Safe Child Syndrome

Protecting kids to death

At the park the other day, I happened to glance up just as a dad and daughter walked past clutching walkie-talkies. Not the toy kind, but grownup walkie-talkies so neatly engineered that the child's fit cozily in her palm. The girl, who appeared to be about six, was dressed in a red twin set with oversized cat's-head buttons and her blond hair was drawn into a red scrunchy. Her dad wore a pinched expression and a suede baseball cap.

It looked more like an assault on K2 than on the Playland-style climber that had just swallowed my own son. The father passed right by the benches flanking the climber and squeezed in behind his girl. As I watched him try to keep up with her, hunched and wheezing in his navigation of the Lilliputian maze, I realized the walkie-talkies weren't part of a game of hide-and-seek: The man was determined to stay both physically and electronically tethered to his daughter.

I can't count the number of winter afternoons I've spent right here at the base of Adventure Peak, the four-story star attraction of this fully enclosed Edina city park. To a kid who's been cooped up on a winter weekend, this is Candyland: slides, moonwalks, wobbling bridges, and a hollow 30-foot fiberglass oak tree. The facility, as Edina's website promises, comprises "more than 40 events to keep kids challenged and entertained for hours."

Despite what you'd think, that doesn't mean downtime for parents, and it doesn't mean a chance for the kids to run wild. In my experience, the only remarkable thing about the dad clambering toward the giant slide was his high-tech Plan B for keeping tabs on his princess. Never mind the benches, the chance to read a magazine or to finish a coffee before it gets cold; these days, a good parent clambers through the giant Habitrail, feigning delight the whole way.

It's not enough that adults are watching from the ground, or even that there are some adults up in there. It matters not that every inch of Adventure Peak is "padded, netted, and enclosed." No, my generation believes good supervision means being right there with your own child every minute, even though our parents would have happily plopped down for a good gossip.

There were plenty of other grownups up in Adventure Peak that day. I watched a svelte brunette slip out of her Josef Seibels, set down a book on creativity in Waldorf education, and follow a boy of about four up to a chamber sporting several colorful vinyl punching bags. There, she urged the boy to spin the orbs and examine them instead of punching them.

A few cubicles to the left, a father in an oversized sweater directed the play of two boys who looked to be six or seven. He wanted them to climb down the fake tree; they ignored him in favor of a spiraling tube slide. "You're going down the yellow slide?" he asked rhetorically, scrambling to the slide's egress. "Okay." Later I see him peering up into the tree trying to get the boys to wave to him.

Behold the most controlling, anxiety-ridden, over-involved generation of parents ever.

 

After the walkie-talkie episode, I took an informal poll of parents I know. At what age or stage of development can Mom or Dad go ahead and sit down, reasonably assured their little darlings will survive a solo whirl on the jungle gym? Instead of a hard-and-fast answer, what I got was the sense that we hover for numerous and complicated reasons. We fear school buses, babysitters, and sometimes even Grandma and Grandpa, who may not know any better than to let the baby cry a little on her way to sleep. We're scared adversity will scar our kids or, conversely, that they'll be bored--a condition that, left untreated, might turn them into school shooters.

But we also fear their independence. We're up there in the climber because we can't afford to miss a minute of face time, you see. We believe our physical presence is the linchpin to the children's emotional well-being and, although we never say so out loud, we want it that way--because it's central to our well-being. We're scared the kids will grow up to resent the fact that Mommy works, or--the biggest golem on the list--they just plain won't like us. And in an age of high divorce rates and transient communities, kids who don't like us suggest the possibility that we might really end up alone.

Much as I've come to hate Adventure Peak, I used to climb, too. It was the other parents I feared. I gave up climbing after a particularly irritating visit to the park over the holidays. Near the end of our sojourn, my younger son, who is nearly three, set his mind on a drink from the vending machine and, when denied, flopped down on the rubberized floor and began wailing. And I--gasp--let him, prompting two different women to come ask what was up. The first was easily waved away, but the second set her hands on her hips and demanded an explanation: "Should you be doing something?" I was halfway through defending myself when I realized that what was wrong with the situation involved something far more serious than one toddler's angst.

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