If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up! Not me! ~ J.M. Barrie
I wonder how J.M. Barrie’s creation, Peter Pan, would fare if he lived today rather than around 1902, his first appearance in The Little White Bird. Peter was never going to grow up, didn’t trust adults, still (according to Barrie) had all his baby teeth, and, oh, he could fly. Sadly, today’s version would likely wear a helmet and be trussed in a harness designed to ensure he would not be able to fall and hurt himself. There would be knee pads, elbow pads, wrist-braces, butt-pads, padded gloves, and an athletic cup. That is, he would surely have those things if ever he were allowed to fly. There would be the requisite legal forms to be filled out and signed, of course, and a team of lawyers standing by to sue the makers of any piece of equipment that happened to fail during said flight. Even now, I can visualize the ads on TV that would begin, “Have you or a loved one been injured or killed while trying to fly? We at Midas and Litigious can help with your lawsuit no matter how frivolous or inane (lawyers not certified by the State Board of Legal Specialization).”
Peter would probably be cautioned it had been discovered in California that fairy dust contained ingredients found to cause cancer in rats. He’d return to his home in a tree to discover that the walls had been covered and the floors raised by thick, cushioned foam to prevent him from scraping himself against the sides or fracturing a hip after a sudden happy thought lifted him off the ground. He’d be encouraged to hang one of those little bottles of antibacterial soap around his neck just in case he happened to touch anything. Can’t be too careful, now can we?
Discouraged, Pan would likely throw in the towel (hypoallergenic, naturally) and decide it was time to grow up and leave Neverland. On top of everything else, someone who probably tell him that a boy in tights hanging around with a bunch of other scantily-clad boys and a fairy called Tinker Bell looks pretty gay. I’m picturing the suicide hotline in Neverland swamped with calls when taunts against the Lost Boys by members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas (the people behind godhatesfags.com) became unbearable.
How in the world did we get here? I am fast on the heels of sixty and have yet to break a bone (knock wood). That despite the fact that I was fond of climbing tall trees (when I could find one in North Texas), racing bikes in shorts with no helmet or padding, swinging high and leaping out of the seat as it swung forward and high, using the top of the swing set to practice my high-wire act, swinging on a rope that was haphazardly tied to a big limb on a tree, swam nekkid in the Pease River only to have some of the other boys run off with my clothes (they thought that was pretty funny), and survived a near-drowning in a pool after a cousin pushed me into the deep end before I knew how to swim and was caught without a pair of water wings (heavens to Betsy!). The near-drowning was due to the fact that my father was busy scolding my cousin for pushing me into the deep end while I watched them from under the water. I’m pretty sure I was under there for thirty minutes or so before he finally reached down into the water and pulled me out, all the while still scolding my cousin. Well, maybe it only felt like thirty minutes. But I’m still convinced it was a near-drowning.
And yet I survived. Like other kids, I had my share of bumps and bruises. I was also a bookworm who often had to be convinced to go outside to play. I took plenty of taunts that likely helped me grow up into a frightened, depressed adult. But, I wouldn’t trade any of the physical bumps and bruises for the world. They were temporary hurts received in the course of being a kid. They were, in fact, a part of being a kid. I can still picture miscalculating my speed in a race around a 45-degree turn, falling over with my bike, and skidding along the sidewalk to a stop. My left arm and leg took the brunt of the fall and were skinned pretty badly. I’m willing to bet I cried in front of my friend Jimmy Meeks, but that was still fairly acceptable when you’re six or seven.
On a trip home recently, I stopped at a convenience store to get some coffee and realized I hadn’t had lunch. I surveyed the racks filled with Hershey bars, 3 Musketeers, Junior Mints, and a dizzying array of other candies, then decided on a package of cashews. I got back in the car and headed out again, forgetting, once again, to rip open the package before driving away. Many of these products are sealed in packaging that requires either superhuman strength or a pair of scissors to get to the goodies inside. I flipped the package over and found this on the back: CHOKING WARNING: Do not give nuts to children under 6 years old. I had to think about it for a moment, then decided it was probably okay for me to eat them, reasoning that 59 is greater than six.
Did you know the most common choking hazards for children are hot dogs, peanuts, carrots, boned chicken, candy, meat, popcorn, fish with bones, sunflower seeds, and apples? Yep, I read about it. And yet, I ate all those things as a child and survived – somewhat. According to the story I was reading, after one woman’s child choked on a kernel of popcorn, she remarked, “Neither one of us knew that popcorn was unsafe.” What?
Over the years, I’ve wondered more and more about this problem we seem to have with common sense. Why? Well, it seems to be in very short supply in this country. Back in the 1700s, Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common.” I believe he’d find it even less so today. Until just over a century ago, the child mortality rate in the U.S. was a staggering 20%. Many couples were still having large families because they knew they were likely to lose one or more of their children to disease or some injury before the child could reach the age of ten. And yet, millions of people managed to grow up and thrive in a world devoid of warning labels and child restraints.
Don’t get me wrong. It makes perfect sense to me to strap a child securely into a car seat before pulling out of the driveway. I likely wouldn’t have fallen out of a moving car as a small child had the car come with child locks in the back seat to prevent me from opening the door. And while that incident may explain a little about how I turned out, I maintain I survived it. Many warnings and laws have come out of tragedies that might have been averted. The problem, in my opinion, comes when warning labels and litigation take the place of people thinking for themselves. How is it that someone doesn’t know there exists the possibility of swallowing or inhaling a kernel of corn, thereby choking on it? I have choked on popcorn more than once in adulthood. It follows that a child might also have a problem with it, especially since their airways are considerably smaller. Did that kid’s parents never eat popcorn as children? Never eat popcorn, period?
