So much is scary about being a parent. It is the scariest job.
A thing I have had many occasions to think about in the decade I've had kids is that parenting takes all of the ordinary terrors of your own life — that you will get sick, that you will be murdered, that you will need more than can be gotten, that the systems of the world will fall upon you like an unbearable weight and no one with the power to help you will particularly care because you cannot make a compelling case that helping or even caring will make them any richer, deer ticks — and simply relocates them into a small, clueless, and impossibly vulnerable new person you love far more than you can ever love yourself. And then (if you are lucky!) this new person will not even become aware that these are things to fear — will not become able to assist in their own protection — for many years.
My greatest, least rational, most desperate hope for my two kind and bighearted young sons is that they will traipse happy, safe, and guileless through childhood, confident and unburdened by all my fear for them; that life will not inflict upon them intimate knowledge of the adult world's cruelty and compromise and hopeless brokenness until much later, always later, possibly never. I do not want to Toughen Them Up, to get them ready for What The Mean Streets Of The Real World Are Like. What the mean streets imperil in them, what would become tough and dark where it now is soft and shines like the sun, is what I treasure most, the most fragile and most valuable thing. The absolute only way to feel good about the world or myself is to see to it that neither of us destroys it.
To love your kids is to want them to have adventures and be brave. But it is also to want them to be safe and not to be eaten by a mountain lion.
But I have very little control over life. What if they break an ankle in their traipsing? What if there is a snake out there in the field and they traipse into it? What if they traipse in front of a car? And then, oh God, what happens later, when they have reached the far side of the field and they arrive at adulthood and it breaks their hearts?
You see the problem: To love your kids is to want them to have adventures and be brave and try new things and grow, and they need space and freedom for this. But it is also to want them to be safe and not to be eaten by a mountain lion, because space and freedom are dangerous. Also all of that adventuring eventually will make them grow up, and that's simply not acceptable.
None of this is new. These have been the fears and painfully conflicting imperatives of parents since long before I became a parent. They're centuries older than the 2015 Pew Research Center survey of parents that bubbled back up to the surface of Twitter last week and has been on my mind ever since. Among that survey's unsurprising findings: Poorer parents report more worry about the safety of their neighborhoods and the quality of their schools than rich ones; poorer parents have a harder time than rich ones at finding support services and enriching extracurricular activities for their kids; minority parents feel greater pressure and responsibility for their children's successes and failures than white ones; college-educated parents have more time to read aloud to their young kids.
This ought to track with what anybody knows about America: It's easier to be white and rich than it is to be anything else. It's easier to be a parent if you're white and rich; it's easier to be a kid if you're white and rich. The advantages of being rich and white compound themselves at the slightest prompting: It's easier to get a college degree if you're rich and white, and having a college degree makes it easier to get a fulfilling and gainful job, and having a fulfilling and gainful job makes the decision to start a family easier, and makes it easier to be a present and engaged parent. And so on.
But if security compounds itself, so does insecurity. Like so:
On average, parents say children should be at least 10 years old before they should be allowed to play in front of their house unsupervised while an adult is inside. Parents say children should be even older before they are allowed to stay home alone for about an hour (12 years old) or to spend time at a public park unsupervised (14 years old).
Ideas like this have a queasy and insidious danger. A kid who can't play outside, in front of their own home, without direct adult supervision, for the entire first decade of their life is a kid who has heard all of the admonishments about safety and fair play and responsibility — don't talk to strangers, be kind to other kids, stay out of the dang street, etc. — but who has had no opportunity to recall and make use of them, or of their own capacity for independent judgment. That is to say, it is therefore a kid who self-evidently is unready to play outside, in front of their own home, without direct adult supervision. Fewer kids being allowed to play outside without direct adult supervision means fewer playmates for — and a small safety net of friendly eyeballs on — the ever smaller number of kids who are allowed to play outside without direct adult supervision. Thus those few kids are lonelier and less safe when they play outside without direct adult supervision; outside becomes an ever lonelier and more dangerous place to be without one's parents, and 10 starts to look like it might be too young an age to let your kids play outside without your direct supervision.
In this dumb country people are always afraid of the wrong things, are always adopting the scarier and more awful thing as protection against some lesser, unlikelier danger.
This seems like a bleak and perfect artifact for 21st-century America, a paranoid, asocial, property- and border-obsessed country withdrawing ever more completely behind the security of walls, fixated ever more insanely on the ruinously dumb idea that liberty is cossetted separation from everyone else, rather than a product of supportive connections with them. The simple act of being out in the world, of engaging with the world outside that barren sphere makes that world a safer and happier place and makes the defense of that sphere less necessary and less exhausting; that's a happy feedback loop available to anyone at any time. America continually chooses its dark negative, then adopts the bleak result as justification for reiterating that choice.
That's stupid. It's doubly stupid because actually, the world out in front of the average American's home is in most respects safer now than it ever has been. Child abductions by anybody but a non-custodial parent are lower than they have been in decades. Violent crime rates have been plummeting for over 25 years. Yet the result hasn't been more widespread feelings of security and liberty, but rather ever increasing paranoia and more heavy-handed protection of kids. Affluent parents, rather than reveling in the safety of their neighborhoods, make a status marker out of their own ability to provide round-the-clock direct supervision, either in person or in the form of hired child-wranglers. Visible defensive helicoptering becomes a signal of responsibility; the only unsupervised kids at the park are the children of single and working parents, who go to jail for it.
In this dumb country people are always afraid of the wrong things, are always adopting the scarier and more awful thing as protection against some lesser, unlikelier danger. Abandoning civil liberties and government oversight and accountability, sending thousands of young people off to kill and die and be disfigured and traumatized in pointless unwinnable wars, and hopelessly motherfucking and radicalizing a huge swath of the globe, for fear of a tiny number of faraway terrorists. Accepting the collapse of the global ecosystem and the probable end of civilization because a succession of centrist weasels effectively invoked the spooky specter of an unbalanced federal budget. Inflicting lonely, sunless, micromanaged misery onto children for fear of what they might get up to with a little liberty and independence. Securing the present only when it forecloses on the future, and the future only when it needlessly squanders the present.
So much of this, the expansive this, the hellish state of the world, comes down to bad, dumb, bigoted ideas about safety: What it is, how to have it, who deserves it, how much to pay for it. Addressing it necessarily will involve accepting some risk, especially on the part of those who can most comfortably absorb that risk. Send your kids out into the world, out into their safe, dull neighborhoods. Mine will be there to meet them, if I am brave enough, and they can play together.