Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Grow Up

A lot of people I know have been having children lately. Apparently that's what happens when folks get around my age. This has caused Anu and I to consider whether or not we want to be a part of this particular trend. Part of considering this is figuring out just how much it sucks to be a kid, or have one, these days.

When I was a kid, there were plenty of lousy things about being young. Bullies kicking my ass. Girls who wouldn't kiss me. Not being able to drive a car. The fact that the entire planet was not made of pizza and iced cream.

It turns out, however, that being a kid nowadays sucks even more -- and so does being a parent.

When I was a kid, I ran forehead-first into our driveway gate (which I rarely remembered to latch, so it was always swinging in the wind) as I was chasing my beloved kite. I required stitches. I also tried to jump a neighbor's fence on my bicycle, leading me to hit the storm drain, flip the bike, and slam into the fence. I avoided stitches, but I sure looked and felt like a bruised-up moron. Among my many other stupid tricks were: jumping through the branches of a tree the height of our house (washing off blood and sap really sucks), numerous bicycle crashes, punching out walls and windows, building a treehouse that collapsed with me in it, hundreds of dirt clod fights (including ones that turned into fist and/or rock fights), and as I got older, first leaping and eventually riding dirtbikes off a cliff and into a nearby sand and gravel pit.

Friends and I also used to play Star Wars in a nearby bog that looked kind of like Dagobah, and was right next to the four dishes and radio antenna owned by the local cable TV firm. My dad used to bring home fireworks. And skateboards. Sometimes the fireworks and skateboards were deployed at the same time. I also liked to set fires (though generally in safe places), swim in the ocean, and take the train 100 miles into NY City to buy records and go to punk clubs (after I was about 12, I did the latter two unattended).

Many of my stunts resulted in getting yelled at, lectured, or grounded. Were I a kid now, any one of these things might result in my mom getting arrested and/or me and my sisters being taken away from her by Child Protective Services.

So might the fact that I started babysitting my little sisters starting when I was as young as 10 (though not for very long at that age). I was actually paid to babysit other people's kids, and to mow laws with an actual lawnmower, when I was 12. Child labor! Dangerous whirling blades! The horror! The horror!

I even got arrested once as a kid (for graffiti). The judge chastised me for being a snotty young punk, and then chewed-out the cop for wasting his time when the cop should have just dealt with it locally and made me clean up the graffiti and be done with it. Then the judge sentenced me to clean up the graffiti. The idea of arresting my mother for the fact that young people are universally stupid never even occurred to anyone involved.

I left home to go to college at 16. I did incredible amounts of stupid things between 16 and 18 (the age at which my mother was no longer legally burdened with the responsibility for my actions despite being a four and a half hour drive away). And while I was there, a friend of mine was killed in one of the first campus shooting rampages since Charles Whitman.

Was my mom negligent for allowing me to go to college before the age of majority? Based on the culture of paranoia today, I bet a lot of so-called parents today would think so, especially since something actually quite bad did happen on campus. Of course, she couldn't have known. And statistically, the chances of that happening were incredibly small. It was freakish that it happened, not inevitable.

In the neighborhood where I currently live, there is a huge State Park that you can walk to from our house in about 5 minutes. I hardly ever see kids in it. I also hardly ever see kids riding bikes in the neighborhood (once), walking around the neighborhood, or even playing in their own yards. Outside is where bad things are like scrapes and cuts and bullies and the ubiquitous* child abductors.

When I was a kid, my mom was constantly trying to get me to go outside and run around more. She wanted me away from the video games and out in the woods with my friends, not cooped up in the house so I'd be "safe". And she certainly didn't make play dates for me. If I wanted to play, I had to arrange it with other kids myself, like kids have since cavekids dragged each other out by the hair to play a nice game of "hit the tiger with a stick". Parents have become both overprotective, as well as obsessed with the idea of "preparing kids for success" and thus kids' lives have become regimented and contained.

