Monday, August 3, 2015

Child Protection

One of the topics that I discuss with my daughter is how protective she ought to be of her son while he is growing up. The norms have completely changed since I was a child and have continued to change since my children were raised. You can get a general sense of the current standards from this video. In many parts of the country children who are outside unaccompanied by an adult are considered at risk, and consequently their parents may be deemed unfit or negligent. The two aspects of this phenomenon that interest me are how it came into existence and what effects it might have on the future development of children.

There has probably been something written about how this state arose, but I'll just give my impressions. A lot of it may stem from the fact that in most families today all of the adults are working, and stay-at-home mothers are in a minority. When I moved to the U.S. in 1957, hardly any mothers in my neighborhood worked. The children walked about by themselves unaccompanied by parents and played with friends without any parental supervision. I don't recall any adults out at night with trick-or-treaters (other than the very young) even when, unlike today, Halloween extended until well after dark.  It is possible that always having mothers nearby led parents to feel that their children were safe, and that when mothers became unavailable due to their jobs a natural caution set in that caused parents to overreact. Leaving children with poorly-paid daycare workers doesn't inspire much confidence, and the fact is that many children may have experienced sub-optimal childhoods because of their daycare.

Furthermore, the public has always been at the mercy of the press, which tends to misrepresent child abduction and child abuse rates in the interest of selling advertising. The press has also been instrumental in generating public fear regarding terrorism, and collectively Americans seem to have felt far more threatened by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein than common sense would dictate. With those two men out of the picture, the press has now shifted its focus to the perils of ISIS and an Iran with nuclear weapons. The tendency of Americans to conform makes them vulnerable to propaganda campaigns that range anywhere from the harmless marketing of consumer products to the insidious manipulation of foreign policy by special interest groups such as military suppliers and subcontractors, oil companies and Zionists.  

The present paranoia about child safety, then, seems to stem primarily from economic changes, public gullibility and perhaps a little public guilt about the increase in child neglect by busy parents. One must assume that regional legislators, social services, police and judges haven't cooked this up on their own and are merely responding to public demand. Once it started, the expectation that children will be protected may have increased spontaneously, because unattended children began to stand out and attract more attention than previously. The perception may be that twenty children seen wandering around unaccompanied is normal, but something must be amiss if there are only one or two.

What is harder to determine is the long-term effect of child over-protection. Not living in a child-rich environment, and not knowing many people under thirty, I can only speculate on this. As I have suggested in other posts, the cognitive development of younger people today seems to proceed quite differently from that of my generation. I get the sense that over-protection combined with the rise of digital media is making children less prepared for certain situations than the children of the past. When children are not allowed to spontaneously explore on their own, they may, for example, develop a poor sense of direction. If their interactions with other children are scheduled and limited, they may become socially retarded in comparison to earlier generations. This deficiency may be compounded by the substitution of social media for face-to-face interactions. If they are prevented from engaging in any risky activity, they may later be unable to cope with some situations that are easy to navigate for those with more diverse childhood experiences. An apt analogy is the role of early exposure to germs as beneficial for later resistance to asthma and certain allergies. It is too soon to tell, but I think sheltered children will tend to display some of the characteristics associated with only children, including self-centeredness and social inflexibility. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that sheltered children will acquire certain skills that they would be less likely to acquire in traditional childhood environments. For example, they might become more proficient in new technologies such as software development.

I am in the age group that used to say "Never trust anyone over thirty." The same group may soon be saying "Never trust anyone under thirty." I already feel that way about the sheltered college students who require trigger warnings for even the most innocuous of statements; they may be the wave of the future, and I don't think I'm going to be able relate to them well. Perhaps, if no one has done it already, someone should write a book about the benefits of feeding children a spoonful of dirt, releasing them into the woods alone and letting them sojourn unaccompanied in a ghetto. You can't prepare for unpleasant experiences by avoiding them entirely.

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