Editorial Comment

Child’s Play Has Lost Its Way

Being middle-aged has its disadvantages. Those people that are already there know what these disadvantages are, and for those not yet there, I’d hate to spoil the surprise. Despite the drawbacks, however, I prefer it to being a kid in this day and age.

I won’t bore you with sepia-toned memories of nonexistent parental monitoring while playing in the neighborhood, and riding bikes without the now ubiquitous bike helmets. In fact, I support bike helmets and wear one when I ride my ‘two-wheeler’. However, it seems quite apparent that the pendulum has swung so far to the protective end of its arc; it’s like an absurdo-meter red-lining.

There was a case recently in the US where a nine year-old child was allowed by her mother to play in the park by herself. A mom at the park saw that the young girl was by herself and called the police. Therein lays the problem.

In my day, the adults around us didn’t call the police, they were the police, for all intents and purposes. They also had an amazing network with many eyes on every block, a surveillance system the RCMP can only dream of. If any serious infraction occurred, bullying, fighting, or swearing, the web of Mom Police knew immediately. Retribution was swift. Kids would then go back to playing, adventuring, interacting, organizing, and exploring, discovering the world around them. They got to do all the things a child is supposed to do to mature properly as they gained adulthood.

Sure, sometimes we’d get hurt. A cast on the arm or leg has always been a pretty cool fashion accessory, and likely still is today. However, the risk of injury was never seen as bad enough to infringe on our freedom to play. It’s not like that anymore. In the news recently in Regina Beach, Saskatchewan, a child is reported to have fallen out of a tree in a city park and unfortunately, broke her leg. Now, unbelievably, the municipality is cutting down the tree. It was the trees first offense! Seriously, has personal responsibility eroded so badly, we are now punishing trees?

So what happened? As a society, how did we go from Background Parents to Helicopter Parents? The answer is that it’s likely the change didn’t come from a single source, but a plethora of social pressures.

One of the biggest impacts on how kids were supervised came about as a result of more moms entering the workforce. I don’t wish to debate the merits of this happening with regard to gender equality issues. Mostly, it was a case that the economy seemed to change. It became almost impossible for average households to be able to manage on a single salary, as was the case when I was a tot. The Mom Web now has far too many holes in it to depend on.

Instead, after school (a school which is zealously monitored now, including closed-circuit cameras in the hallways), kids have to go to after-care or a babysitters. These caregivers aren’t about to let the kid run loose. That would not be good for them if the kid suffered a mishap, not to mention that, if the kids could run wild, parents really wouldn’t need to pay for after-school care.

Another influencing aspect is that the moms who begat my generation were a fertile bunch, boasting fertility rate of almost four kids per woman, according to Statscan figures. Now, we’re not even replacing ourselves, with a paltry rate of just 1.63 kids per womb. This means that with fewer kids, parents can invest more time and attention into just one or two. The bonds become tighter with smaller families between parents and individual children, rather than the bonds being more toward the group as exists in large families. My own parents, for example, who had eight kids, couldn’t possibly provide the one-on-one focus that kids get nowadays, after being picked up from after-care.

An additional factor at play is that we now live in a more judgmental culture than could ever exist before, thanks to the Internet. If a parent makes a value judgment about the care of their children that someone disagrees with, suddenly, it is all over social media. The fear of a minor lapse in judgment going viral is a real concern. So we over-protect our offspring and find fault with those who don’t. When over-zealousness is the norm, normal behaviour is seen as aberrant.

Perhaps the most emotionally wrenching reason we treat our children with kid gloves is that the popular media, always pushing the edge of sensationalism, now often feature crime dramas where children are gruesomely murdered. Their anguished screams of pain and terror worm our way into our subconscious until we picture murderers and pedophiles everywhere. This is despite the fact the chance of your child being abducted by a baddy is far less than dying in a traffic accident being driven to school.

Another change that occurred is that instead of being admonished to respect elders, as we had been, today’s child is being warned of, “stranger danger” and making an entire generation paranoid of others. This has a huge impact as we tend to hate what we fear and when we start fearing one another, our culture is doomed.

In my day, we didn’t need a smartphone to feel connected. It was also nice to be free, sometimes, of the intense peer group pressure young people have always faced. Now there is no respite from it. It is impossible to say for sure, but it seems it is quite possible, if smartphones had been around when I was a kid, I would have preferred building forts in the woods to being on Facebook.

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