My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 5, #15,
October 25, 1999


I would shelter you, keep you in light
But I can only teach you night vision.
Suzanne Vega

I am puzzled by the current degree of hysteria about protecting children -- from strangers who MIGHT be kidnappers or molesters, from vaccines that MIGHT cause unexpected toxic reactions, from airbags that MIGHT injure children rather than protect them, from students who MIGHT be carrying guns, from pornography they MIGHT encounter in books, TV, and on the internet. Not to mention violent television and videogames, heavy metal and rap, fairy tales and Huckleberry Finn, and even Harry Potter.

I'm not denying that our world holds dangers for children, you understand. But children are, if anything, less at risk today than ever before. Historically, large numbers of children died before reaching their fifth birthday, from disease, malnutrition, industrial accidents, and poverty. During the 20th century, average lifespan increased by 35 years largely because the advent of antibiotics, water treatment plants, child labor laws, and vaccinations against polio, tetanus and diphtheria kept millions of children from dying young.

We overreact to things that are unlikely to happen. By the statistics, kids are safer in schools than anyplace else, very unlikely to be kidnapped by strangers, and more likely to die from the diseases than from the vaccines. Far more kids will use the net to find penpals, do homework, and post their art and writings online than will ever use it to search for bomb recipes.

Oddly, though, we fail to protect children from dangers that ARE likely. Even though auto accidents are a leading cause of death for children, many parents don't strap their kids into safety seats or seatbelts; many teach their kids to ride bikes but neglect to teach them the rules of the road and make them wear helmets. Few kids will be murdered, but many will be shot by accident, or will kill themselves, because a parent left a loaded gun lying around. Few will be physically injured at school, but many will be emotionally scarred by being taunted and told that they are too fat, too ugly, too stupid to live. We worry so much about our kids will use marijuana and cocaine that we don't notice that far more of them are binge drinking and driving drunk. (And when we do notice, we don't always think to ask what it is our kids need to escape from.)

Maybe the over-reaction stems from the fact that so many of the threats to children are products of a culture we neither understand nor approve of. Many of us were raised in trusting communities, but now don't even know our own neighbors, which increases our suspicion of all strangers. When a few children are kidnapped by strangers, our lack of community makes our children's risk seem greater than it truly is.

We also find it harder to raise kids with our values when they are surrounded by media that constantly violate them. If there's a television in the house, children can learn from steamy soap operas that adults are sex-crazed, from talk shows that mothers and fathers may betray and exploit their children, from ads that all problems can be solved instantly by buying something or popping a pill, from prime-time that more complicated problems can be solved with guns, from the news that our leaders do stupid things and lie to us. Even if we don't allow a TV in the house, our kids will see it elsewhere, or see the same void of values and worse in the movies.

It's not just the kids that see these things on TV, though. We do too. And if we no longer know and trust the people around us, we may start to take this dark dangerous media world for reality -- research has suggested that the more media people watch, the more fearful they are.

Maybe that's why parents seem so unwilling to give their kids the kind of freedom they themselves grew up with. Many parents are too fearful to let their kids walk to school, or take buses to the library or museum or the mall, and insist on chauffeuring them everywhere. Kids rarely get to just hang out together, build model railroads, go biking, because all their free time is scheduled and organized by grownups -- music lessons, little league, dance classes...

Of course that means that many kids don't have unstructured time to explore their world at their own pace, or figure out how to resolve arguments when there isn't an umpire around, or dream their Walter Mitty dreams and find out who they are and who they might become.

For many parents, the internet is even more of a foreign and hostile territory. Many don't understand or trust the technology itself, let alone the kinds of information, ideas and images it transmits. Since so many reporters are afraid of it, too, the stories parents see about the net are all about the dangerous 2% of the web: pedophiles in the chat rooms (and they are there), pornography (and it is there), bomb recipes (and they are there). Hardly anybody is showing parents how most of the net can be good for kids.

A lot of parents don't even try to learn the technology or the rules of safe surfing. They turn responsibility for their children's safety over to filter programs, or demand that teachers and librarians protect their kids from pornography either by installing filters themselves or by not letting kids use computers at all.

[One thing I don't understand is what parents think will happen if the kids DO see pornography? Are they afraid their kids will be repelled, or that they won't? Do they fear their kids will become porn addicts? Or become homosexual because they saw something about homosexuality on the net or in a book? Or do they just dislike having their hands forced about when to teach their kids about sex?]

I also wonder if our terror for our kids may not have to do with guilt about how little time we have to spend with them these days. If both parents have to work all day, rush home, fix dinner, do chores, make sure the kids do homework and get to bed, they may be too frazzled to spend time just talking with their kids, listening to them, getting to know them.

And if we don't, we may not know they feel shy about talking in front of the class, or hate sitting on the bench because the coach only lets the really good athletes play, or really like their new teacher, or don't know what to do about the boy who sits next to them and picks on them all the time. If they've got problems, this is our chance to show them how we analyze situations and think about possible solutions, or how we handle conflicts. It's also our chance to make sure our kids know at gut level not only that we love and respect them, but that they are lovable and deserving of respect.

It seems to me that the best protection we can give our kids against a corrupting culture is teaching them our values, not just in words, but in our daily decisions. If they ask us about something troubling on TV or the net, this is not a threat but an opportunity, a chance for us to tell them what WE believe, about sex, or responsibility or how people should treat each other. The job of parents is to teach their children night vision -- and then to let them go.

Even though we know that they will make mistakes, and that some bad things will happen to them -- not because we didn't protect them enough but because they are human and they are mortal and nothing we can do will change that. As Richard Butler says, "All God's children come to harm. There's no good reason for alarm; let them play." If we don't, we will cripple them, and they will not forgive us.

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