every day on a permanent basis). I would say this is a modern danger of childhood that did not exist in my young life.
What makes it worse is that parents seeking government-subsidized help with their children by obtaining a handicapped or special-needs designation have often been pressured into permitting the drugging of their children as a precondition. In many instances, behavior that would once have been considered normal for children of a given age, if something of a nuisance and a little worse than the average, is now pathologized and diagnosed as a "disorder". In many cases, a child with a diagnosis and a medication regime is just a scared and angry kid trying to cope in his or her childish way with a chaotic, insecure, and frightening family environment.
And then there is the growing criminalization of children who behave in ways that adults are not prepared to cope with. This sort of thing was dealt with in my day by real adults who had maturity and wisdom gained through their own knowledge and rich social experience, and who were empowered by their earned place in their local communities to use those abilities. I am thinking of teachers, grandparents, clergy, other kids' parents and grandparents, and even some local shopkeepers. Now we have a web of intrusive laws and regulations, and police and social agencies are allowed or even required to intervene in situations that were once properly within the scope of the extended family, community, school, church or synagogue. Possibly some of this change is due to fact that the extended family, especially the grandparents, no longer participates actively in raising children, and community as we knew it no longer exists.
What are Parents Really Afraid Of? Strangers and Failure
This article so far has presented an incomplete, perhaps debatable list of life's hazards in America. Some are worse than they used to be, some not as bad. It's a nice list, but fails to address the question that provoked this series of articles: Why do so many parents experience the constant sense of mortal threat to their children that seems to rule out letting their kids experience a free, unregulated "old-fashioned" childhood?
I suggest that one reason is the fear of failure. Parents fear their children's failures as if they were their own. Any sense that children should be allowed to explore there own lives and discover their own goals, abilities, and ambitions is replaced by the social imperative to equip them with a resume of grades, test scores, and skills documented by attendance at music lessons or membership on a team.
This may not be unrealistic. Competition for entry into good colleges, and in some communities, good high schools and even grade schools is a modern fact of life. Children used to just go outside, find some other kids, and engage in the kind of non-productive behavior that is the very definition of childhood. There is now a sense that there is just no time for truly free play. The need to acquire a competitive life list is too great to allow it. The exploration of childhood has been replaced by the career track of the young competitor.
Finally, there is the fear of the malicious stranger. The mother who keeps her child on the shortest leash is the parent who is always uncertain of the intent of strangers, pehaps from her own limited real-world experience, and so by default draws the worst conclusions. These parents view other adults with some fear themselves.
The speed of reaction and ubiquity of media attention to sensational stories these days have made events seem common that have always been rare. The awful but rare random event of vanishingly small likelihood appears so large under the media microscope that it seems to be present everywhere at all times
Many parents experience an obsessive need to maintain an unprecedented level of surveillance and control of their children, even trying to eliminate the smallest of random events and the most fleeting of contacts with adult strangers.
The obvious question is, "Are abductions by strangers more common than they used to be?" The answer is "no".
As evidence, I present two websites that provide U.S. Government figures for that past several decades. The data presented are for genuinely missing children, not for those who get lost and are found later that night, or who turn up at a friend's house merely having forgotten to call home and report their whereabouts.