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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Safety and Freedom

Elder daughter, age 13, is off to see a movie with her friends. Usually this has involved schlepping (Yiddish for hauling) her and/or friends in at least one direction. However, one friend has older siblings, and either one of them or a very helpful parent is driving everyone to and fro. Before she left, I asked that if there weren't enough seatbelts, or if the driver seemed careless or worse, not to be cool -- she stay out/get out of the car and call me. I couldn't really tell whether her response -- "Sure", with a shrug and a slightly disgusted look -- meant "Of course" or "Yeah, right".

Every parent (at least, every custodial parent) is confronted almost every day, and often more than once a day, with some question about how closely to hover, what to allow, what to nix in the name of safety. I imagine many of us think back to our own childhoods when pondering such questions. I walked to school during much of elementary school: the distance I remember is 1/4 mile, but the trip I remember seems longer. It was a matter of course to walk through the neighborhood, join up with other kids, cross the footbridge... (that's all I remember). No one shepherded or monitored or chaperoned. In the first neighborhood I remember clearly, where I lived from ages 4 to 8, the kids ran around on their own through yards and streets in the classic suburban-or-small-town manner. There were plenty of stay-at-home moms then, but we didn't check in with anyone very frequently. And of course, there were no back seat belts in cars then -- when my family made long car trips to visit relatives in Canada, my folks packed the back seat full of luggage until it was flat across and threw some blankets down, and my brother and I lay on top. A "sleeper car", of a sort.... My husband, who grew up largely in Houston, took buses all over town by himself by the time he was 10.

I don't believe, based on what reading I've done, that the country was a significantly safer place for kids then than it is now, or that either Houston or my various suburbs were safer than my family's Bloomington, IN. I do believe that our society nowadays is unhealthily (there's an irony) obsessed with safety. I'm not sure how much this has to do with changes in the distribution of consumption of news: did stories of rare and awful crimes and accidents really stay in their home communities without national distribution, 40 or 50 years ago? I don't know whether longer lifespans have led to a subconscious belief that if we just eliminate every risk one by one, we'll live forever.

I do believe that obsession with risk avoidance is a type of national decadence. And I do not see how a society terrified of risks can remain a free society, or do much in the way of technological advancement. (Nor will it necessarily be a safer one -- I also believe that government (whether legislative or bureaucratic) rarely gives enough time or enough informed attention to do a good job of evaluating either the risks of an activity or the proposed method of reducing those risks.)

So I never worry when one of my daughters walks a block to the school bus in the dark, or rides with a friend's older sister, or signs up for gymnastics, or jumps on a friend's trampoline. Suuure -- as in YEAH, RIGHT. I worry when they do the things I did and the things I didn't do. And I'm never sure whether the worry is a manifestation of societal neurosis, or Mom instinct.

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