Safety first, yes, but today's overprotected kids need to live a little
Friday, October 19, 2007
Every time I buckle my son into his car seat - positioned between the side impact air bags and above the antilock brakes in our five-star safety-rated automobile - I think about my preferred mode of travel in the summer of 1983.
I spent that season at the Connecticut wilderness home of a friend from elementary school, who was moving from the Bay Area to the East Coast. When it was time to drive the station wagon down the mountain road, his father would often give us a choice: Would we like to ride in the backseat or on the roof of the car?
In retrospect, this was probably a really bad idea. If two 12-year-olds were seen traveling on the roof of a car in 2007, it would likely trigger an Amber Alert, four dozen cell phone calls to Child Protective Services and a viral YouTube video to be played endlessly on "Nancy Grace." But I'm sort of glad it happened. Being perched on the top of that slow-moving Ford Country Squire was a small risk (remember, this was the pre-Ford Taurus 1980s, when station wagons had giant luggage racks that were practically made for passenger travel), but there was also a reward. Riding on the roof of that car made me a little bit less of a wuss.
The wussification of American children is a relatively recent phenomenon, but a very real one. We pamper our kids, over-schedule them, overemphasize fairness in competition (the score ends in a tie ... again!) and keep them indoors too much, to the point that we're doing them a huge disservice. Kids aren't learning how to get hurt, lose, fend for themselves, find their balance and discover minor dangers on their own - all important parts of growing up.
The most encouraging parenting-related quote I've heard this year came from Peter Cornall, the head of leisure safety for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in England (best business card title ... ever), who says that overprotective parenting can hurt the development of children.
"Parents and children must not be frightened about venturing outside," he told the London Times in a June article. "When children spend time in the great outdoors, getting muddy, getting wet, getting stung by nettles, they learn important lessons - what hurts, what is slippery, what you can trip over or fall from. We need to try to break down the perceived safety barriers to playing outside."
I don't think he's saying people should get rid of their car seats or start smoking two packs a day while they're pregnant again. The point is to take some time and rediscover a few forgotten traditions, particularly ones that take place outdoors.
The popularity of "The Dangerous Book for Boys" is one great sign that coddling may be on the wane. That best-seller by brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden focuses on traditions - including how to build a tree house and instructions for making a go-cart - that are facing extinction in our paranoid parenting culture.
Accompanying this article are a few more "dangerous" things families can do together in the Bay Area, all chosen to help you de-wussify your brood. You may need to bring some Bactine now - but your kids will thank you later.
-- Archery, rockets and other old-school activities for kids, Page E8.
-- What reckless activities did you engage in when you were a kid? Join the discussion at The Chronicle's parenting blog, The Poop, at sfgate.com/blogs/thepoop.
E-mail Peter Hartlaub at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle