- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Glenn Reynolds has an interesting piece up at TCS Daily (tip of the hat to John Podhoretz in the Corner). The University of Tennessee law professor otherwise known as Instapundit adds an interesting twist to the debate about the West’s impending demographic doom (see Philip Longman, Fox New’s John Gibson and Pat Buchanan for starters).

At least here in America, Reynolds writes, perhaps the chief reason people are having fewer babies is that while the economic benefits of having children — cheap labor on a farm, say — have all but disappeared, the “social costs” have spiraled upward. Such costs include those imposed by “safety-fascists” and middle-class expectations of constant supervision.

That sounds about right to me, from where I’m standing in North Arlington, Va. I’m reminded of a scene in Jim Sheridan’s great movie memoir “In America,” in which his two young daughters are seen walking the streets of Manhattan unsupervised, sometimes at night.

He’s blase about them waiting in his taxicab alone while he auditions for a play. They go trick-or-treating — under his watch, but out of his reach — up and down the stairs of a crackhouse tenement.

In my capacity as a film critic, I thought: Sheridan’s exaggerating for dramatic effect here; no way he lets his girls roam Hell’s Kitchen. In some other capacity, I thought: Believe it; parents haven’t always worried preternaturally about abduction by strangers.

There’s something romantic, to this Don Quixote of a recent first-time dad, about that other-world: the world before “play dates,” Chuck E. Cheese’s, indoor playgrounds and 24-hour-cable coverage of Elizabeth Smart. The world where soccer was not yet the national children’s pastime, because — oh, admit it, bobo parent — the risk of injury is slight and girls can play too.

Children were given a measure of freedom, despite the possibility they’d turn into Jets and Sharks, or worse. I know this was true once. I remember.

I’m a Gen-Xer, and as far as I can tell, ours was the last generation of unsupervised middle-class American children.

Anecdotes that might attract social-service busybodies today: me, riding my bike to school several blocks as early as 3rd grade, without a helmet (remember elementary schools that had bike racks?!); motoring that same bike to explore the local police force’s firing range and collect bullet casings.

I also remember a trip out West, at age 10, where much time was spent in the company only of brother and cousin. And Halloweens not sullied by fear of poison.

They were dark ages, those 1980s. And yet, as I write, I’m living to tell about it.

Times have changed, you say? More clammy-handed perverts driving the streets of our nation’s upscale suburbs, looking for young prey?

No, things have changed only because the Hysteria Merchants told you they have. Something called the Vanished Children Alliance says a child is reported missing or abducted every 40 seconds.

Child Shield U.S.A. says that the Justice Department puts the chances of your child going missing at 1 in 42.

Lord.

Happily, the stats, as presented, are misleading. Those figures count abductions by family members — leverage-grabbing, desperation stunts in custody cases and suchlike — or acquaintances, like the drifter-loon welcomed into the Smart house for a paint job.

Abductions by strangers are, in truth, freak occurrences, 400 a year at most.

In a truth-squad story in the Daily Bruin newspaper during the summer-of-2002 kidnapping sweepstakes (Bill O’Reilly called it “a summer of hell for America’s kids”), I read that a child is “10 times more likely to drown in a backyard pool, and 100 times more likely to be seriously injured or killed on a bicycle.”

Oh, but we have those bike injuries covered now, don’t we? From head to elbow to knee to toe.

Of course, I realize that abduction fears are only part of a larger problem.

It is a problem of modern parents themselves. It’s the culture of rigidly-structured overachievement they’ve created in their homes, which has produced what David Brooks called “organization kids.” Kids aren’t their own persons; they’re a reflection of how smart and faultless their parents are.

It starts early. It starts with that pile of baby literature that urges, among other proactive methods, in utero exposure to Mozart.

Just curious: Those of you who live in the yuppie ‘burbs, as I do, how often have you ever heard parents wax Kathie Lee Giffordian, boasting that their newborn has reached the 98th percentile of something or other? (My theory is that the percentile scale goes only as low as 95.) Is developmentally way ahead of his peers? Is destined to be the next Copernicus?

Parents who can’t claim these achievements of DNA and expert rearing probably don’t say anything, because they’re embarrassed. They think automatically that others will assume their children’s shortcomings have something to do with their own failures as parents and gene-transmitters.

I think it’s time to get reactionary. Recent or soon-to-be parents, join me in a pledge:

- I will not turn into a yuppie parent.

- I will let my child play in the front yard and not feel anxious while weeding the garden in the back at the same time.

- I will consider allowing him or her to walk or ride a bike, as distance permits, to school while I drive to work, possibly in an opposite direction.

- I will not view my child’s academic or athletic achievements as surrogates for my own, or compensation for a lack of my own.

- I will take my child trick-or-treating on Halloween, if the possibility still exists in my neighborhood.

And once more, with feeling, I will not turn into a yuppie parent.

If you’re interested, let’s meet. I’ll probably be over at Chuck E. Cheese’s.


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