Safe, but sorry
Today's kids are more secure than ever, but their
parents are more worried than ever. Are we 'protecting' our
children to death?
by Laura Sessions Stepp, The State & The Washington
Post, January 4, 2003
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Bubble babies. We're raising a generation of bubble babies.
From the moment our children are conceived, we try to wrap
them in plastic packing. An Arlington, Va., woman stops
drinking coffee when she's pregnant. A dad in Fairfax, Va.,
installs computer spyware to check the Web sites his daughter
Lisa and Danny Stone live in the Charles County, Md., house
where Danny grew up. They know all the other residents on the
cul-de-sac. When 7-year-old Danielle wanted to sell cookie
dough for her school door-to-door, Lisa Stone asked each
neighbor to call her as Danielle left for the next house.
"Where I live, there's no reason for that," she admits. "If I
went out on the front porch, I could see her. But it made me
feel safe. I needed to know she was someplace."
Stone remembers the day she started feeling uneasy. She was
holding baby Danielle and watching an ABC broadcast about a
day-care provider hitting the children in her charge. "I sat
there with a 6-week-old, crying, 'I'm never going to work
again. I can't put my baby in day care.' " And still, experts,
educators, media doomsayers, politicians and marketing gurus
tell us we aren't doing enough.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission orders the recall of
teddy bears stuffed with beans because if beans popped out at
the seams, young children could inhale them. (No such
accidents have been reported, but the possibility exists.)
Baby gates and electrical-outlet protectors are supplemented
by toilet-lid locks and animal-shaped abduction alarms to be
worn by children. Only $19.95 buys a 71-piece child-safety kit
that includes sponge tape to be installed on the sharp edges
of furniture. The accompanying description reminds us that
"accidents are the (No.) 1 killer of children today." Public
Agenda, a New York foundation, polled parents last summer,
prior to the Washington-area sniper shootings, and discovered
startlingly high levels of anxiety. Parents worried more about
demons outside the home - drugs, kidnappers, their children's
friends - than the ordinary devils of mortgage payments and
not enough family time.
mother told the surveyors: "We never once in our lives hired a
babysitter. Because of things that go on these days, you would
worry. There's babysitters that are raping your kids,
murdering your kids." "We were all struck by the pervasiveness
of these attitudes and the intensity of them," Public Agenda
President Deborah Wadsworth says. "Parents have always been
concerned about their kids, but now they feel as if they're
fighting a war and have no allies." 'STRESS EPIDEMIC' U.S.
parents are not the only ones who feel this way. The Brits
talk about "wrapping a child in cotton wool" and their
newspapers are filled with examples: Yo-yos banned on British
playgrounds, children told not to climb trees, three-day
programs to teach college-bound 18-year-olds how to shop, cook
meals and manage a budget, "to combat the stress epidemic in
Britain's colleges and universities."
In the past, writes Frank Furedi, a British sociologist, Mom
or Dad might have worried about one or two little things - a
child's stutter, perhaps, or a particularly troublesome
Today's parents on both sides of the Atlantic worry about
"every little issue." How worried should we be about our
worries? A lot, says Furedi: "Our obsession with our children
is likely to be more damaging to them than the risks they
encounter in their daily interactions with the world."
This fierce protectiveness comes from a good place. It is a
universal instinct among mammals that is necessary for species
survival. But after sterilizing, purifying, deodorizing and
scrubbing everything your offspring may inhale, swallow or
touch, think about this: Recent research suggests that
children who live on farms develop immunities to allergies
that other kids do not. It turns out that some exposure to
bacteria strengthens a developing immune system.
Furedi, author of a new book, "Paranoid Parenting," writes:
"In a loving environment, even a traumatic episode need not
prevent a child from bouncing back and developing into a
confident adult. However, if parents stifle their children
with their obsessions and restrict their scope to explore,
then the young generation will become socialized to believe
that vulnerability is the natural state of affairs."
