Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Overprotective or underprotective?

I talk to my father often, and among other things we exchange opinions about almost any random topic that happens to occur to either of us. One of the things that Dad persistently comments about is his worry that today's parents, and society in general, are overprotective of children. As one example, he points out that when me and my brothers were kids, we would walk a considerable distance from the house to wait at a bus stop, and we walked alone or with other kids from first grade onward. Now, in the same town, the buses seem to make about 4 times as many stops, so that many kids don't have to walk beyond sight of their house. When they do, there is always one, often more than one, parent who watches over a group of kids until they are picked up (usually a mother, occasionally a father). Are children today (Dad asks) actually in any more danger while walking or waiting at a bus stop than they were when me and my brothers went to catch buses to school 15 or 20 years ago? For that matter, are they in any more danger than they were when my father took a bus to school as a boy some 50 years ago? Or is there just a perception of greater danger because when something bad does happen to a child, it often becomes a big media event and puts the fear of God into parents that something as horrible will happen to their children if they aren't always there to watch over them? I wonder the same things. I also wonder, though, if perhaps the opposite is true - parents in earlier generations were less protective than they should have been because when something bad happened to a child either by deliberate criminal action or tragic accident, people tended to "hush it up" and not talk about it. I was talking with a co-worker yesterday who has two kids, and I mentioned this question. She agreed that parents, including her and her husband, definitely seemed to worry about their kids in more situations and act more protective than in earlier generations. She wasn't sure whether this is due to parents today being overprotective or parents of earlier generations being underprotective, but she did tell me a couple of examples from her own experience of how earlier generations of parents were probably too inclined to cover up or ignore potential dangers rather than address them.

It's a real conundrum to me. Like a lot of these issues, it raises more questions the more I think about it. Is there a price to being extremely protective of children, and if yes, what is it and is it the increased safety worth the cost? Does being overprotective actually make children much safer, or is it more perception than reality? Is Dad looking at the past with rose-tinted glasses and forgetting about real and serious risks that kids ran in a time when parents felt less need to be watchful, and safety standards for toys and other products were minimal or non-existent? Am I idealizing my childhood in the same way? Is greater protectiveness a general trend throughout most sections of US society, or is it restricted to middle and upper-middle class families in suburban areas, or even just some particular parts of the country? Is this trend effecting other nations and cultures outside the US?

All of these questions and I don't even have any children of my own. This is a classic example of how my brain, perversely, tends to think most about the things do not have any direct practical effect on me. I can worry about how childhood and parenting have changed when I'm neither a parent or a child, but I completely skip worrying about something more relevant, like whether I should start putting money into the 403b plan that my employer offers, or whether the rollover IRA from my previous employer's retirement account still has enough money in it to buy more than a decent meal.

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