Friday, June 1, 2007

"Fortress Mentality" or Reaction to Today's Dual-Income Norm?

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting op-ed called "Suburbia's Fortress Mentality" in which mom Melodee Martin Helms laments the difference between her own unstructured and relatively unsupervised childhood and the organized activities & formal playdates of today's suburban kids. She writes:

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, 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.

I have definitely seen this marked shift in parental attitudes. As a kindergartener, I used to walk about 6 blocks to my school, about half of which was along a busy road. My mom accompanied me the first few times until she was sure I knew the way. After that, I walked alone. I do recall warnings from her not to get into a car with anyone unless that person knew the "secret password" and that if someone grabbed me I should scream, scratch them in the eyes and/or kick them in the groin and then run away. However, she obviously believed that our neighborhood was pretty safe.

We live about the same distance from our local elementary school and in a similar middle-class suburban neighborhood. However, if our DD were going to be attending kindergarten at this school in the fall, I would not allow her to walk there unaccompanied by an adult.

Despite all the media coverage in recent years of high-profile cases like Samantha Runnion, Jessica Lunsford, Danielle Van Dam, Polly Klaas, and Madeline McCann, FBI statistics show that child abductions by strangers that result in murder or the child never being found actually dropped from 300 annually in 1980 down to 93 in 2000. This as the U.S. population aged 0-14 has increased by 17% during the same time period. Statistically, this means the chance a child will NOT being kidnapped and killed by a stranger has increased from 99.99942% in 1980 to 99.99999% in 2000.

Intellectually, I know this yet like Mrs. Helms of the CSM op-ed, I "barricade my family behind an invisible barbed-wire fence". The reason? It's politically incorrect for me to say so, but back when I was growing up, families where both parents worked full-time outside the home were the exception rather than the norm. Sure, my mom held a part-time job as did many of my friends' moms. They were still able to be home after school to keep an eye on us kids. While we might be out of sight of our own mothers, there were enough moms around in the neighborhood for us to be visible to somebody.

My neighborhood, by contrast, looks like a ghost town from 8-5 during the week. The handful of women I encounter during the day are all hired nannies, typically with limited English skills. While I'm sure they are generally nice people, it's not the same thing as having friends you've lived near for years who are fellow moms looking out for each others' kids.

If I want my kids to get a chance to interact with other kids, I have to either set up a formal playdate or bring them to an scheduled activity. I do try to balance structured activities such as soccer and ballet with unstructured ones like our homeschool support group park day and game night. It's sad though that I can't just let my kids have free roam of the neighborhood like my generation had growing up.

Economic realities mean that many families need two incomes just to cover basics like housing, utilities, healthcare, transportation, food, and higher education. In our county, the median cost of a house is around $750k and the median rent for a 2 BR apt is around $2,000/mo. Family health insurance premiums are over $1,000/mo if one is does not receive subsidized coverage through one's employer. Gas is currently running about $3.50/gal and milk is $4.59/gal. Many people we know have six figures' worth of student loan debt, and it is not unusual for couples who both have graduate degrees to have well over $200k worth of debt between them. I'm certainly not trying to bash dual-income families because for many of them it's an economic necessity!

The world has changed in recent decades, and nostalgia for how things used to be isn't going to bring it back for our kids...


Mel said...

Thanks for continuing the conversation. I agree with you, especially your observation about desolate neighborhoods.

Burkiworks said...

I just happened onto your site after reading the article online. I am a 67 year-old mother of four, grandmother of three. My own childhood was one of total freedom. My own kids' time was a little lesser so, but still much freer than today's children experience. I cannot offer any brilliant solutions, but just wanted to add my lament to those who know what kids are missing...but, but most of those kids.