How Did I Ever Survive?

With the new school year starting, we are already having to deal with the idiocy of safety-over-living America. So many others deal with specific instances that just serve to rile me up that I’m not going to dwell on specifics here. If you care to, feel free to search on zero-tolerance laws.

Here’s the thing: life is inherently messy. Honest mistakes get made. Accidents happen. Kids get hurt. Fear is a great teacher. But in modern America, we don’t believe in those things…or our overwhelming numbers of lawyers don’t.  When I look back to the early sixties, and others I talk with look further back, it’s amazing that, given current standards, any of us survived.

Let’s talk car seats. My parents had me riding in a car seat up until the time that I could sit in the car unaided. By the time I was two or three, I was happily unrestrained in the back seat…more often than not lying down on the bench seat asleep. In a nod to that horrific example to parents everywhere: Brittany Spears, my parents (my dad, especially) would plop me on his lap so that I could “drive” the car.

Oh, and what about those cars? There were only lap belts…no shoulder belts or air bags.  There was no law requiring their use. The cars were made sturdy, out of steel; there weren’t any impact-absorbing (and wallet emptying) crumple zones. Bumpers would easily survive the 2-to-5mph standard of today’s cars.  Shoot, 15mph would barely faze them.

Playgrounds were filled with objects out of an insurance lawyer’s worst nightmare: tall metal slides, jungle gyms, rings, and any number of other bizarre contrivances whose only excuse for existing was (to hear it today) to put children constantly at risk for serious injury.  And guess what: we did get hurt. Heads would get bumps, we’d get cuts, knees would be skinned…and we learned better how to prevent that from happening again in the future.

We played games like tackle football (or a sadistic variant known as “smear the queer”: i.e., tackle whoever was carrying the ball; piling on not only allowed, but encouraged). Dodgeball was a staple.  Being the smart yet overweight kid every classroom seemed to require, I was often singled out as one of the prime targets.  In the early going I did get my head painfully smooshed against the school building’s brick wall.  Did I sue the school system for not only putting me in physical danger, but also traumatizing the fragile ego that all children have? No, I got better at dodging and catching.  That game quickly improved my reflexes and set me on the path of being able to anticipate an opponent’s intent.

See, childhood isn’t about removing all dangers from a child’s life.  Instead, it’s about trying your best for your child so they don’t carelessly end up dead when you aren’t around. Even so, there needs to be the realization that life is not safe and the universe doesn’t really give a flying fig if you, specifically, survive or not. I grew up in a world that realized that and let me and my friends find out how to get through life.  They would set us out into the world in the morning and expect us home by dinner, with maybe a break for lunch as well. We had to deal with bullies, class structure (popular vs unpopular kids), negotiation (what to play next), and figuring out for ourselves the realities of what was right and wrong. We also had to brave dangers both real (the druggies on the corner begging/threatening for cash) and imagined (the “Bunny-man” who lived in the woods who made children disappear).

It’s hard not to think about the tales codified by the Brothers Grimm. If you read the non-PC-ized versions of these children’s stories…it’s a wonder any of us actually ever went to sleep at night. But here’s the thing: the tales weren’t supposed to be comforting.  They were meant to be introductory lessons about the dangers of the world. The stories are filled with images of kidnapped children, eaten children, attacked children…well, you get the idea.  Basically, they are specifically designed to traumatize children to a sufficient degree that when they weren’t under the watchful eyes of others, they had a decent chance of coming back in one piece. We didn’t hide from children the fact that nightmarish stuff happens in real life: if anything, we actually instilled the trauma.

If America follows the pattern of Rome and declines, it has more to do with the fact that for a few generations we have systematically tried to remove trauma. There once was a time when if one fellow hit another, it was largely a private matter unless it got out of hand.  Now it’s a night or two in jail, followed by appearances in court for criminal proceedings followed by more court for the civil suit(s).

Now, I’m not advocating totally anarchy here. A lot of the rules and restrictions and practices found their way into our lives because in certain instances they made/make sense. I think we need to change our mindset.  Instead of thinking, say, that all children in cars must be protected from all harm, let’s instead think in terms of acceptable loss. I’m certain that children died in cars when I was growing up.  That’s the way of things.  People die.  The question is: are our restrictions actually buying us anything useful? Think of all the money spent on various child seats, about how larger vehicles were needed because children aren’t allowed to sit in front seats unless they are both large enough and old enough.

And let’s let parents off the hook. Yeah, parents do stupid things sometimes (like forgetting they have their child with them).  That doesn’t make them evil, neglective beasts who have to forever endure social services (assuming they stay out of jail and get to keep the kids). We. Are. Fallible.  Not out of neglect, but just because that is how we are. We aren’t perfect.  Sometimes we goof. We need to accept that, too.

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