My nine-year-old is covered with mosquito bites, bruises and scratches. From the time she arrives home from school until I call her for dinner, she’s AWOL — running through woods, building forts out of sticks, catching toads … .
To hear some parents tell it, the fact that I haven’t a clue exactly where my nine-year-old is for an hour or more at a time is evidence of poor parenting, if not outright criminal neglect. And with a recent arrest in the cold case of six-year-old Etan Patz (the first missing child to have his face on a milk carton), this sentiment increasingly runs high.
And so my 11-year-old son’s friend — who lives less than two blocks away in our quiet neighborhood — gets driven over to play street hockey. Our eco-committee’s “walk to school” campaign falls flat. Parents confide to me that they’re “afraid” to let their children walk, or bike or rollerblade — despite the presence of sidewalks, crossing guards.
The media, of course, feeds this fear. One child plucked from the street while walking home is national news. Yet a child diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes because he’s sedentary isn’t.
My friend, a pediatric ER doctor, is increasingly having to tell parents that their children have high blood pressure. “High blood pressure!” she tells me incredulously. “I have to explain to them that their children must move.”
Outdoor play, especially unsupervised, is a tough sell these days. Despite overwhelming evidence of the benefits of play, the value of nature, the importance of activity, parents often fall prey to fears of stranger abductions or being hit by a car (which I often mutter under my breath that if parents weren’t so busy shuttling their kids around in cars, we’d see a lot less of them on the road!).
We’re afraid, it seems, of the wrong things. We fear strangers yet invite junk food into our homes. We fear our kids biking to school but ignore the very real dangers of sedentary kids. We convince ourselves that our children are safer in our car than on the street, despite statistics that reveal children are far more likely to be killed as a passenger in a car (roughly 1 in 228 lifetime risk) than being struck by a car (1 in 23,000). And we dismiss our contribution to the 30 percent of children with asthma from air pollution caused by, among other things, car exhaust.
I’ll continue to inform my kids about what to do if approached by a stranger on their way to and from school. I’ll insist they wear a bike helmet, even when on their scooters. I’ll remind them to look both ways when crossing the street.
And then I’ll open the door and let them outside.