Thursday, January 31, 2008

Childhood in a changed world

Once upon a time, I used to walk to elementary school alone, even though it was about six blocks away and not all the streets I had to cross to get there had a Safety Patrol person on duty on the corner.

Did I ever mention the kids on the Safety Patrol? Yes, that’s right—they were kids. We were kids—when I hit 5th grade (roughly 11 years old), I became eligible and became part of the Safety Patrol myself. Who ever heard of adults getting paid to be “School Crossing Guards?” In the fifties, we elementary school students did the same job for free.

Now I read—right here in the blogosphere—of kids being driven home from school even though the school is only two or three blocks away.

Just how dangerous have our neighborhoods become?

Whatever happened to the days when a nine-year-old who wanted to play with a friend just walked over to that person’s home and back, unescorted? Why does everything have to be a “playdate” now, planned two weeks in advance? The word “playdate” didn’t even exist when I was growing up.

Whatever happened to the days when a nine-year-old could walk to the local playground unescorted—and play there for hours with no adult supervision?

Whatever happened to the days when kids could leave the house unaccompanied on a weekend or school holiday and hang out with friends for hours, and no one worried, even though most of the time our parents had no idea exactly where in the neighborhood we were?

Okay, granted, I grew up in the suburbs. But still, it was a sad business that my son couldn’t leave the house unescorted until he was about 11 years old. I don’t think elementary schools in New York City will even allow a child to leave the grounds after school until picked up by an adult. Did we just not know about kidnapping and sexual predation of children decades ago?

What happened between the fifties and now, that we seem to be living in a completely different world?


Blogger Alex in Miami said...

It is a different world...

The world we live in today is much safer. Crime rates are lower, violent crime rates are much lower. Traffic is generally safer, people may not drive better, but tires and breaks are better now. Drunk driving is a serious offense.

Some blame the media, which bears part of the responsibility. They sensationalize the dangers and drive everyone crazy.

However, I think that a lot of the blame goes on our elected officials and the nanny state. No matter how statistically safe the streets are, some kids will get hurt. There are millions of elementary age children in the US, tragedies will happen.

When tragedy strikes, instead of sympathy, the media will show up, asking where are the parents. Parents will not mourn the loss the way people want them to look like they are mourning under the glare of the camera... they will demand something be done. Parents will be hauled up on neglect charges. Even when acquitted, they will be bankrupted by the witch hunt, emotionally ruined from not letting their other kids enjoy life, and probably unable to hold a job because they are "those people that killed their child."

What seems perfectly reasonable before hand looks dangerously irresponsible after the tragedy happens. How many people getting their lives ruined like that before parents just hide.

Thu Jan 31, 07:37:00 PM 2008  
Blogger RaggedyMom said...

It is a different world. I've written a couple of times about how my mother used to leave me in the library when I was 8 or 9 years old, go do her grocery shopping on Main Street, and then pick me up for the walk home. Unless it was a supervised library program, I can't imagine someone doing that today.

Then again, my brother's kids in Israel have a life similar to the one you describe you grew up with. The kids there are in general more free and independent, and also outdoors much more than our kids.

Thu Jan 31, 08:12:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Alex in Miami, I will readily, and happily, admit that there are many ways in which the world was safer for my son than it was for me. Infant and/or child safety seats in cars hadn't even been invented yet when I was a child, and seat belts were practically unknown. I honestly don't know whether outlet guards (for keeping kids from sticking their fingers or metal objects into electrical outlets & getting electricuted) had been invented yet, either. My son just barely missed being among the first to get a chicken pox vaccination--it hadn't been invented and/or approved yet--and got chicken pox, instead, but children only a few years younger than he is were more fortunate.

Still, the kind of virtual paranoid that many of us feel about leaving a child unattended, even in an allegedly safe place such as a public library with a children's section, or letting a child go out to play without adult supervision, is something new.

Fri Feb 01, 01:33:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Alex in Miami said...

I rode my bike or walked to school in elementary school, which was about 1.5 miles away. If it was raining or we were running late I'd get a ride in, but that meant walking home instead of biking, and 20 minutes less Super Mario Bros. or Zelda. :) In bad weather I got a ride. That school opened when I was in second grade.