It seems we’ve become a nation of frightened people struggling to strap an athletic cup around children (and ourselves) in an effort to believe we can control, even prevent, all danger – and should be able to do so. The simple fact is that this kind of protection is impossible. And it’s not like we all don’t know that on some level. My question has to do with what we’re doing to children who are now forced to live in this protective bubble. What we’ve ended up with, it appears to me, is a culture that seems to say to children that it’s possible to survive anything as long as we’re careful enough — while not requiring children to take any responsibility for themselves. Of course, there’s not as much to survive after we taken care to protect kids from every sharp edge in their worlds.
In addition, we are promoting an almost complete absence of common sense. Already we have a generation who believe they are entitled to whatever it is they want, whenever it is they want it. Already we have a generation who increasingly worries about the germs that surround them, to the point of being afraid to touch anything unless they can immediately whip out the bottle of antibacterial soap. Already we have a generation whose first thoughts are not of taking personal responsibility for their own safety and conduct but instead wondering if there’s already a class-action suit they can join against anyone who may have inconvenienced them.
Is it any surprise that children should be afraid of strangers? We’re afraid of allowing anyone near them who has not first undergone a criminal background check and probably a credit check, as well. Again, it’s someone else’s responsibility to certify it’s safe to move about the world at all.
The problem I see in all this is very simple. None of us is getting out of this world alive. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we may return to allowing for the possibility that we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction. Is it good to be cautious? Certainly. The problem comes in relying on others to provide safety instead of taking charge of active involvement in our children’s lives – even in our own lives. We’ve all become so busy it’s tempting to allow technology to parent the kids. The result appears to be that the children are parenting each other, with sometimes tragic results. As we watch learning skills diminish, is it all that difficult to see why? In a world where the only thing that matters is what my kid gets, to the exclusion of anyone else’s, is it any wonder teachers have increasing difficulty teaching anything at all? What? You’re going to fail my little Johnny? We’ll just see about that! Once again, personal responsibility takes a backseat (strapped in, of course) as long as I can make it someone else’s fault. Whatever little Johnny needs, he should get – regardless what it is or the cost to the other children in the same classroom. And when the classroom is filled with children whose parents all worry only about what their children should have at any cost, most everything grinds to a halt. In the process, all the children pay the price.
Is it any wonder that a sense of community is rapidly disappearing? Is it any wonder that so many are growing up with no sense of caring for anyone but themselves? How could they not? Having everything handed to them along with no sense that at least some of their own care is up to them, we’ve taught kids to look away from anything that may inconvenience them. Is this different from the world in which I grew up? Yes, I think so. Did the same dangers exist when I was growing up? Yes, I think so. Living in a small community where it appeared everyone knew everything about everyone else didn’t prevent my abuse. Was some of that due to a more naïve time? Probably. Is the answer to the dangers different from those when I was growing up? I don’t think so, with the exception of being more open, more honest than seemed to be allowed when I was growing up. I don’t think we have to instill a distrust of everyone in order to protect ourselves or our children. Children need to understand that their bodies are their own. Knowing how to respect their own bodies is half the battle in making certain no one else can abuse that body.
Is all this a little harsh? I don’t happen to think so. Does it apply to everyone? No, I’m sure not. It has become prevalent enough, however, to be an increasing problem for us all. Ever checked out at a fast food restaurant and watched a teenager who obviously doesn’t know how to count? Ever watched some teenagers try to read, only to discover they are practically illiterate? Ever checked out the spelling on Facebook? It appears it’s a little too easy to blame a teacher when, too often, the kid never had a parent interested enough to see to it the child opened a book growing up – required that some responsibility for learning fall on the child. Teachers have a seemingly impossible task these days when any kind of control is taken from them.
One of the most dreaded questions asked of me at the dinner table growing up was, “How’s school?” On the other hand, my mother took an active part in making sure I did the homework I was assigned. My father wasn’t around all that much, but it was clear he believed I needed to do the best I could do. The responsibility, you see, was mine. Help was available always, but it was up to me to do the learning.
The answer to all this involves more attention. It involves trying to regain a sense of community where there’s the realization that what helps the kid down the street or across town ultimately helps my kid, also. Protecting my own at the expense of everyone else ends up protecting no one in the long run. The sense of isolation increases. The sense of fear of, well, everything and everyone else increases.
Common: Occurring, found, or done often; prevalent. Sense: To know through firsthand experience. Common sense. Got some? Share it. Don’t got some? Ask someone who has it to share it with you. The result will undoubtedly be an improvement for us all. That, after all, is what community is all about.
And those choking hazards? Perhaps the worship bulletin at church when I showed up after so many years should have included a cautionary note. “Warning: portions of this service may create a lump in your throat resulting in a choking hazard as you begin to remember what it’s like to be a part of a community. Please attend with caution unless you are already accustomed to being surrounded by loving people who are willing to believe that you are also loved and loveable because we can not be held responsible for any damage to your self-centered image of yourself.”
I choked. I survived. And now I fly.