One beautiful barefoot summer’s day when my son was a toddler someone dropped a glass on the patio, spraying shards of glass between him and the rest of us. I used my serious voice to bark a command of “don’t move, confident that would hold him a moment until I could slip on some sandals or throw a heavy towel down to protect my feet. My mother raced past me barefoot over the glass to reach her precious grandson and hold him safe, unwilling to risk that moment. We have laughed with pride about her devotion to her grandchild but it demonstrates a truth: children are sacred in our society.
That does not mean that children are not abused, neglected or mistreated but they do have a special status. Perhaps they represent an innocence of the difficulties of life that we will never regain. How often have we indulged ourselves by treating a young child to a toy? How often do we take extra steps to protect a child? Perhaps our awe comes from the desire to nurture the young of any species. It takes a hardened heart not to be touched by the softness of a kitten’s body in our hands or the moment when a very small baby makes eye contact and smiles that full body all out sun bursting from behind clouds grin. Parents know the magic of being able to kiss away the hurt of skinned knees and soothe even a frightened teenager with a hug.
We do so much to protect our children from the terrible hurts of life. The vaccinations of my childhood kept away very dangerous diseases such as polio, diphtheria and tetanus; the vaccinations of my children’s also kept away the less dangerous but occasionally lethal diseases such as measles and mumps. Car seats went from advised to mandatory. Helmets went from slightly ridiculous to sensible for children on bikes, skates and skis. Elementary teachers were no longer high school graduates with a year of training but people with at least two degrees who were expected to plan with every child in mind. Parents in the throes of divorce find that some of their decisions about finances, place of residence and even career path are affected by their children’s needs. This care for the health, education and happiness of children is founded in a sound nurturing sensibility.
Unfortunately there are some difficulties with this new direction in nurturing. Parents and society are becoming overly protective. My husband and I have noticed in our frequent walks by the Rideau River that there are no children playing on its banks. It is eerie. My husband grew up adventuring in the Don Valley and in a tributary of the Don River. Those of you who know that river may be grimacing, but for him and his friends it was a wonderful playground. They did all the things that you can imagine children doing with trees and mud and water and they were totally unsupervised. Nothing terrible happened to them: no accidents, no creepy perverts, and no disgusting diseases. They did exercise their muscles, imaginations, curiosity and capacity for cooperation.
On the outskirts of Ottawa, between the ages of nine and thirteen, my friends and I roamed between the Ottawa River, the fields, copses, orchard and even by the railway tracks (sorry Mom). We would come back from afternoons of pretending to be log rollers in the river so cold that even a couple of hours in our warm beds couldn’t thaw the slabs of ice which were our feet. We played hide and seek, hiding by climbing trees. We saved our money and cycled to the local riding stables where they let us ride horses without helmets or a written waiver from our parents. My mother even let us take my three-year-old sister for a picnic in the woods. We were home for dinner or when the lights came on. We were dirty and cold and hungry and tired but nothing awful ever happened to us either. We did exercise our muscles, imaginations, curiosity, sense of adventure, independence and capacity for cooperation. What’s more, we weren’t afraid of very much and that is how we carried ourselves.
So where are the children? Why can’t we trust them to have similar adventures? Can we not teach them how to take responsibility for their safety and that of their friends? Even though stranger crimes against children are down why do we insist on keeping our children in protective custody?
Childhood obesity is increasing, as is type two diabetes in children and adults; both of these are the direct results of inactivity. Children restricted to supervised activities and organized sports are far less creative than children who have the freedom to chose what they do and how they do it. The dangers to lifelong health and the likelihood of uncreative minds are greater risks than sexual assault or murder. Twenty-eight per cent of children between the ages of two and seventeen in Ontario were overweight in 2004. That alone increases the likelihood of type 2 diabetes.
Keeping a child at home will not reduce the chances of sexual assaults by very much because “85% of the time, the offender will be known to the child (Christie, Donna, The Secrets Out: Child Sexual Abuse, Committee Against Rape and Sexual Assault, Carsa Inc., 1985).” http://www.sexualassaultniagara.org/facts.html. Roughly the same proportions are true in the rare cases of child murder. What will help keep a child safer is a careful education in safety habits such as street proofing, rules of the road when cycling, common sense precautions and the principles of first aid. Nothing is a guarantee, of course, that a child will never be hurt but that is true no matter what we do. What is likely, however, is that we will raise happy, creative, self-confident citizens. It takes a self confident child to say no to an adult who assaults her, to keep her head and make good decisions in a dangerous situation.
Let us save the children from lifelong ill health, indolence, inability to take risks and deal with the normal dangers of life. Let us save the children from the inability to rely on themselves and each other for help. Let us save our children from fear of the unknown and challenges to try new things. Let us teach them how to take calculated risks and learn to grow. Save the children from protective custody.