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fear and loathing in the suburbs

I'm continuing with the subject of the previous post - a day later and I've been able to give it a lot more thought. It also ties in with the murder of Carlie Bruscia and what I've been trying to write about that. Maybe there are some things you just can't understand unless you're a parent. It's hard to describe the fierce need to protect your children or the desire to put a force field around them, keeping them a safe distance from everything. Some of these protectionist feelings are unrealistic, parents know that. We know that we cannot keep our children safe from harm 24 hours a day. We know that things are going to occur that we have no control over. So we do our best to control the things we can. Wear your seatbelt. Put on a helmet before you get on that skateboard. Don't run with scissors. Don't put tinfoil in the microwave. Glue is not for eating. Wear a hat when it's cold out. Simple things. They keep the kids healthy and away from preventable injuries. So what of the factors that we don't have as much control over? Am I being overprotective by not letting my 14 year old walk to school because she has to cross too many high traffic main roads? I am being overly concerned when I realize her backpack weights 30lbs and I don't think she should be lugging it all that way? Am I coddling her by not making her stand out at the bus stop for twenty minutes in the freezing rain? And of course, I'm afraid of what's out there. Perhaps some of you are right in your contention that kidnappings are over estimated, that they very rarely happen and when they do, it's more likely to be from a family member. Like someone in the comments below said, when you do the math, it comes down to about 100 kidnappings per year in America that are perpetrated by strangers of the kidnapped child. Is that supposed to make me feel more at ease? Well, it doesn't. Why take the chance that my child could be one in that hundred. Statistics are garbage when it comes to protecting your children. Just ask the parents of Carlie Bruscia or Polly Klass or Alexis Patterson. It's a no win situation. If I try to protect them, I'm told I'm smothering them and they'll end up in therapy blaming me for everything. If I ease up and let them have some freedoms, I'm being too lenient and they'll end up in a Satanic cult by the age of 12. Maybe the dangers of childhood are overrated. Maybe not. What I do know is this: when I was little, we ran free in the neighborhood. We rode in cars with no seatbelts. We crossed main street by ourselves when we were ten. Maybe we even ran with scissors. Was it a different world then? You bet. Even if the kidnapping statistics are the same now, other things aren't. There's more traffic, wider streets. Every two lane main road around here has been widened to four since my youth. The amount of cars on Long Island roads has at least tripled. There are more people and the the towns are more populated, meaning there are more strangers. We didn't have sex offender registries back then. I don't want to be that one parent in 100 that is on CNN begging for my child's life. I can't follow my kids everywhere, but I can certainly limit the time they are out there alone by driving them to school or to their friends' houses. My daughter will be 14 on Sunday. She will be in high school in Septmber. I am going to have less and less control over her whereabouts as the years go on and it frightens me. I'm going to take what opportunities I can to be there for her and with her, and know what she is doing when she is not with me. If I'm seen a strict parent, so be it. At least I won't be the one getting the call from the police station at 2am. [For more on the differences between then and now, read below, which is a repeat of a post I wrote in June, 2002].
Summer of 12 12 then and 12 now are worlds apart. 12 then was blissful ignorance. 12 now is the weight of the world. When I was 12 my summer days were spent barefoot in my backyard, alternating between the pool and the sprinkler and the blanket on the lawn. I left the backyard only when I heard the tinny ringing of the ice-cream truck. I would run out to the street, hopping like mad from one foot to the other in an effort to not feel the full scorch of the burning blacktop. Al the ice-cream man would hurry us along in a heavy accent. Sometimes we understood him and sometimes we didn't. And sometimes Al was in a talktative mood and he would show us the numbers tattooed on his arm. We would shrug, not really knowing what the story was. We couldn't understand his accent, and even if we did, it seemed like too heavy a story to carry with our melting cones. Today, 12 means you have read at least three historical fiction stories about the Holocaust. 12 means you would know what the numbers on Al's arm were. When I was 12 my summer nights were spent in the street, playing kickball with my cousins. Sometimes we played kick-the-can and we would run through the neighbors yards, hiding in their shrubbery and under their porches. We played until we were too tired to run, and then we would walk down to the candy store to buy soda and snacks. Today, 12 means you can't play in the street because there are too many cars. 12 means your neighbor's lawn is off limits because it was just sprayed with some chemical to make their grass grow greener. 12 means you can't walk to the store at night, because there are too many strangers. When I was 12 we went to the beach and for family drives and spent leisurely days at the park. We woke up late and watched morning tv in our pajamas until we were shooed outside. Our days were long and unstructured and lazy. Today's 12 means summer camp or summer school and getting up with the birds. It is structure and bus rides just like the rest of the year. Family drives and trips to the beach are scheduled events. Time is managed. Soccer, baseball, dance, enrichment programs, swim lessons. When I was 12 I wasn't afraid of the world. Current events in school meant local news, fluff stories, a few science-related pieces. Health lessons centered around hygiene and grooming. Drug education was non-existent. Learning about the environment meant paying attention to don't litter signs. Today's 12 is frightening. Current events are happening in their own backyard. War and terrorism are part of the daily venacular. Health lessons include segments on AIDS and condoms and learning how to say no. Drug education is imperative. Today's 6th graders know about ozone layers and recycling and toxins in the water. Today's 12 is better educated than I was. They are more informed. They are better prepared. But they are not the 12 of carefree childhood and innocence. They are somehow older, wiser and a bit more cynical than I ever knew at 12. Perhaps today's 12 is more prepared to deal with the world than the 12 year olds of my day were. But I still have to lament that their childhood is almost over at an age when it should be in its prime.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference fear and loathing in the suburbs:

» Then and Now from drowning at 2 feet sea level
My mother used to lock us outside during the daylight hours, especially during the summer months. I think my brother and I were just too much for her and she knew that there was more to do outside than... [Read More]

» The safety of children from Sheila Astray's Redheaded Ramblings
I have to point to a couple of posts - in regards to the Carlie Bruscia murder. A murder of a child is hard to get my head around - my brain refuses to deal with it, or contemplate it... [Read More]

» Switching Gears For A Sec from Moody Mama
While I sit here and whine about protecting my thoughts, Michele is having a discussion on raising and protecting our children in this day and age. I know I've posted about this subject too much already, but the age old... [Read More]

» If you read anything today... from Babalu Blog
...you must read Michele's take on parenting and children, then and now. Sometimes I feel sorry for today's kids, they grow up way to fast.... [Read More]


Michelle ,

Your essay on twelve is dead on. I left Long Island to raise my family for these reasons. It was too much. Too many. Too confusing.

We live now in Georgia in a town that is covered with golf cart paths. Kids can ride there bikes, the neighborhood kids all play together after the homework is done. Is it my 2nd grade, no. Is it better than it could be, yes.

There is way to much pressure on these kids, they are being raised as little adults, and I truly believe it is wrong. Let them run, let them day dream. Our oldest son is allowed only one extra curricular activity a season. So he can grow, play, and learn. And enjoy it, as opposed to tickiing off another item in the day planner.

From the mother of a 29 year old, a 27 year old and a 25 year old: no matter what you do, they will still blame you. So don't worry about that. It happens to us all.

And you're right, it's a different world. When I was a child (when dinosaurs roamed the earth), I ran free in the streets, walked 3 blocks to my school, and everyone in the neighborhood knew who I was, where I lived and if I did something bad, they ratted me out in an instant. Nowadays, I couldn't tell you my next door neighbor's name, and I've lived there for 9 years.

What can we do to stop it? I really don't know. But you do the best you can, love them as much as you can, and if outsiders call you overprotective, tell them to stuff it.

Imperial Keeper

Your essay on being 12 is dead on, for our generation.

I am 39, and I can relate to what you wrote, but what of my brother who is 50? Or my parents who are in early 70s.

When he was 12, Viet Nam was starting. When my parents were about 12, WWII was the talk of the day. Somewhere around that time kids were taught to 'duck and cover' in case a nuke was dropped.

Think back, though: I remember the elementary school I attened had 'CIVIL DEFENSE SHELTER' signs on the outside of the building... I'll wager yours did, too.

In a way, we were the most fortunate ones; we have a childhood we can look back upon without fear (beyond the skinned knee).

As for the dilemma of over protecting your daughter, it is indeed no win. But in the end, I believe going for the risk of possibly 'being blamed for everything' far outweighs the possible alternative outcome. Of course, they'll be times when you (and I with my kids) will just have to suck it up and let them be kids, and say a silent prayer they're not the lead story on the news that night.

For what it's worth, our parents said the same prayer a few million times, too.

This is powerful. This could become a book.

P.S. Are you going to adopt an Asian sidekick named Honey?

I'm right there with you.

The safety of our 12 years olds (and those +/- 12) should be reflected in law enforcement. Those who harm a child in any way should be eliminated from the planet. The safety of our children should be the first priority. How can we say we are a compassionate society when we allow molesters to walk the streets? We imprison drug users for life, but molesters get probation much of the time. It's crap.

I'm going to be one paranoid parents when I become one.

Thanks Michele. This is an excellent post.

I have two sons, 5-this-month and not-quite-1 1/2. My wife and I agree that it's better to be a little bit overprotective than to wish you had been. Excellent essay.

Michele's view on this issue makes perfect sense to me. I admittedly don't have kids of my own, but I think we're really talking apples and oranges. Coddling a child has to do with how you interact with them, how you respond to their demands, moods, etc. As far as I'm concerned, it does not have to do with judgements one makes about practical or safety-related issues.