Translation: Some parents say they want their children to grow
up to be independent, even courageous. But their behavior
actually tells kids the reverse. 'SAFE AND SECURE' Enrollment
in private day schools has jumped 24 percent in the past
decade, according to the National Association of Independent
Schools. Nancy Spencer, admissions director at the Bullis
School in Potomac, Md., says "feeling safe and secure" is one
reason parents choose schools like hers over large public
schools. Spencer's two young daughters are enrolled in another
private school. "I have no qualms putting them in a sheltered
environment," she says. "The real world will always be there."
blocks away from their schools are driven to class and
reminded regularly by teachers that there will be zero
tolerance for boisterous behavior. They can't play dodge ball
at recess because someone might get hurt. After school, they
don't race home to play pickup football or roam the
neighborhood. Parents schedule homework time, TV, play dates,
ballet, supervised soccer. As a result, this generation has 15
percent less free time than their parents enjoyed, according
to research at the University of Michigan.
Everybody grew up with a bubble child in the neighborhood. He
or she was the one taking all those lessons. Now 7 out of 10
students in middle school and high school are enrolled in
after-school programs for, on average, two hours a day,
according to a Harris Interactive poll.
programs are the most popular, with a result both ironic and
troubling: The number of "overuse injuries" among youths as
young as 8 and 9 - including stress fractures, sore heels, and
tendinitis - is on the rise.
NO MONKEY BARS
When kids do escape the clutches of grown-ups, the playgrounds
they head toward hardly resemble playgrounds at all. Gone are
old-fashioned monkey bars, seesaws, big slides, big swings and
"fire poles" - the metal and wood structures installed in
mid-century to attract children off city streets. They have
been deemed unsafe by liability-anxious officials and in their
place are what some recreation experts call "dumbed-down"
playgrounds: colorful plastic pipes with few movable parts.
Sand, gravel and dirt have been replaced by rubber mats and
wood chips, making it difficult to shape mud pies and dig
holes. Fewer than half of today's teen-agers work at paying
jobs, according to the Department of Labor, the smallest
proportion since 1970. Discovering real-world capabilities and
limits has been devalued as parents focus on schoolwork as the
be-all and end-all for college-bound students. And who isn't
college-bound these days?
May, a professor of American studies at the University of
Minnesota, says she has an 11-year-old niece who is "already
frantic about getting into college." And why wouldn't she be?
that college is going to make or break their future. Schools
are into this, especially private schools," May says.
Neurologist Richard Restak, author of the book accompanying
the PBS series "The Secret Life of the Brain," says children
raised by anxious adults become anxious themselves.
Psychologist Frans deWaal, who works at Emory University's
Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, has observed this in
chimpanzees. When juvenile chimps play together and start
quarreling, some of the youngsters inevitably squeal, he says.
Some mothers, sitting several yards away, simply watch, but
others go over right away to comfort their particular chimp.
whose mothers get involved become crybabies, deWaal says, and
over time the other young chimps won't play with them. Jean
Twenge, an assistant psychology professor at San Diego State
University, reported in the Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology that levels of anxiety among college students have
risen significantly since the 1950s.
In the Harris
poll of teen-agers, almost three out of four kids said they
felt nervous or stressed at least some of the time, with half
saying they felt that way often. The National Institute of
Mental Health says that first-time depression is being
reported at an earlier age. Some effects of the bubbles are
well documented: Today's indoor generation of children is
three times as fat as it was 20 years ago, according to a
report by former surgeon general David Satcher.
Other effects are more subtle. Brad Inman, a journalist and
teacher at the University of California, Berkeley, says he and
his friends talk about kids they know who were guided along
the fast track from preschool through Princeton, having
neither the time nor the encouragement for real-world jobs.
Now these golden young men and women are waiting tables,
unsure where to go with their lives or how to get there.
about students who are adept at saying what they know adults
expect them to say but are stumped when asked to expand on
their comments. "They are passive in a weird sort of way,"
Inman says. "It's like they've withdrawn under pressure. I
don't see the insane ambition I saw 10 years ago."
