Safe Child Syndrome

Protecting kids to death

 

A couple of weeks ago I read in the Wall Street Journal that Minnesota is one of several states that is considering mandating full-sized car seats for kids until they are eight. Seems car seat manufacturers have discovered that older kids are more demanding and image-conscious and want seats with cool fabrics and fancy drink holders.

I e-mailed the story to a friend who keeps abreast of car seat ratings, along with the comment that I wondered what kind of lucrative new market this might mean for the manufacturers. Her one-word reply: "Cynic."

She's right, of course. But I am, too. Over the course of my kids' lives I've bought eight different car seats, all but two of them costing well over $100 apiece. Wouldn't it do more for our collective safety to ban the Chevy Avalanche and at least pretend to enforce traffic laws?

 

In addition to compiling safety statistics, the National Program for Playground Safety also issues report cards. In 2000, Minnesota's playgrounds earned a C. By 2004 the grade had gone up to a B, thanks in part to the elimination of crawl spaces. And for some time now, the state has earned A's and A+'s for "visibility"--that is, for the ability of an adult on the ground to see all of the action at once.

While it's hard to argue against safer playgrounds, it's also true that by design the transparent playground offers kids no privacy. "As [playgrounds] were childproofed to improve safety, they inadvertently reduced the opportunities for the young to take part in forms of fantasy, sensory, and exploratory play, and construction activities apart from adults," writes historian Mintz. "Unstructured, unsupervised free play outside the home drastically declined for middle-class children. As more mothers joined the labor force, parents arranged more structured, supervised activities for their children. Unstructured play and outdoor activities for children 3 to 11 declined nearly 40 percent between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. Because of parental fear of criminals and bad drivers, middle-class children rarely got the freedom to investigate and master their home turf in ways that once proved a rehearsal for the real world."

So much for the roving pack of kids each block boasted during Mintz's childhood, and my own. "The empty lot has disappeared," he quips. "And we are so concerned with legal liability that if kids do find one, you'd better be sure you'll get a call from the police."

The same can be said of the telescoping in of our communities. It used to be that a girl who wasn't getting along with Mom had aunts and grandmothers to turn to, and that a boy who wasn't a social whiz at school had other places to shine. "The kid's world is becoming more narrow," says Mintz. "Religion is not so important, extended family is not so important, so kids have one world and that's school. And that's one thing if you're the star athlete or the most popular kid." If you aren't the homecoming queen, though, there really isn't anywhere else for you.

Nor does the scrutiny let up at school. In addition to unprecedented academic testing, we're all on alert for signs of school violence--which might itself be an outgrowth of this pressure-cooker atmosphere, Mintz argues.

At the very least, psychologist Anderegg fears, scrutinized children become ironic. "The British child analyst D.W. Winnicott wrote beautifully of the necessity for a child to be quietly alone in the presence of the mother, as a condition of vital self-creation," he writes. "What I often see in my clinical work is children who have never had this experience because a worried parent never leaves them alone. The surface becomes false, ironic, and self-mocking, while the real stuff--the stuff the child really cares about--continues on, but only deep underground."

 

Last May, Nancy and Bob Williams (not their real names) moved into their dream house. They'd spent months looking for a house on a quiet street full of kids and adjacent to a park. The right house finally turned up, and on a beautiful spring afternoon a couple of days after the family moved in, Nancy told her two daughters, then seven and five, that they could cross the street and play on the playground. She stood at the front window watching and folding laundry.

Things went fine for a while, until Nancy noticed a woman talking to the girls. Something didn't seem right, so she walked out of the house and started for the playground. There she learned that the woman was the park director, and that she was concerned that the girls were too young to play by themselves. The two women talked amiably for a while, but in the end the only thing they agreed on was how capable Nancy's girls were.

Turns out that when the director first started questioning the kids, she had tried to get them to go into the rec center with her. The older girl had refused, saying that she didn't know the woman. The director explained that she worked at the park, but the girl wouldn't budge. "How do I know you work here?" she asked. "How do I know it's okay? I don't see a badge."

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