This is the ritual my daughter and I perform each time she goes out to play:
"Mom, can I go outside?"
"Yes, but first you have to tell me the rules."
"Go straight to the back where you can see me and don't go into anyone's house without your permission."
"Okay, good. Have fun!"
By some parents' standards, this is lax. Some parents won't let their children go outside without them at all. And considering how busy most adult lives are, this means that many children just don't go out to play, unless they go alone into their fenced backyard.
It's a far cry from when I was a child. Back then I would shout behind me as I walked out the door, "Mom! I'm going outside!" To which she would respond "Okay!"
And that was that. My only rule was 'Be home before dark.' I could roam the neighborhood in childish bliss, riding my bike, smelling flowers in the neighbor's garden, eating honeysuckle flowers at the park, making forts in tangles of shrubs in backyards of dubious ownership. Nobody knew whose land it was; the concept of property ownership didn't even occur to us. We just knew that the water collected there when it rained and we had our own lagoon in the summer and ice pond in the winter. And if something so mundane as property ownership slipped our attention, it certainly never occurred to us that there might be people lurking out there trying to abduct us. To my knowledge, there never were.
I grew up in a Section 8 neighborhood. My mom was scraping by on a secretary's salary and nominal child support. All our neighbors were, too. It never crossed their minds that someone might wander through our neighborhood selling drugs to their kids. As far as I know, no one ever did.
And yet, experts say that my daughter and the rest of her generation are statistically safer than mine.
Nonetheless, we are terrified that something horrible will happen to them and it will be All Our Fault. So we keep an ever-vigilant eye on our children, lest they be kidnapped, sold drugs, molested or bitten by a mosquito. That often means keeping them inside, increasingly entertained by video games and DVDs because we have too many things to do to go outside and play with them and it's too dangerous Out There for them to play with other children. Like many of our cultural band-aids, it's not enough; this is a wound bound to turn gangrenous.
The scenario as it stands catches our 22 so that kids are forced to pretend to be adults and adults are forced to pretend to be kids. Neither fills the role well, and both do it grudgingly.
I mean, don't get me wrong -- it's fun to go to the park sometimes. I go when I can. But parks are supposed to be places for kids to play with each other, to forget their parents for a while and just immerse themselves in friends and make-believe.
Adults don't do this well -- they're too busy trying to work out the financial and chronological jigsaw puzzle of parenting. We can do it sometimes, but not enough. Kids need plenty of unfettered time to fall head-over-heels into playing space, house, fireman and all those games that send reality for a coffee break.
And really, it's not our role as parents to be our kids' best friend. Sure, we need to be attentive and find ways to connect with them, but children need to play with each other in their own world, coming up for air from time to time.
Kids are no better at fitting into our shoes, either. Our endless errands are tedious. Many kids aren't required to do chores, so they kill time while mom and dad slave over them, which is a powerful lesson on getting others to do things for you. As for errands, they rarely want to be dragged along without a bribe. All that behaving in public just isn't worth it when you could be running around and climbing trees.
I know many moms who consider their kids to be their best friends, by right of the fact that they spend the most time with them. That's not entirely appropriate. While there are many ways adults and kids can connect, children are simply not fit to be our confidantes and share our burdens. We need our own community for that. We need help loving our children and ourselves, and trying to go it alone is an all-expenses-paid trip to adrenal failure. And as a good friend recently put it, if you have empty nest syndrome, you have failed to show your children how to live a life.
It's not working for anyone. Somehow, we need to straighten this out.
Jean Liedloff, author of the brilliant child development book, The Continuum Concept, says we have forgotten what our roles are supposed to be.
She traveled to a South American jungle to observe tribal villages raise their kids and get a few hints about what works and what doesn't. She saw that the role of the parent is to demonstrate adulthood to children. They work side-by-side, washing and cooking and building and fishing.
To children, this is the utmost fun. (Ask any kid -- mine falls all over herself to help if it means working side-by-side with me.)
But most important, Liedloff says, is a child's need to be trusted. Ironically, this is what we deny our children most often. Every time we say, "Be careful" or "Don't do that" or "Go where I can see you," we are actually conveying an expectation that they'll do those things we are warning against. Children, desperately wanting to be obedient, will do exactly what we expect of them, even if it's the opposite of what we say.
If I had a nickel for every time I said, "I warned you that would happen!" I could send my daughter to Harvard. The energy of the universe never lies.
But all those admonitions only hint at the source of the problem: fear. Of the unknown, of the known, of irony. Our culture is well trained in fear; it's the steam in our engines when it comes to just about everything. It's not a new concept; every book that rubs up against the edge of spirituality covers it.
But what is the source of this fear? Why do we think that something horrible will happen to our children if we take their eyes off them for a second or don't warn them of every bump in the rug? Is it television with all its "ripped from the headlines" melodrama?
Is it the news that throws
special reports out like big raw steaks to the slobbering dogs of our inner dread? Is it the fact that we don't know our neighbors anymore, so we can't trust that wherever our kids are, someone we know has an eye out for them?
Yes, but each of them is a symptom of a disease complex that only becomes obvious when you step away to look at the big picture.
We are a culture desperately afraid of death. It oozes from our pores, with each war and violent film, with every repressed freedom in the name of safety, with every terror that something ugly and horrible is lurking around every corner and it is our (or our government's) sole responsibility to prevent it happening.
And we are going to keep scrambling, running like the doomed friend in a slasher film until we stop, turn around and look it in the face.
Life is temporary. Fleeting. Death is the appointment to which we all are punctual. Killing kids in Iraq won't stop it from happening here. Neither will death row. Nor will pesticides, God, Hollywood or CNN.
We can't protect our kids from death by denying them a life.
Fear doesn't extend a life. In fact, research shows it shortens it. Knowledge is useful, but only up to a point. Love helps a lot. So does trust. So does connection. Which is easy to say, but when your adrenaline is pumping it's not so easy to do - especially when it flies in the face of years of habits. So what do we do? How do we stop?
In my experience, it's futile to try to stop doing anything. What works is to start doing something else, and to keep doing it and keep feeding it until it chokes out the other and steals its source. That's how fear wound up with such prominent billing. Seems to me we could steal the headlines back if we pick just one change and throw ourselves into it.
I'm trying in my own little way. Since I started writing this essay, the exchanges have gone more like this: "Mom! I'm goin' outside!"