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Why Doesn’t the Kid Cross the Street?

Submitted by Editor on September 28, 2010 – 12:14 am | Print or Email »No Comment

by Mike Paulus
illustration by Ian Kloster
(originally published in Volume One)

My daughter turned four years old this past summer, and she’s starting to do an alarming number of things all on her own, from the basic stuff (washing hands, getting dressed … urinating) to the more obscure stuff (making bad puns, sticking hilarious objects up her nose).

Like most parents and people who just got a kitten, I’d like her to stay young forever. Thankfully, there are still things that will keep her young in my eyes. For example, about 79 times a day, she insists she is a kitty princess (which is a cat “just dressed up” like a princess). Most adults don’t do that. Also, she’d actually eat M&M’s for breakfast if we let her.

And I don’t anticipate her needing to cross the street anytime soon – kids just don’t do that much nowadays. I mean, leaving your yard is so 1953, man.

Wait a second. As much as I like avoiding things that make my kid look older, I wonder how we arrived at the era of yard-based kids. Yes, of course, cable TV, video games, the internet, blah, blah, Disney, blah, iPods are all keeping kids inside their houses, but I don’t think any of that compares to plain old parental fear. See, I don’t think modern parents are complaining all that much about all this, because they like having their kids right where they can see them. And honestly, much to my wife’s chagrin, I’m kind of the same way. Just like the majority of parents out there, I breathe easier keeping my kid in the backyard.

Obviously, it wasn’t always like this – and it’s not just an American trend. London’s The Mail beautifully illustrated the trend with a famous article in 2007 detailing the childhood “roaming radius” for four generations of a family living around the Sheffield area. At age eight in 1919, the family’s great-grandfather was allowed to walk six miles from home to go fishing. Eight years old in 1950, the grandfather roamed a one-mile radius to go play in the woods. In 1979, the family’s mother (again, eight) could walk to the swimming pool a half mile from home. And in 2007, the family’s 8-year-old son could walk to … the end of his street, 300 yards from the house. But he usually stayed in the yard because none of the other neighborhood kids go out. He’s driven everywhere else.

So why aren’t we letting our kids cross the damn street? What are we afraid of here in super-duper safe Eau Claire? Well, what about all those stupid cars?

In the mid 80s, I was playing in my street like it was a big, asphalt front yard. When I visit my old neighborhood now, the streets don’t feel like a safe place for kids. I’m sure this is the same for many people who grew up here. So, which came first – an increase in street danger (both perceived and real) or a decrease in kid activity?

There definitely seems to be a cyclical relationship between the abandoning of street play and increasingly dangerous streets. A colleague of mine proposes that, as parents drew their kids away from the street, cars were emboldened to drive faster, which made parents even less likely to let their kids go near them, which creates a car-only atmosphere, which pushes street redesigns and reconstruction away from any kind of kid-friendliness because kids no longer need to be factored in.

Even if you don’t buy the whole “vicious circle” concept, it’s hard to deny that motorists have simply gotten used to not worrying about kids. I’m not talking about thoughtless, bad drivers – just normal human beings who get set in their routines. Breaking those routines can be hard. Without some sort of human element on the street, using the crosswalks, using the sidewalks, cars will tend to drive faster. I’m not sure how to fix this, but I’m not going to be sending my kid across the street anytime soon just so cars will slow down.

Of course, when it comes to allowing our kids to leave home unsupervised, we parents are worried about a lot more than just busy streets. After watching a week of primetime cop shows your head can get filled with some pretty scary images. Rapists and kidnappers and killers and pedophiles and John Lithgow – they’re everywhere!

And then there are the old standbys like choking, bee stings, broken bones, getting lost, falling off a bike, falling down a hole, falling into a thorn bush, and befriending an awesome kid with an awesome family who live in a way nicer house and vacation in Hawaii and whose dad makes you look like a big, fat lazy idiot.

Some fears are real and some are not. Obviously, your kid can’t roam six miles from home like great-grandpa did in 1919 if a six-lane freeway was built betwixt home and the ol’ fishin’ hole. But spread across the top of all this fear cake is a common frosting called “worst-case thinking.”

In a recent blog post, “free-range kid” advocate and journalist Lenore Skenazy (who famously let her 9-year-old son take the New York City subway home alone in 2008), quotes an essay from security expert Bruce Schneier, who says …

“There’s a certain blindness that comes from worst-case thinking … it involves imagining the worst possible outcome and then acting as if it were a certainty. It substitutes imagination for thinking, speculation for risk analysis, and fear for reason. It fosters powerlessness and vulnerability … worst-case thinking validates ignorance.”

OK now, this guy’s talking about our country’s attitude toward terrorism. But it works for parenting, too. The negative ramifications of this thinking are manyfold. First off, you’re focusing only on what could be lost, never on what could be gained. And you’re blinded to the real troubles facing today’s kids. As Skenazy writes, “The ‘cost’ of a child going outside is never measured against the cost of staying in.”

I mean, come on, the overwhelming majority of child abductions and sexual crimes are perpetrated by people the victim knows, not strangers. The likelihood of your kid getting killed by an abductor is nothing compared to the likelihood of them dying from falling out of bed or off other furniture. But will your kid be sleeping on the floor tonight? Probably not. (At least, I hope not because that kind of death is extremely rare, too.)

So I think we need to stop worrying so much, and let our kids roam beyond their yard before they miss out on some major life experiences – and some major fun – even if it makes us parents uncomfortable. If there’s a playground or sledding hill in your neighborhood, teach them how to get there safely. Show them how to get to a friend’s house all on their own. And when it comes to actual things to be afraid of, like cars rocketing down your street, maybe advocating for some change is called for.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with acting like a grown up so your kid can act like a kid.

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