Monday, August 04, 2008

The Maude Flandersization of America

South Park-type libertarians aren't the only sort of people who worry about a steadily more Nannying culture; some liberals worry, too.

Also, sometimes things really were better back in the day. Now we all know some codger who insists everything's gone to hell in a handbasket compared to his own halcyon days; everyone recognizes the tirade of the old. But I think we've dismissed such reactionary crankiness so many times that we've settled into a pattern -- into a pattern that is, well.. cranky and reactionary. Some things were better back then; some thing were worse.

I think some things are objectively worse now even compared to my own time, which wasn't very long ago at all. But fuck the introductions. Just read this and weep:

A way of play may soon be extinct

(Dawn Majors/P-D)
By Nancy Cambria

Bryant Whalen slushes his flip-flops through a coppery pool of creek water, jumps onto a spit of flat rock and heads past a trickling waterfall clogged with roots and twigs to his final destination: "The snake pit." It is a 3-foot-deep bowl of boulders and creek water. The 9-year-old swears it's the place where the snakes gather to swim — though he's only ever seen one.

"Once," he says, he accidentally dropped a flashlight into "the hole" and, "it fell for like 15 minutes."

Mattese Creek begins south of Sappington and meanders for about five miles until it meets the Meramec River. Most in south St. Louis County don't know it exists. But to a boy like Bryant, full of imagination, it's a very excellent adventure.

A growing number of child and environmental advocates fear that children like Bryant — imaginative and given the freedom to blaze a trail outside on their own — are going extinct, the victims of fears about child abduction, the embrace of supervised sports and camps, two-parent working families and increasing use of computers and video games.

Bryant's mother and grandmother have given him the freedom to roam a half-mile of this creek — the length of an adult yell to come home. But on this summer day, he is the only child outside in his subdivision.

It wasn't always this way. It was once a neighborhood thick with children playing baseball and capture the flag, says his grandmother Cindi Whalen, 54. Forty-five years ago she and her brothers and a brood of neighborhood kids swung sky high from a neighbor's tree swing, coasted their bikes down neighboring streets, roamed the woods and scoured the creek for crawdaddys with hardly a parent in sight.

"Every parent had a different whistle," she recalls. "We just knew our whistle, and then it was time to come in."

A University of Michigan study found that children spend half the time outdoors now that they did two decades ago.

A researcher in England even traced the "roaming habits" of the 8-year-olds in four generations of a family and found the great-grandfather regularly walked six miles on his own to a fishing hole when he was a kid. But his great-grandson's range had shrunk to just 300 yards from home.

Meanwhile, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a public health think tank, found that children spend more than six hours a day watching television, playing video games or working on a computer. And a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association this month said less than a third of the nation's 15-year-olds get the minimum exercise recommended by the federal government.

The physical toll is well-documented. The number of overweight adolescents in the nation has tripled in two decades.

But health risks aren't the only concern.

In May, the National Wildlife Federation, in an effort to reconnect kids with nature, declared the majority of America's children are suffering from "nature deficit." It's a disorder coined by author Richard Louv to describe how children, under the increasingly watchful eye of adults, have been pushed away from nature into academic and sports camps and entranced by video games and online chat rooms.

Louv says kids have lost the ability to navigate the outside world on their own terms.

He is just one of a growing number of national proponents of a maturing child's right to roam the outdoor world unsupervised. In New York, Lenore Skenazy's movement, "Free Range Kids," proclaims "Let's give our children the freedom we had." In England, there's a similar movement called "Rewilding Childhood."

Howard Chudacoff, a professor at Brown University who studies the history of play, said modern-day Scouting, camps and soccer leagues are "adult controlled, and often over-controlled," activities that have a very different impact on kids than when children routinely roamed in packs and "created their own culture" during play.

That culture fostered kids' ability to "self-regulate," or learn on their own and take risks, he said.

"Children of preteen years seek control from adults. They're used to the imposition of adult structure of what adults think as play," Chudacoff said. "As you step back from it, it looks more and more like work."

Many advocates of outdoor freedom refer to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. He argues parents need to look more objectively at the statistical risks of abuse and abduction of children.

Between 1993 and 2004, crimes against kids in the U.S. plummeted, as much as 63 percent for teens 14 to 17, he said. Sexual abuse of children overwhelmingly comes from somebody they already know, not a stranger. Neighborhoods with high crime and numerous single parent households do prove to be riskier for kids, Finkelhor said. But many parents are making the wrong assumptions about risk and outdoor play, he said.

"Nobody has ever identified time outside and time unsupervised as a risk factor for victimization," he said, arguing the greater danger comes from increasing traffic on side streets and bullying from other kids that can turn violent.

Locally, Sgt. Gary Guinn, supervisor of the family crime unit at the St. Louis County Police Department, agrees.

"These kids have got to be kids," he said. "I'm more concerned about the baseball coach than I am about the guy who may be cruising around the subdivision looking to abduct."

It's an attitude that doesn't sit well with many parents who struggle to do the right thing in a society where the slim odds for child abduction can't erase the chill of what happened to Shawn Hornbeck, who was abducted from his rural Missouri home when he was 11 and held captive for more than four years.

"I don't feel safe with them being outside in the front yard alone," said Rhonda Vincent of De Soto, the mother of a three girls ages 8, 6 and 7 months. "Sometimes they get aggravated at me when I won't let them ride their bikes in the front yard by themselves, but it is a small price to pay for peace of mind."

An overwhelming number of parents responding to the subject on a discussion forum said their kids don't go beyond the confines of the backyard — and even then, they are highly supervised.

"I remember when I was a kid riding my bicycle by myself for 15 miles or more," wrote Sarah Landis, mom of 8- and 6-year-olds from Ballwin. "The thought of letting my children do the same terrifies me because of how precious they are to me."

The National Wildlife Federation is starting slow, first encouraging parents to spend time outside with their kids and promoting policies to create tighter-knit neighborhoods that promote outdoor play. But Heather White, director of education advocacy, says the agency hopes parents will one day "exhale" and let their children go.

"I think that's something that most people want for their children, but they're afraid to do it," she said.

In the trickling current of the stream, Bryant has little idea that his type of play is on the endangered list. At the "fish hole," he's too busy explaining how to catch minnows with a snack bag filled with crackers.

"I don't get it," he says over his shoulder while ambling over rocks, boulders and muck. "Adults don't really like to get their feet wet. I wonder why."

Now the emphases here may be slightly hysterical, but I do think the problem is real.