Joan Keller, who graduated this year from Walt Whitman High
School in Bethesda, Md., has noticed a lack of self-confidence
among her friends who "have never been in a strange situation
where they really had to see what they could do." An everyday
example: She drives a car with a stick shift "and all my
friends ask me, 'How do you do that?' "Wadsworth, of Public
Agenda, tells of a friend in New York whose daughter refused
to run cross-country in high school. She would have to wear
shorts, she told her mom, and was afraid she'd pick up ticks.
Ticks, her mother had taught her years earlier, carry Lyme
parents are hard-wired to protect, children are driven to take
risks and many will find a way to do so, as either rebels or
adventurers or both. Significant numbers of young adults are
joining the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, its domestic version.
Extreme sports are on the rise: snowboard acrobatics,
wakeboarding on rivers and lakes, luge racing on city streets
at 80 miles an hour, mountain biking, bungee jumping, and wild
stunts on MTV. Even the fictional Jimmy Livingston in last
year's comedy "Bubble Boy," encased in plastic because of a
deficient immune system, managed to find a way to Niagara
Falls in pursuit of his one true love. Perhaps these young
people have found an antidote to the bubble trend, but do we
really want them to be like the "jackasses" of the movie and
TV series, flipping golf carts and riding mattresses down ski
slopes? The parents interviewed for Public Agenda said it was
critical that their children learn to take control of their
own lives. But only one-third thought they had successfully
taught their youngsters how to do that.
How to break
through the bubbles?
Say a child runs into a problem or asks to do something out of
the ordinary. Sociologist Furedi, father of a 7- year-old,
says it's OK to ask what can go wrong but then follow with
this: "If the worst happens, does it matter, and what might my
child learn from the experience?"
We can all
remember lessons in childhood that, though painful or scary at
the time, taught us something useful: standing up to bullies,
testing physical endurance, refusing to lie, risking failure
in a tough course, getting back on the bicycle after a fall,
learning how to handle a dictatorial teacher, acquiring the
knowledge that life is not fair, easy, logical or as happy as
Americans think it should be. Those big decisions were
preceded by smaller ones. That's why in the Kellers' Glen
Echo, Md., home, school lunches that were forgotten stayed on
the kitchen counter. It's why Joan Keller, diagnosed with
rheumatoid arthritis and needing more sleep than she sometimes
got, was still allowed to set her own bedtime. "Every once in
a while I'd stay up late and pay the price," she says. In high
school, Laurie Keller stopped waking Joan on school days, and
when Joan was late to school refused to write a note for her
unexcused absences. When one of Joan's best friends committed
suicide near the end of Joan's junior year, her parents took
her to a couple of counseling sessions, then pulled her aside.
"You have to decide to get over this," her mother said. "You
need to start thinking about happy things, not sad things."
Joan remembers her first reaction: "How can you say that?" She
didn't release her grief easily. She was accepted into the
University of Maryland but decided to postpone college for a
year. She took a job at a bagel cafe, helped her dad at his
law office. Her mom was right, Joan now says. Recently a
friend was involved in a late-night car accident that killed
the other car's driver. Joan drove to Towson, Md., at midnight
to see her friend, concerned but not shaken. "These sort of
experiences make me confident," she says. She's now training
to become an emergency medical technician at a firehouse in
Bethesda, Md. Why that particular one?
get a lot more calls."
FEAR VS. FACTS
Neurologist Richard Restak, author of the book accompanying
the PBS series "The Secret Life of the Brain," says what
Americans are feeling these days is more anxiety than fear.
Fear, he says, is based on facts. So let's look at the facts.
. A child born today in the United States will live, on
average, into his or her mid-70s, or almost 30 years longer
than a child born 100 years ago, according to the National
Center for Health Statistics. The chance that a child will die
before 24 is half what it was in 1950. Fewer young people are
killing each other or themselves since the mid-1990s, and
fewer are dying in car crashes.
strangers have dropped dramatically since the 1980s, according
to the FBI, and even then the odds of being abducted were
extremely low. Most missing children are returned. According
to the Centers for Disease Control, the chance of a child
being killed at school is 1 in 1 million.