KinderKords. Toddler tracking systems. Mall trick-or-treating. Mouth guard party favors. Playground helmets.
Welcome to Bubble Boy Nation, a place inhabited by overprotective parents; delicate, overindulged children; and two major political parties that routinely capitulate to legions of lobbyists and special interest groups, whose main objectives are to a.) guilt parents into purchasing the latest in overpriced, unsustainable flotsam, lest their children ever become sandbox pariahs, and b.) exploit the massive heapings of media-pedaled fear and paranoia, already imbued in the minds of most parents, as their little ones amble off to gang-infested, shooting-spree-addled schools.
Our powers of observation tell us that some of the most prolific structures currently being erected across suburban landscapes are the heinously ornate iron gates that would make a Persian sultan wince and say, "Dude, seriously: that's just tacky." Looming over high-end, tree-lined neighborhoods throughout the region, they sequester and constrict Southland McTudor-styles and McColonials like so many medieval castle moats (effectively separating families, fragmenting neighborhoods, and making communities less safe); that the most well-attended slumber parties now occur at museums; that, overall, children are more indolent and less literate than they were two decades ago; that the most popular gathering spot for children on Halloween night now occurs somewhere between Bed Bath and Beyond and Things Remembered; and that, perhaps most ominously, fewer children are spending time outdoors - playing games, mowing lawns, and just plain bumming around with peers - than ever before.
To be fair, there were far fewer distractions - and options - back in 1990. Twenty years ago, widespread utterance of the term "X-Box Live" would have prompted not thousands of adolescents into endless hours of online gaming ecstasy, but instead a batten-down-the-hatches, code-orange call-to-arms against depravity for the last remnants of the Moral Majority. And back in the be-mulletted era of Collective Soul and House of Pain, the act of "just hanging out with friends" actually required a modicum of planning and follow-through, and couldn't be accomplished simply by accessing a password on one's laptop or iPhone. There were also fewer reasons to keep children corn-fed and cloistered in dens, panic rooms, and Discovery Zones: For one thing, the scream-tastic, freaks-on-parade domain of 24-hour cable news scare-mongers had yet to seize absolute control over our TV sets - and the already active imaginations of parents across the nation.
But the early 90s were also a time when most American teens were able to handle Macbeth and the one-mile-run and getting drilled in the face by third-year senior Frankie Del Maccio's 80-mile-per-hour "widow-maker" during dodgeball in P.E. class by their sophomore year, without so much as one personal pain and suffering lawsuit levied against the school district, the gym teacher, or the kickball manufacturers.
To a certain degree, such an exaggerated level of concern for our children's physical and emotional welfare is not entirely without precedent, and even has some of its roots planted in antiquity. Plato cautioned fellow Greeks against divulging the myths of the gods - a notoriously NC-17 lot of irredeemably wanton bacchanalians - to little ones perhaps too young and impressionable to comprehend their allegorical nature, as well as the social necessity of implementing such cautionary tales of debauchery and deceit (tales, incidentally, that pale in quantity, degree, and creepiness to the rampant violence, sex, and inexplicably graphic episodes of fetishism found in the Hebrew Bible).
So what are we so afraid of? Despite an overall dramatic drop in violent crime committed against children over the past decade, the percentage of kids who walk or ride their bikes to school has plummeted, from 41 percent in 1969 to 13 percent in 2001. And death by injury to children has also dropped - by more than 50 percent since 1980. Once deemed safe enough for children to frolic in the street unattended, the new suburban outdoors has been re-imagined, through endless over-the-top media accounts, as killing field gauntlet.
Several weeks ago, at a playground near my apartment in Studio City - a self-conscious Valley enclave - my wife and I stood slack-jawed as we watched an irate mother rip into her preschool-age son for talking to another preschooler. "Don't talk to him," she fumed in that piercing whisper that somehow registers twice as loud as the average person's scream. "You don't even know him!" Even now, I remain unable to pin down exactly what this woman was thinking. Did she really believe that the other kid was a mark, set up to lure unsuspecting pre-K-ers away from their parents and into the back of a ped-a-van? And do we really live in a world whose cynicism is so pervasive that it leads us into this line of thinking by default?
(If you just answered "yes" and "yes" to the above questions, you're officially in the running to win one of these.)
Clearly, in a post-YouTube world, the back of the milk carton has gone completely viral. Abducted children - especially white, female pre-adolescents - are the new high-speed car chases, with some subtle differences. High-speed chases gave us the rush and satiation of instant gratification, otherwise known as American heroin: Banded around TV sets or viewing alone, watching the chases produced a variant of communal bonding. At that given moment, we were among thousands of citizens glued to the TV screen. Tethered by a common (if slightly irrational) desire for swift and harsh justice, we shared in experiencing an accelerated plot arc, of knowing that it won't be long now before that methed-out perp in the '83 El Camino, sheathed in head-to-toe White Power regalia, gets sideswiped, stymied, and ultimately apprehended by beefy, taser-happy, baton-wielding cops. Apprehended children, on the other hand, provide TV audiences with a real-time whodunit, augmented by breathless reports from "field" correspondents (whose wardrobe pre-req. of button-pocketed khaki shirt assures viewers of the situation's gravity and degree of possible peril) and up-to-the-minute gossip crawls - once upon a time reserved exclusively for stodgy stock price updates - screaming across the bottom of the TV screen:
Girl found playing in Pennsylvania barn not Ashley Breslow...Tiger Woods to leave PGA tour to "spend more time with family"...Poll: 1 in 3 Americans fear Obama is really Bin Laden...Girl in Michigan found eating BLT sandwich not Ashley Breslow...Brett Favre seen eating hoagie: Philly-bound?...
Even the venerable Dear Abby has joined the fray, endorsing the idea of taking a digital photo of one's child each - each - morning as they head off to the minefield that is grammar school: "That way, if they are kidnapped, the police will have a fresh photo showing what clothes they were wearing," she advises.
But overprotecting, over-admonishing, and over-sheltering kids from strangers actually makes them less safe - not to mention ill-equipped to communicate with unfamiliar individuals who are different than they.
The media-induced perception of the outside world as violence-ravaged dystopia has also lead parents - especially those of adolescent boys - into the false premise that endless hours of video gaming is a superior alternative to exposing one's child to the perils of imminent drive-bys. Regardless of whether such an assumption is valid, the proud and posturing steamball and Nerf football legends, once scattered across backyards and side streets throughout the nation, have been reduced to slouching mounds of torpid shut-ins, trash-talking into headsets about how many fake touchdowns the fake version of themselves has just scored in a fake football game.
As kids tearing around the neighborhood on our wannabe Huffys in the mid-to-late 80s, my friends and I frequently poked fun at the neon yellow sign at the foot of our street that read, "Slow Children Playing." It was trite and tasteless on our part; such cheap and easy humor was almost never lost on our sophomoric sensibilities. But the more I think about it, the less I'm able to recall actually spotting one of these awkwardly punctuated signs anywhere in greater L.A. I shudder to think it might be a matter of cost-benefit: Are there really so few children cavorting outdoors that it's just not worth the taxpayers' money to have Thud and Gorgeous from Cell Block 6 fashioning these things anymore?
Further proof of this trend resides not merely in recent childhood obesity and Type-II diabetes data, but also through observing the well-kempt suburban neighborhoods throughout L.A. seemingly designed for the sole purpose of outdoor activity - for impromptu outbreaks of tag, red rover, and pickle - that are now eerily bereft of the sights and sounds of children at play.