We have nothing to fear but food, germs, sunshine, playgrounds, and yes, fear itself

Paula Spencer has a great piece, We Protect Kids From Everything But Fear, in the latest Newsweek about the common–perhaps prevalent–parental culture of paranoia. After detailing everything that we, as parents, have to be nervous about: potato chips, sunshine, germs, and so on, she asks a critical question, “What’s the effect of our collective paranoia on the kids?”

She notes that in one case, paranoia may be leading to more harm to our kids:

An Australian study recently found that playground injuries continue to rise despite safety improvements. One of the suspected reasons: the safe new play structures are so boring that kids are taking more risks in order to have fun.

As David Elkind observes in his new book, The Power of Play, “Children can play safely without adult organization; they have done so as long as people have been on earth.” I often wonder, as does Howard Good, the reviewer of Elkind’s book, what happened to the days of telling kids to go out and play? As Good notes, “go out and play” was pretty much an order when I was a kid.

Sure, it was phrased as a question, but often as a Socratic negative response to an inquiry:

Can I watch TV?
Why don’t you go out and play?
Can I run through the house pretending that I’m a fire truck?
Why don’t you go out and play?
Can I play with scissors?
Why don’t you go out and play?

And I never didn’t want to go outside; I just wouldn’t think of it until it was presented to me. Yes, “Look a shiny thing!” worked on me. Still does. Especially fast shiny things. Vroom, vroom, squeeeeal . . . oh, did I digress?

In fact, one of the reasons that Mama and I want to move out of condo gulch–our realtor’s name for our end of town–is so that we can reasonably ask 3B, “Why don’t you go out and play?”

I don’t think that I’m being too paranoid when I say that there aren’t good play places for him close to our condo–unless you count the deep fryers at Popeye’s as a safe playground. Every day when I ride my bike to work from our house, someone almost kills me. Each time, I shudder to think what would happen if I didn’t have full control of my bike and ride defensively–or if, for example, I was a distracted kid on my way to a playground. Our street is nothing like the suburban cul-de-sac that I grew up on, where we could play a full nine-inning wiffle ball game without a single car disturbing us.

Letting a kid loose in our condoville neighborhood would be inviting disaster, but what if we can’t afford to move? What if we have to raise him in either this condoville or another one? Will we ever be able to tell 3B to “go out and play”? Or am I just giving in to the paranoia?

And even if we don’t let fear run our lives, what will the effects on 3B be of being immersed in a culture of paranoia? Anyone else out there afraid of what fear is doing to our kids? Better yet, anyone got a solution?

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  • Coming from the Mom who enrolled her daughter in karate at age 3, I don’t think an order to go out at a condo is feasible. I lived in an apt for a while and now a townhome and I couldn’t then nor can I now give such an order. I’m probably more paranoid than most considering our pitbull carjacking incident, but I just think you can’t be too safe these days. I try to counteract the paranoia with empowerment with my daughter, by filling her with info on what to do and how to react in X situation. That’s how I deal with it.

    Oh, and by the way, I’ve tagged you. Play if you like.

  • Whenever I think about raising a child in our apartment (granted, not forever, but still) and feel bad about not having a yard, etc. I say to myself “We’re not the only ones in this situation and kids turn out fine. We will love our child and expose him/her to as many things involving physical activity and nature as possible.” I also tell myself that we won’t be able to take the easy way out and tell them to go play. Bryan and I would have to go with and interact with them, etc. Millionairs live in highrises in NYC and manage, too. (Let’s just not talk about their weekend home in The Hamptons!)

    Or I could just be kidding myself, but really, sometimes this helps!

  • Fear is totally pervasive in our society. I think people just don’t realize it, because some of it is unconsious: driving (or cycling in your case) is stressful, TV is incredibly over-stimulating to the nervous system, and things like fearing for our children’s safety have become the “normal” way to be.

    I’m lucky in that I am surrounded by nature in which my kids can play fairly freely. But even if I lived on a cul-de-sac, I’m not sure I’d just tell my kids to go out and play. I think back in the day, there were plenty of adults home during the day so that kids were “safe” on some level. Now, you could live in a lovely suburban neighborhood and not see a single soul (perhaps except for a few nannies with strollers) all day long.

    Part of all this parental fear comes in part from our culture of blame. I think parents feel like they have to watch over their kids or provide structured activities, so that they will not feel guilty if the kids get hurt. This blaming ties into Spencer’s comment about playground equipment: people seem to be unable to believe that sometimes, crap happens to kids and they get over it.

    Sure, there are basic safety requirements like “no broken glass,” or “no rusty nails,” but aren’t we teaching our children to be big whiny (fearful) babies when we take away any chance for them to learn that sometimes they will get hurt but that it’s not the end of the world?

    I’m all for providing safe boundaries (a fenced-in backyard sounds like heaven to me right now) within which the kids can do pretty much anything. That way they learn to be self-reliant and self-confident.

    As for living in condo-ville, perhaps it’s a sacrifice that kids can’t play freely there, but that’s not to say you wouldn’t be able to provide other opportunities. Sit back at the playground and let your kid try to figure out if they can manage those monkey bars. Go on hikes often so that your kids can be in nature and move freely. It just becomes something you have to be more conscious to arrange.

  • Great post. I battle with this subject alot. Protecting the girls vs. being overprotective. wish I had the answer. I want them to be strong and adventurous, but I don’t want them to get in harms way.

    Maybe a nice bouncing bubble to protect them. Sure they may not get many dates, but I can live with that.

    Let me know when you come up with the solution.

  • We talk about this stuff in many of my classes…
    It’s so strange, but I’m so paranoid about Gage going out to play.
    Thank goodness he’s only 18 months old, so I have a while yet (as do you!)…but still, the time will be upon us before we know it.
    Hopefully by then, we will live in the suburbs.

    Which brings me to my next thought: danger can exist in the suburbs just as it does in the city.
    I’m a city girl. Love the city. But, I somehow picture the suburbs as safer. I somehow feel like my child will be safer in the suburbs.

    I dunno…
    I’m rambling…

  • We live in the suburbs (actually, in the ‘burbs of a BIG city that is, in reality, just a ‘burb of Toronto) and we have a big backyard. However, they’re too little to go out and play by themselves. Thank goodness for the deck that’s attached to the kitchen and big enough for them to zoom around on in their cars.

    We lived in a townhouse before this house. The -ahem- backyard was laughable BUT there was a wonderful, huge park very close by which we used all the time.

    My point? You’ll figure out a way to make it work.

  • Boo

    At the beginning of this school year, it was big news around here when it was reported that the Boston-area universities had to add an extra day to their student orientations. Why? Because kids these days are so over-protected that they don’t know basic things like hey! it’s dangerous to try to walk across the Charles River when it’s iced over. Or hanging out on train tracks can get you killed (as happened to 2 students last year).

    As new parents raising our son in the middle of the city, we have lots of conversations about how we will be able to keep him safe while still giving him freedom to figure some things out on his own. I don’t suspect it will be easy.

    I’m not sure the suburbs with its yards and culs-de-sac are necessarily the answer, though. Several months ago I was visiting a friend’s new home in a nice Atlanta neighborhood. One reason they chose the neighborhood was the prevalence of children. As we were walking their dog one beautiful evening, I asked why none of the kids were outside playing kickball or tag or hide-n-seek, and she informed me that kids don’t really play outside from what she could tell. And that’s too bad.