Suburbia's fortress mentality

Parents' fears are robbing children of their childhood.

My three boys sprawl on the couch, fingering their Game Boys. I wish I could shoo them outside until dusk. I wish they could tromp to the marsh to search for polliwogs. I wish we didn't have to live in a fortress.

But we don't let our children play in the front yard, because a sex offender lives two doors down. Instead, like other families in this neighborhood, we've built private playgrounds in the back.

From my kitchen window, I see two wooden play structures, three trampolines, and four basketball hoops, including our own. The kids on our street don't play unsupervised on common ground. They have play dates now, arranged by protective parents.

Carefree childhood of the '70s

The unsupervised outings of my 1970s childhood are over. When Mom told us, "Be back before dark," we'd check in sooner only if our stomachs insisted.

My family lived in a subdivision full of cul-de-sacs with small ramblers and split-level homes. I wandered freely. My sister and I traipsed past construction sites to undeveloped land beyond. We'd romp in waist-high grasses, trampling down areas we'd pretend were houses. We wandered in the woods.

We explored the creek, trying to keep the mud from sucking our sneakers right off our feet. I used to ride my banana-seat bike (without a helmet) down the busy road to buy candy at the gas station.

That would never happen today. Two-thirds of Americans say it's likely that a convicted child molester lives in their neighborhood, according to a 2005 Gallup Poll. Yet the constant supervising seems to be taking its toll.

Is it any wonder children don't get enough exercise? They aren't allowed to walk far enough to raise their pulses. My kids can ride their bikes only if I'm supervising.

Has the preoccupation with protecting our kids contributed to the plethora of organized sports and the shuttling of kids hither and yon? A 1999 study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research found a marked decline in children's free time since 1981 (which, incidentally, correlates to a decrease of pleasure reading among children).

Thirty years ago, our mothers didn't chauffeur us around. We "fished" at the creek, turned cartwheels on the lawn, and stubbed our toes running barefoot around the bases.

Today's desolate suburban streets

I wonder if homes have grown bigger because our outer world is shrinking. According to the US Census Bureau, households today have fewer people, yet houses have expanded from an average of 1,645 square feet in 1975 to an average of 2,434 square feet in 2005. Families used to occupy smaller indoor spaces, but inhabit larger outdoor spaces. Today, I walk along desolate suburban streets.

That's because children don't play where passersby can see – or snatch – them. They're hidden away in backyards, climbing on pricey, customized play structures, jumping on trampolines, or swimming in pools. They shuffle from soccer to judo to piano lessons. But you don't find them out and about.

When I do see a child walking alone, I remember Adre'anna Jackson, the 10-year-old who disappeared walking to school in December 2005. Six months later, her remains were found – but her killer never was. I think of the federal Amber Alert program, named for 9-year-old Amber who was kidnapped while riding her bike and murdered.

I wish I didn't have to barricade my family behind an invisible barbed-wire fence. I wish our kids could explore the world alone. But we just can't take the chance. All we need is a moat, and our fortress will be complete. I just hope it comes with polliwogs.

Melodee Martin Helms is a freelance writer, blogger, and mother of four.

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