It's true that sensational media accounts greatly over-hype the danger of certain types of crime. The risk of abduction by a maniacal stranger is very low, in statistical terms. However, it's still a fact that driving your kids to and from school does eliminate the possibility of any number of bad things happening to them. Most likely, it makes both you and the kids feel more secure. That is a totally different thing than buying them crap they don't need or letting them run around like uncivilized monsters because you're afraid that saying no will hurt their feelings.

Coddling and the failure to teach children proper standards of behavior are at epidemic proportions in our culture, but in my opinion driving one's kids to school has absolutely nothing to do with that problem.

There are worse things in life than being a strict parent.

Generations before us had them, and we didn't turn out so badly, did we?

I blame the 60s boomers (hehehehe). There's a theory out there they hated their parents or couldn't live up to their "Greatest Generation" parents so they do what they do (tear down what their parents (and our ancestors) built because they can't. Why else would they be so enamoured with phrawnce and old Europe?

Honey, one thing I've learned while being a parent and observing other parents is that all of our kids will need therapy no matter what we do. So my goal is to be able to live with my decisions so I don't have as much parental guilt to live with.

Michele, I think you see the past through rose colored round little hippy glasses. I don't think the statistics on child sex-crimes will show that there are more now than the early '70's. I'm five years older than you and when I was twelve I was wondering about the world of LSD and satanic cults. I was doing weekly presentations on the Vietnam war in school, which was much scarier than our current war (in which I have a son participating). We were not far from the Air Raid duck-and-cover days either, and war with the Soviet Union was a very real threat. Though drugs are still a problem, statistically, use is lower among youth than during our teen years. My kids are far more involved in sports and other activities than I ever was, which is a matter of availability and cultural encouragement to get inolved that was lacking in the '60's and '70's. They have more things to do than hang out.

And what about our parents and grandparents who grew up during the Great Depression and WWII?

Come on!! Your worries for your children are entirely legitimate. But, I disagree that there are more worries now than there were in the past. The Golden Age is now!

I grew up in small town America, the most common thing in the world was seeing a kid on a bike with a fish pole or a single shot .22 rifle with a dog running alongside.
That America is gone. It was replaced by an America where I spent 22 years on the graveyard shift while my wife worked swing or day shift so there'd be a parent at home all the time.
I miss the America I grew up in. I don't miss the segregation or the Polio and Whooping Cough or the two-hole outhouses, though.

I'm 19 so I've seen alot of the changes you talk about. Though honestly, I think its more about where you live than a general degredation of American society. The first community I lived in we ran door to door, we played till the sun came up, lazy mornings and all that. Now? That community isn't like that. The police patrol non-stop. Things change.

The community my family lives in now is great, alot of elderly but many new families moving in. Its close, 8,000 people in a two mile area but it doesn't feel cramped. It feels like a good, wholesome community. Every kid walks to school, there are no buses. You can go to the store, or Friendly's at 11pm and not worry about your kids. Maybe if your spending so much time worrying about your kids its time to re-evaluate the area? I know I wouldn't feel comfortable raising my kids (if/when I have them) in Philly but Camp Hill, PA? I'd gladly raise a family there.

As to the point of an authoritarion family and the pluses and minuses. I used to think I'd never be like that, that I'd let my kids run wild. I'd be "different" from my parents, wouldn't make the same mistakes. Well, I just watched the movie Thirteen this past weekend. After watching that I think my outlook changed. I won't be authoritarion even now, I won't attempt to hide my child from everything because I know its impossible but I do also realize that innocence is lost far too early now.

I know what you meant, but I don;t think it came out right. Saying you don't want to be "the one parent in 100 that is on CNN" implies that 1% of parents will have their children kidnapped. It's a subtle shift from absolute to relative numbers that isn't correct.

My daughters are 7 and 13, so I empathize, FWIW. It seems as though this is all part of the "kids are growing up faster" these days that we lament for so many reasons.

I grew up in the good old days when all you had to worry about were race riots in the town next door, getting mugged in broad daylight in New York city, and the drug addicts that hung out near the town library. Moms called dads ‘chauvanist pigs’ and ‘oppressors’, Jimmy Carter was in office, and everyone’s wardrobe consisted of denim and nauseating combinations of orange and avocado green. There were dangers, but there was also a feeling of helplessness, that there wasn’t much you could do about our messed up society and general downhill slide. We’re more likely to take action now.

Mark is right, the seventies were awful. Things really are better now.

Oh, right, the colors! I guess I didn't list that because I'm still dealing with the aftermath in my own house! My kids do have to deal with an avocodo-colored bathroom even in these enlightened times.

Mark - Avocado keeps coming back but (I hope) icky orange and shag rugs are gone forever.

"real childhood" has a short history. See the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, for starters.

In earlier days, our children at 12 would be doing some heavy-duty work. In the fields, or as an apprentice to a workman, or doing wash and watching children. Of course, many of the children would be dead from infectious disease long before age 12.

That doesn't cut down on parental anxiety, but it does give one perspective. I'm happy to be living today and having kids today.