A culture of fear

walk-to-schoolLast night I got a Facebook wall post by a former neighbor and childhood friend. He posted some Google Streetview links to the places where we grew up, including the elementary school that we walked to. It didn’t take me long to get curious about our daily walk to and from James Madison Elementary School. I was a bit surprised to see it pop up and say .7 miles.

When I thought out my daughter, entering 3rd grade, I thought to myself “there is no way I’d allow Megan to walk .7 miles to school without an adult!“It’s too dangerous. Too many bad things could happen. Plus we would worry all day wondering if she ever even made it to school. Couldn’t the school call me when she got there? Would someone call the police on us for letting her walk?

Isn’t that an odd reaction? My mom was not cruel in making me walk to school. Nor was she considered a bad parent for not driving me. In fact, all the kids in my neighborhood walked to school! She would have been seen as a bad parent if she had driven me each day. Culture in 1980s permitted– demanded that kids walk to school.

But the world is way more dangerous than it was when you were a kid, Adam! crime-rate

That was my first reaction, too. Until I did some research and discovered that our country is much safer today than it was in 1985. While there is a general assumption in our psyche that things aren’t as safe as they were when we were kids… in fact, the world is a safer place. Less violent crime. Less petty crime. Even less violent crime against children.

The culture of fear in America

So why is it that we live in a safer society today but I would never allow my children to walk to school unattended? Why is it that it seems ludicrous to allow an 8 year old to walk to school with some friends? Why is it that I would be viewed as a horrible parent if I allowed her to do that?

The answer is that in the last 10 years we’ve allowed a new cultural more of irrational fear for our children to creep in. It wouldn’t be illegal for my child to walk .7 mile to school but it would feel wrong.

Culture mores are not always logical.

Cultural mores are not always reasonable.

Cultural mores are sometimes counter-productive for a society.

When I think back to my childhood most of the good stuff happened as a result of long periods of time without parents. We walked to school, we were at school all day, and when we came home we played with our friends. We spent epic amounts of time in trees or playing games or creating sandlot baseball tournaments. Now we take our kids to school, ask the teacher to report their behavior to us, and barely allow them any unsupervised time without us. In effect, normative parenting skills inhibit a childhood like I had.

Remember getting on  your bike and riding around the neighborhood all day?

Remember going to the park with no adults around?

Remember disappearing into the woods to build forts?

All gone. Not because we live in a society that is more dangerous or litigious. But because culture has taken these things away.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

11 comments

  1. Right on, so true
    I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately, how our kids are growing up under lock & key. As a result they are more & more overweight, sedentary & scared.
    This generation of kids will never explore the woods on their own or tape coins to the railroad tracks or spend their summers climbing trees.
    The saddest part is that I’m not as much scared of what will happen to my baby, but of what social services or the neighbors will say.
    What I should be scared of is raising a generation of unhealthy, zombie-like, consumption-adicted kids that haven’t the slightest clue about the magnificent world around them.

  2. Here’s my frustration: parents that can’t let go of their kids! We’ve definitely become too afraid of everything; letting kids outside, letting kids go places on their own, even letting kids do things on church activities without fearing for them! During our mission trips this year I sent daily text message updates to parents, had a constant flow of twitter updates and photos, blog posts, emails, and even let the kids call home. This was for a nine day trip to Maine. And there were still a couple parents upset because I didn’t communicate enough and they didn’t know what was going on! There was literally some form of update every few hours. And it wasn’t enough!!!

  3. Matt and Adam,

    We had a scavenger/pop can drive one night and had a parent complain to on of our volunteers about not knowing about this. We sent out flyers and notes to the parents, too.

    I can remember doing similar things when I was in yg, so when the Youth Pastor proposed it we all thought great! When did the society get so traumatized that parents lock down their kids?

  4. I wonder about this all the time while watching movies that show kids in the 80’s (when crime was supposedly higher?) walking to school together. In fact there are kids walking all over the place without any parents. I think that is where the latchkey kid reference comes from. When I was a student (in the 90’s), there was one kid who walked to school, and she literally only walked one block over. Even the kids a few houses down had a bus stop. I remember thinking how strange it must be to not have to get on a bus. The bus was “safe”. The street was not.

    Makes me wonder what I would do if I had a kid. Would I let them walk a few streets down to school? And do I trust that beyond my control, that God will protect them?

    I might. Kids are more resilient and brave than we give them credit, and challenges like this help build character. One time, when I was in Sunday School, I decided I didn’t want to go. I memorized the 10 mile route that took us to the building where I attended Sunday School, and then when my parents signed me in, I used a loophole in the web of adults to get out of the building undetected, and I walked the full 10 miles to get home.

    My parents and the adult volunteers were ecstatic when they found me. They probably flipped out, but it was that trip that I learned how to pray constantly. I was afraid that someone might steal me, but I got over that fear, and I trusted God to get me home despite my bad decision. I also think that I helped the Sunday School program fill in the gaps in their web.

    I was about 7 or 8 years old when I did that. Not that I want all kids to do this, but we don’t even allow kids safe opportunities for adventure, like walking to school.

  5. Perhaps we are safer now because parents are overly cautious with their kids and don’t let them walk to school on their own?

    Don’t get me wrong I am not advocating the paranoia. I am just pointing out the fact that that is quite likely why we are safer now then we were long ago.

    I agree that we parents need to lighten up and relax a little. Especially the parents of some of the teens that I work with. I was just looking at a youth pastor friend’s youth group blog where he posted daily video updates from summer camp and thought how cool technology was that parents can “see” into what is going on at summer camp with their kids. It is neat that we can be so connected.

  6. @todd- you seem to be implying that hovering parents leads to less crime. Interesting idea, tough to measure I guess.

    I think we need to decide if elongating adolescence by hovering is worth them being safer but not experiencing a childhood that makes them better adults? Who knows… 50 years from now we may look at this time and realize parents are completely neurotic?

    I think it really boils down to the question, “who do these kids belong to?” If they are ours and we are to protect them from “the world” than we should be helicopters. If they are God’s and we are responsible caretakers, it’d seem like God would be aware of the dangers out there better than our helicoptering could ever do.

    I better move on, I have to go install my nanny cam!

  7. The last church I worked with was right beside a school of kindergartners and 1st graders. I would see these little guys and girls walking to school all alone. I have to say, even though I have a bit of a stigma about my child walking to school alone, i also found out a few years later it isn’t just about crime…it is a missed opportunity to get a good convo in with your child. I realize some people can’t walk their child to school, but i drove my nephew to school every day for a while and it was the best time of connection for him. Just Uncle Adam time, and he loved it.
    Having said all of that, my childhood was not ideal, but I was left all alone at home from a very young age…and I survived. In fact…I thrived in that.
    Caution isn’t bad…freedom isn’t bad…understanding the situation of your neighborhood and being aware of opportunity to connect is also valuable. Interesting article/blog…makes you think…on both sides.

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