Monday, June 20, 2005

Children at Risk!

When I was 5 years old, I walked several blocks alone in Cleveland, OH to kindergarten. The rule was that if you were too immature to walk by yourself to school, you were too young for school. At that time, I spent most of my days outside in the neighborhood playing with other kids and not under direct surveillance by adults. I had boundaries that I had to respect, but I was free to move within the several block area that was open to me as long as I was home for meals.

Later, when we moved back to Georgia, my boundaries expanded greatly, and I remember as a 10 year old riding my bike up to 10 miles or so from home. As long as I came home for meals, I was free to move about as I pleased and even do a little work here and there. I knew not to take candy from strangers and never to get in a stranger's car, and I never got abducted or molested and I never knew anyone who did.

Nowadays, I almost never see unchaperoned kids at the playground or out on the road on a bike. Parents don't even let their children under 10 or so outside to play without keeping them under constant surveillance. They don't even let them wait by themselves for the school bus. Today's parents put themselves under so much stress because they cannot let their children out of their sight and because they are overwhelmed with worry.

What has happened to make parents so protective? I doubt that there has been a significant increase in child abduction or molestation, although these are publicized internationally when they occur. My parent friends seem to think that there are kidnappers and pedophiles on every corner. Is it that there are fewer spare children? My parents knew that if I died or went missing, my sister was still there as a backup, and they could have more kids. Heck, that's why people have multiple children, isn't it? Nowadays, there are a lot of only children with no emergency backup, and the parents get late starts at reproducing so they can't necessarily replace their kids if something happens to them.

I think that it is all the pictures of missing children on milk cartons and the media's hysterical reporting of "amber alerts" and such that make parents assess the risk of abduction and molestation incorrectly. In fact, the probability of such an unfortunate event is orders of magnitude less than the probability that a child will be injured or killed in a motor vehicle accident. Yet parents don't think twice about letting their children ride in cars. The risk of abduction is less than the risk of drowning, but parents still let their kids go swimming.

I suspect something sinister behind the misrepresentation of the risk of abduction/molestation in the media. Is it a plot by cranky curmudgeons to keep annoying children behind closed doors and out of public view? Is it the education lobby trying to gin up support for more school time and after school programs? It may be the media trying to keep kids in front of TVs or playing video games. It may be the government pumping us for more money and power for cops. In any event, a lot of kids are missing out on a lot of good times and the chance to develop independence and to exercise freedom.

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