Sunday, May 3, 2015

We Are All Sven's Mother, Now

The issue of “free-range” parenting has come to the fore, after a couple in Maryland allowed their children, aged six and ten years, to go to the local park all by their lonesome selves.

Someone apparently contacted authorities as to the anomaly of children that young being somewhere without adult accompaniment. The pair were taken into custody; but the parents were not contacted about this until some hours later. Naturally, the parents became alarmed when their son and daughter essentially went missing during that period. After they were finally informed of the whereabouts of their kids, they were allowed to regain custody only after signing a “safety-plan” that would ensure the parents wouldn’t be so rash as to let their children out to play alone. 

Discussing this case, and the issue generally, with an older relative the other day, she described “free-range” parenting simply as “the way children played when you were a kid.” 

I chuckled, but this was both true and untrue. Unfortunately, my childhood overlapped the period during which children were progressively less free to “go out and play” than they were ever before. 

It led to the paradox wherein greater restrictions were placed on my liberty when I was older, than was the case a few years earlier. Whereas, at seven or eight, I was instructed each day during the summer to “go down to the park and find some friends”, by the time I was eleven or twelve, my parents wanted to know exactly where I was going, who I was going with, and the phone numbers of the parents of the kids with whom I intended to pal around, so that they could check up on me if necessary. 

I remember thinking this odd, and didn’t understand the reason why. 

It was, of course, fear: sometime around the turn of the 1980s, it was almost as though a switch was toggled, or a button was pushed, and parents were consumed with the paranoia that their children would end up (as the saying went) “on the side of a milk carton.” 

And, contrary to what most believed at the time, and probably continue to believe today, it wasn’t as though there were more stranger-abductions that were suddenly occurring back then. 

It was a change in cultural attitudes – a very swift one, as these things usually are – and not an objective changes in social conditions, which brought an end to the age-old practice of “free-range” parenting, and inaugurated age of the “helicopter” parent – those who hover over their children in a manner akin to that type of aircraft – a period in which North Americans at least, still live. It is precisely my goal at this site, to examine – to anatomize – cultural changes such as these. 

The transformation can be illustrated by anecdote about a parent and her child from my schooldays.

My elementary school was rather far away from the house in which I grew up. I had to walk more than a mile to and from the schoolhouse, though much of it was on a long street that gradually transformed from a busy commercial thoroughfare into a quiet residential road, before terminating at a cross-street bordering a park. 

My classmate lived near the end of this street, much closer to the school than myself. Nevertheless, each and every day after school, there would be this boy’s mother, on her bike, worriedly pedaling up the street toward the school, asking everyone on the way, “Have you seen my Sven? Where is Sven?” 

This was not the lad’s real name: nevertheless the poor boy was an object of ridicule amongst the other kids in the class, not only for his parents being foreign (though I believe “Sven” was born in Canada), but also because his mother would come looking for him after the school-bell rang, as “though he’s in kindergarten.” 

This “ridiculous” mother was, at it turns out, a harbinger of the style of parenting that became commonplace just a few years later. For, when my own children were grade-school age, I too was a helicopter parent. I had become, without thinking about it even, Sven’s mother. 

This, even though, I knew intellectually that stranger-abductions are so extremely rare as to be statistically insignificant; I knew that, when children come to harm at the hands of another, overwhelmingly that the perpetrators are someone known, usually known intimately to them (as in the case of this hapless child); even though I knew that I would have, as a child, chafed at the restrictions that I myself insisted upon my own kids; nevertheless the fear of that something bad would happen to them, was enough for me to irrationally believe that I had to hover over my children in order to prevent something bad from happening to them. 

The question remains, however, as to just why this irrationality overtook me and most other parents in North America, and probably throughout the Western world. There were a number of reasons, I would suggest. 

There were, beginning in the 1980s, several highly-publicized cases of child-abduction. It wasn’t as though such incidents were unknown in the past. It was the attention given them by news-media, that made the difference. In the U.S., helicopter-parenting became the norm after the apparent abduction in New York city of Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy who in May 1979, went missing in Manhattan while on his way to school. (The 1983 film Without a Trace, seems to have been inspired by the case).  

No trace of Etan was ever found, and he was declared dead in 2001.  A suspect was charged a couple of years ago, but right now in New York, a jury seems deadlocked in coming to a decision on the man’s guilt. 

In Canada, I think the paranoia about child-abductions really commenced with a couple of such cases in the Toronto area, that of nine-year-old Christine Jessop, and sometime later, of Allison Parrott, aged 11.  

Again, however, such crimes are extremely rare. The last stranger abduction of a child in Canada occurred, I believe, in 2009, with the disappearance of Victoria Stafford, aged eight, from her school in Woodstock, Ontario. 

It should be noted, though, that Tori wasn’t a “free-range” kid. She was in fact taken from the grounds of her school, by a young woman who (in league with the man later convicted of the girl’s murder) enticed Tori to accompany her with the promise of a free puppy. 

I think the end of free-range kids came not because of any particular highly-publicized case, or series of cases, however. 

It was more so because of the advent of local television in news. In 1982, Don Henley, having just recently left “the” Eagles, put out the solo hit, Dirty Laundry

I must admit that, when the song was new on the radio, I was a bit confused as to its excoriating criticism of local news. For, in my obscure corner of the world, the local newscast was a pretty innocuous affair, soberly delivered, mostly light in tone, and featuring stories that were really of no interest to anyone outside the region.
There was in those days, no way of seeing local news in other larger, but local markets – such as Los Angeles or New York, without actually visiting these places. It wasn’t until years later, when these “U.S.-style” newscasts came here, that I understood the point that Henley was making in being so critical of local news. 

Local news especially, delivers the news in the fashion of a weather report. A constant refrain, in promotions for local newscasts, is as to “how the news affects you.” 

Indeed, the news is intended to affect the viewer, in so far as it is supposed to provoke a particular emotional reaction. The weather affects everyone, which is why the subject is often broached in conversation between distant acquaintances and outright strangers. 

News producers, and especially TV “journalists”, try to affect the universal resonance of the weather report. They do so by provoking basic emotions: sentimentality sometimes, but more usually, fear. As with the enemy in war, people pay attention to things they fear. 

This is why viewership of local TV news is so much higher than national-news reports. 

Child-abductions are just one of the suite of modern fears that TV news producers use to get people to watch. Given that they are so uncommon, newscasts must rely on more banal dangers to make people afraid: fires, drugs, environmental toxins, street crime, and so on. 

In so far as free-range parenting is concerned, the Mietevs of Maryland just may be trying to break the spell of paranoia that descended on Western (or North American) society more than three decades ago on the issue of stranger-abduction. 

From what I can see, “parenting experts” and lay parents themselves, the response has been enthusiastic (or more typically) tentative support. Whether or not this will bring about a sea-change in cultural attitudes, remains to be seen.

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