Papa Sez by Todd Hunter-Gilbert Issue #13
Papa Sez
by Todd Hunter-Gilbert

The Good Old Days - July 2005

Past Issues

A few months back I promised you a "When I was young" semi-rant.  The time has come. 

Is this country less safe than when I grew up?  Is crime so much worse? Are our children in constant danger?  Are people much less friendly than a generation ago?  These questions have been vexing me lately. 

As parents, we are led to believe that there are pedophiles and kidnappers waiting in our side yards should our children ever enter the front yard unsupervised.  Certainly the reports of horrible things done to children are way up from twenty years ago.  But are the instances of it up, or was it mostly unreported back then?

As parents, we are led to believe that any product in our house could, at any moment, prove to be defective, if not malignant-waiting for a chance to squish, slice, or suffocate our beloved little ones.  We learn this from the many news reports of product recalls, tragic deaths, and lawsuits. 

As parents, we are ordered to keep our children in car seats of various makes and models up until they reach a certain size or age.  A new law in New Mexico makes that age twelve years old.  Twelve!  The schools recently tried to stop using the A-F grading system because it hurt self esteem, but we'll keep short kids in a booster seat until they are twelve!

What is going on here?

When I was in kindergarten I walked to school without parents.  Admittedly it was a short trip and I always had company in the form of my brother (three years my elder) and possibly some of the neighborhood kids.  When I was seven I rode my bike alone several blocks to the grocery store to get items we needed for dinner.  When I was nine I went to private school and commuted 45 minutes each way, including a bus transfer. 

I lived on a block where nobody had fences and a huge field lay behind our collective houses.  From age six I would join with the neighbor kids and play unsupervised for hours, roaming sometimes a half mile in any direction. 

And I was out of my car seat so early I only have one memory of it.  After that, I rode in the back seat with a lap belt.  Or in the way-back of a station wagon.  Or even in the back of a truck.  My father drove relatively safely, taking the responsibility for protecting us.  Not blasting his windows full of "baby on board" stickers while weaving through traffic at 20 MPH over the limit. 

None of that happens these days.  Or, at least, the inverse is far too prevalent.  We live in a town where every yard is walled.  Children play in their back yards, often alone.  Meetings are special treats, "play dates", where you arrange to meet a friend's family at their house, a park, or a fast food joint.  Any time the child is in the front yard, one parent, at minimum, is with them.  Children are driven to and from school or monitored at the bus stop until the bus arrives. 

Is it any wonder parents are exhausted, just from supervising their kids?

But I have a theory.  And if I'm right, things are even worse.  My wife has a degree in sociology, and while I have not studied it, I've picked up the odd tidbit here and there.  One thing I've picked up is the theory of the panopticon.  This is a structure, literal or metaphorical, from which a person can be viewed continuously.  Many prisons are built on this theory-high towers where the authority figures lurk, keeping tabs on the inmates below to make sure nothing too bad happens down there. 

With so little chance for parent-free exploration, aren't we raising our children in their own little panopticons?  Before you say "so what" consider this.  People getting out of prison are generally much worse criminals than they were when they went in.  And sure, much of that can be blamed on prison culture.  But suppose the human brain has a negative response to never-ending surveillance. 

An example of how and why this might be is in order.  Quinn is at the age where he's starting to understand punishments and consequences.  And, he's trying to maneuver his way around them.  He likes to argue, debate, and look for loopholes like a first class lawyer.  But he has also started trying willful disobedience at times when his parents aren't watching.  Small things, like using the hose in his sand area after being told not to.  But it is from pushing and testing these small limits that kids learn consequences.  And they learn that consequences scale with the size of the offense. 

I wonder how many kids out there are never getting a moment by themselves.  A moment to consider what would happen if they tried that thing they'd been thinking of.  A moment when the thing they're thinking of might be riding a bike without a helmet, smoking a cigarette, or stealing a candy bar.  A moment before the thing they're thinking of, to go to the omnipresent extreme, is picking up a few semi-automatics at a gun show and shooting up their school. 

More questions than answers this month, I'm afraid.  Parenting is like that some days.  Be well. 

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