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Philip Slater Headshot

Our Overprotected Society: Stamping Out the Unpredictable

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'Security' is America's most addictive drug. The NRA, for example, says every citizen needs a gun for 'security' (increasing the odds he'll be mowed down by some other citizen who forgot to take his meds).

When I was a merchant seaman I 'never saw the good side of a city'. I got drunk in some of the seediest bars in Africa, the Middle East, and South America, stood midnight to four AM picket duty on Jersey City docks, hitchhiked through much of Venezuela, and all across the United States, was a penniless beachcomber in Brazil, and I never, then or since, ever carried a gun, or felt the need to, or even thought about it. On the ship I always carried a knife as a tool, but when I went ashore I left it on board. I won't say I was never scared, but it never occurred to me to think life should be devoid of adventure.

We not only have enough guns in the United States to kill our entire population, we have enough nukes to kill our entire species. We spend more money on 'defense' than the next 25 biggest spenders combined. A hundred nations have military budgets smaller than what the Pentagon spends in a day.

We have more of our citizens in prison than any other nation, including China, although eighty percent of them are nonviolent offenders. One-fourth of all the prisoners in the world's are in American prisons, so terrified are we of each other. Has it make us feel safer? No. We spend five times as much on prisons as we did 20 yrs ago, despite a generally declining crime rate. Over this time, for example, when Kentucky's crime rate rose a mere 3%, it provoked a 600% increase in its inmate population. Yet Americans seem to be more terrified than ever--of terrorists, immigrants, and each other.

It occurs to me that this Nervous Nellie syndrome that has swept our nation like a pandemic may be rooted in our treatment of children. Many children don't really play any more--they engage in scripted activities, designed by adults. Instead of inventing games by themselves, with their own rules that they abide by--good training for life in a democracy--they're enrolled in adult-supervised games, where they're TOLD what the rules are--good training for life in a dictatorship. They're given toys advertised on TV that require no imagination--they've already been told how they're supposed to be used. Our overprotective ways tend to undermine their resilience in the face of stress, their ability to cope with novel situations, and their ability to learn from failures and mistakes.

At the risk of sounding codgerly, I have to say that when I was growing up, kids played by themselves--there were never any adults around. We made up games, we climbed trees, jumped off low roofs went sledding in winter in streets with cars, grabbed bumpers for free rides--did all the risky things that kids do on their own. And this was not inner city or country living. This was a wealthy suburban community.

We had close calls. And sometimes kids got hurt. I remember feeling a little bad that I'd never broken anything--a broken arm was a badge of honor.

But we learned a lot--like how to profit from mistakes and how to deal with failure on our own. And we had fun.

Today the goal of middle-class parenting seems to be to micromanage a child's life so as to remove all risk, all independent learning and experience. Everything must be supervised.

And the most bland, treeless suburb is viewed by parents as fraught with peril--pedophiles, contagious diseases, rabid animals, hazardous buildings. Even the playground equipment must be so stripped of challenge that even a young Evel Knievel would be hard put to find a way of injuring himself.

It's not that we weren't aware of dangers back then--kids love to tell each other scary stories. We knew not to talk to strangers, and so on, but we weren't hovered over. We were on our own when we weren't in school.

I have a daughter who writes children's books. She grew up, as I did, on the classics--Alice in Wonderland, the Oz books, Peter Pan, Arthur Ransome, Narnia, and so on. What's common to all those books (and Harry Potter) is that there aren't any parents around. Yet one American editor asked my daughter if she didn't think a parent should be included in one of her books! No English editor would have dreamed of asking such a stupid question, which is perhaps why most of the great children's classics are British.

Small wonder so many Americans are afraid of their shadows. Kids never have a chance to grow up, to be on their own, in modern America. They never really leave the nest. Maybe that's why it's been so easy for Bush to frighten us into bloating his authority and shrinking our own.