BOSTON — If students' backpacks seem a little heavier when school opens this year, the culprit might not be more books. The extra weight could stem from the mental burden imposed by an invisible companion - fear, a shadowy presence stalking classrooms and homes these days in the wake of mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado last spring.
So great is the concern that some school districts have spent the summer installing sophisticated security systems. Schools have metamorphosed into fortresses complete with metal detectors, armed guards, hallway cameras, computerized student ID cards, and even guard dogs. Locked inside, students risk being held hostage not by crazed gunmen but by caring adults who see danger at every turn. Some parents, newly fearful of schools, even plan to teach their children at home. Hello safety, goodbye growing independence.
This bunker mentality extends far beyond the classroom. In recent decades, everything from alarmist media coverage to milk-carton photos of missing children (most of them abducted by noncustodial parents, not strangers) has heightened concerns about children's safety and the dangers they face. The results have taken a toll on youthful freedom.
Walking to school alone, even when a neighborhood school makes walking possible, has become out of the question for some families. Children's bicycle riding is also on the decline. Many parents now run 24-hour taxi services.
American families are not the only ones struggling with these issues. In Britain, parental concerns center not on guns but on "stranger danger" and the fear of child abductions. One supermarket chain, Tesco, has just started experimenting with American-made electronic surveillance tags to prevent children from wandering off or being abducted.
At the same time, Britain's biggest children's charity, NSPCC, is launching a massive safety campaign to warn parents of the dangers children face when playing outdoors.
In a countermove, a British group called Families for Freedom is campaigning against overprotecting children. Members protest that the NSPCC is "scaremongering" parents, creating a climate bordering on paranoia about child abusers and pedophiles. Such cocooning, the group argues, will leave children unprepared to fend for themselves.
Two other charities, the Children's Society and the Children's Play Council, are releasing new research showing the importance of play to children's well-being. They make a link between overprotectiveness and increasing levels of childhood stress.
No one can ignore the need for sensible precautions. By one count, 13 American children die from guns each day. The challenge lies in striking a balance between protecting children and allowing them to take reasonable risks. Ironically, as adults flock to adventure tours and extreme sports, eager for risks of their own, some appear to be in danger of raising a generation of hothouse flowers.
Americans complain about children's excessive TV viewing. We bemoan their passivity and lack of exercise and wring our hands at reports of growing childhood obesity. But we also tremble at the supposed dangers lurking outside the door, even in leafy suburbs and even as new statistics show that school violence is on the decline.
How protective should parents be? Answers will vary from family to family and neighborhood to neighborhood. Keeping children safe remains a paramount responsibility for everyone. But if we continue turning schools into bunkers and playgrounds into deserted spaces, then the National Rifle Association has won. So has the entertainment industry, which shamelessly promotes and glamorizes a culture of violence and fear.
It isn't possible to childproof the world. The huge task ahead involves working to rebuild an atmosphere of trust and safety, lightening the burden not only on children but on all the adults who care for them and about them.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society