'Hey, You Kids!' - the Cautionary Tales of Youth

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Not long ago, I was startled to see a discarded refrigerator by the side of a road near my home. It was an older model, the kind with a latching door handle that can only be opened from the outside. The word "danger" popped into my head, and I instantly recalled warnings I received as a youth about this very situation.

When I was growing up, efforts to keep children out of harm's way usually focused on preventing accidents. The possibility of getting trapped inside an abandoned refrigerator was often cited as a prime reason not to go snooping around in junk yards, vacant lots, or dilapidated buildings.

Much has changed during the past 30 years. America has done a lot of cleaning up, so kids these days don't have as many junk yards or public dumps to explore when they get bored. And public awareness of child safety is now focused more on human factors such as gang violence, drugs, and abusive parents.

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That refrigerator beside the road was a bulky reminder to me that passive threats to a safe childhood have not gone away. Health and safety regulations are fine, but I'm afraid they may give some people a false sense of security. No amount of helmet laws, warning labels, or toxic-emission standards will create a risk-free environment. And even when kids are cautioned sternly about certain hazards, they have an irritating habit of testing the claim.

I must admit that on several occasions, I crawled under a wire fence with friends and then climbed up to the sagging roof of a gutted, decaying old house in our neighborhood.

When I asked my mother why the structure was in such terrible condition, she made the vague statement that "It's from World War II." Perhaps she meant it was just old, but for years afterward I believed a World War II battle had been fought in my hometown.

It took a very close call to make me understand that walking on the unstable roof was a truly bad idea. One of my legs suddenly sank through the rotting shingles, and the ground was visible about 20 feet below. My secret visits to the forbidden playground promptly ended.

But such incidents can serve a purpose later in life. Experience is how we gain wisdom, and cautionary wisdom is always more compelling when it's based on first-hand experience. I know kids get tired of having grownups telling them to be careful, but that's part of being a kid. My job as a parent is to assume they aren't going to believe me, and to keep repeating the warnings patiently, but firmly.

The old refrigerators are still out there. I'm not being paranoid, just vigilant. And I've finally become a responsible adult on the day I call out those famous words that have been shouted, and disobeyed, for generations: "Hey, you kids! Get away from there! Don't you know how dangerous that is?!"

* Jeffrey Shaffer, a regular Monitor humor contributor, writes from Portland, Ore.

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