The local day school is a about 1 mile from the middle of our community, kids on the far side of the neighborhood are inside of two miles. I don't think that the school HAS a bike rack... We had a few big bike "cages" where the bikes were locked during the day for elementary school.

Only reason I stopped after elementary school was attending a Magnet school and then a private school, both 30 minute drives away. I can't imagine any of my neighbors letting their kids do it. I think that the kids that don't get to explore AS kids don't get to establish themselves and lack confidence as adults, but that's just me.

Mon Feb 04, 01:28:00 AM 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have just hit on one of the biggest reasons we decided to live in a yishuv. My kids play outside for hours, walk to school by themselves (five minutes away), play at other kids houses spontaneously, and yes, work as crossing guards when they hit sixth grade. I have never arranged a play date in my life. I once had a conversation with a neighbor, and I described how different it was in America. I told her that thank G-d the only picture we have on the milk cartons here is a cow! When I described the number of kidnapped children in America she couldn't believe it. She then asked me, "what do they do with all of the kidnapped children?" When I had to answer her she was horrified.


Mon Feb 04, 11:36:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"I think that the kids that don't get to explore AS kids don't get to establish themselves and lack confidence as adults . . ." Alex, I'm inclined to agree. Striking a reasonable balance between keeping my son safe and letting him be a kid was a challenge, and one that I tried very hard to meet because I didn't want him to grow up afraid of everything.

West Bank Mama, that's the way I grew up. Sadly, circumstances have changed for the worse in many parts of the United States, when it comes to raising children. I'm glad you found a good place to raise your kids.

Mon Feb 04, 10:04:00 PM 2008  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

If you want to get a jolt about how much has changed in the past half century, see if you can watch a show on AMC called "Mad Men".

In the first episode, they show a pregnant woman smoking, drinking, and another woman having a few drinks then getting in a car and driving while smoking with her two kids rolling around in the back seat and then climbing over into the front.

And all of this was considered PERFECTLY ACCEPTIBLE back then.

Tue Feb 05, 09:02:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

My mother neither smoked nor drank, but she car-pooled half the neighborhood to Hebrew School with several of us in the "back back"--not the back seat, but the cargo area of our station wagon. Having kids ride in the "back back" was not the least unusual in the days before seatbelts.

The down side of all that "freedom," of course, was the danger. In the days before seatbelts, my younger brother once flew over the back seat when my mother had to hit the brakes suddenly, and ended up with a chipped front tooth when his mouth hit the dashboard. (Normally, my older sister would have been positioned in the front seat as a literal seat-back stopper, but she had moved to the back to help one of us.) Given the current combination of seatbelts and fixed-position front seats (requiring that one move a lever or press a button to make the seat-back bend forward), it would be highly unlikely for a person to be injured in an accident of that type nowadays.

One could make the case that our neighborhoods are now more dangerous, but that the way we deal with electricity, cars, machines and other technology is now safer.

Tue Feb 05, 11:54:00 AM 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a couple of different issues here:

1. Crime- Americans are far safer than in the 70s and 80s, but still not as safe as in the 50s. For mind numbing detail go to

So whether the world is "safer" or more "dangerous" than in your youth depends on how old you are- I think safer than in my youth, maybe not safer than in yours.

2. Traffic- However, thanks to car-oriented traffic engineering, car traffic may be more dangerous than a few decades ago. Streets are wider, and as a result people drive faster. But this depends very much on where you live- suburban commercial streets tend to be the most dangerous (for example, the eight lane boulevard that runs through my neighborhood in Jacksonville), urban residential streets the least so.

Here's a fun fact: according to a CDC study, 40% of parents whose children don't walk to school cite danger from traffic as a result, as opposed to only 18% citing crime.

Fri Feb 08, 04:40:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Lewyn, I suppose that, having grown up in the fifties, I really do see the world as a more crime-ridden place. But it didn't occur to me that fear of letting children cross streets because of danger from traffic might be as good a reason for relatives and/or caregivers not to want children to walk to or from school. Thanks for the explanation.

Sat Feb 09, 11:37:00 PM 2008  

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