People think they're being responsible with their kids by building these walls around them, and regimenting their lives, but they're really being quite irresponsible. In addition to the fact that sedentary lifestyles encourage kids to get fat and unhealthy, this kind of mollycoddling makes kids lazy, codependent, and spoiled. And it perpetuates the pathetic culture of victimization that has turned America into the land of lawsuits and self help scams. Perhaps, though, this constant monitoring and scheduling is just good parenting after all -- preparing them for constant surveillance and obedience in the post-Patriot-Act police state that many seem to want to turn our country into.

Michael Chabon has written about this. George Carlin ranted about it and accurately named the phenomenon "The Cult of The Child" and "Child Worship". Lenore Skenazy has made combating the insidious forces depriving kids of a real childhood into a cottage industry with her Free Range Kids book and site. And historical fiction author Conn Iggulden achieved international attention for his own Dangerous Book For Boys (which inspired the Daring Book For Girls). All this effort in order to try to inspire, encourage, and occasionally chastise parents into allowing kids to actually have a life.

If raising kids is going to mean getting arrested and sued for trying to let my kids experience the world, I am not so sure I want to do that. At least, not here. When I was in Denmark visiting my sister Katrina and her husband Troels, I saw kids actually riding bicycles and playing in public parks. Maybe in Europe, a kid can still go to the mall without anyone getting arrested.

(* Child abduction is far from ubiquitous. Based on reported statistics, while approximately 1.1% of children are reported missing annually (approx 800,000 missing child reports, out of a child population of approx 73.7m), being reported missing includes runaways, etc. About half that 800,000 number is accounted for by abductions by family members. Only about 7.5% of that 800,000 number is claimed to be stranger abductions, and only 115 (0.01%) were "stereotypical kidnappings". Approximately 99% of kids reported missing are found. So based on these reported statistics, in any given year a kid's chances of going missing with a non-family member is about seven hundredths of a percent (0.07%), and of going missing permanently is approximately one hundredth of a percent (0.01%). Even if you believe the claim that reported statistics are under-reported by a factor of 20x, which seems an absurd claim in our current culture of paranoia, we're talking about 1.4% and 0.2% chances, respectively. According to child violent death statistics, a kid has a 0.01% chance of a violent death (0.004% chance of being murdered). On the other hand, heart disease, which obesity and lack of exercise is a factor in, is responsible for 27% of all U.S. deaths per year.)


hatsumi said...

Thank you.

I'm happy to report that my son goes outside, gets hurt, gets in trouble, and still does all-around stupid crap.

I hate seeing parents protecting their children from the outside world. All I can think of is what's going to happen when they finally leave the nest. Among other things, they won't know what the hell to do.

I will be forever grateful that my parents let me screw up, fall down, and get hurt (figuratively and literally). Many times. Hehe.

I think that the world today is more dangerous than it was 20 years ago, but building a protective shield around our children to keep them from experiencing it is only going to harm them.

Max said...

I was going to send you to the Free Range Kids blog, but since you've already linked to it I have to assume you're a reader.

The problem is that you're too smart for your own good. Stop thinking so rationally about reproduction. When it comes down to it, you're not fulfilling your biological imperative if you're not having kids. Having kids is a way to ensure the survival not just of your genes, but of your values. If you have kids and raise them the way you see fit, it will cause change in the world. If you let your kids roam and explore, if you let your kids become individuals on their own, you will succeed as a parent.

I high recommend watching the opening of Mike Judge's Idiocracy - not a great film, but the intro is the finest argument for why people like you and your wife ought to be having kids.

Stop thinking so much about it and just do it.

charlie said...

Another parent checking in. I don't find much to disagree with you on (except for the final conclusion). Your instincts are all spot on, and I think you and Anu would make great parents. Please don't deprive my own kids (and their kids?) of decent playmates/colleagues by refusing to have your own just for fear of arrest. Believe me, there will be plenty of other things to worry about.
be well,

Daphne said...

My town is at least 10 years behind. Groups of kids under 12 play street hockey, or just hang out, on the next street over from me all the time. I'd take a picture just to record as a sociological event for posterity, but I don't want to get arrested or suspected as some kind of picture taking child perv.