Much has been written about the culture of fear that pervades so many people, especially parents, in these times.
There's a lot of money to be made by exploiting fear, from home-alarm systems to war profiteering. (Get 'em over there before they get us over here!) There are websites, catalogues and stores full of products designed with fearful parents in mind. For many, the padded playground has come to symbolize parental over-protectiveness and obsession with safety. We've all read about it; I won't try to recreate the whole argument here.
I see and hear a lot of stories about many parents' attempt to create a risk-free world for their children - as if such a thing is possible, and as if it is preferred. Without risk, there can be no growth, no testing of boundaries, no meaningful accomplishment. One needn't be a daredevil to know that a fearful child will have less self-confidence and have a more difficult time achieving independence. Falling on an ordinary, non-padded, playground, scraping your knee, then continuing to play is something of a metaphor for growing up.
I overheard something recently that perfectly illustrated the culture of parental fear. (Don't know if you've noticed, but a large percentage of my essay-type posts originate from overheard conversations. I'm always listening.)
This particular overheard conversation was lengthy; I was sort of trapped beside it, unseen, for an extended period of time. A woman was telling someone about her recent family vacation. They went on a Disney cruise. She went on and on about how great it was - an enormous variety of activities for kids of all ages and for adults. But what she really loved about the Disney cruise, as opposed to any other vacation they've taken, is how safe it was.
Every time you walked into a dining room or buffet, staff was handing out hand sanitizers. People were sanitizing the elevator buttons and door knobs all day long.
After leaving the ship for island entertainment (also owned by Disney), they had to pass through metal detectors and show identification to re-board. None of the other cruise lines did that!
All the entertainment was produced by Disney, of course, so there was no danger the children would be exposed to anything inappropriate.
The kids had to wear helmets and shin guards for all non-water activities, and life jackets for all water activities.
She talked about this a lot. "And it just made us feel so safe, so protected. It was the best part of the trip."
This astonished me.
I know that there have been illness outbreaks on cruise ships, so I understand that sanitation may be an issue. I'll give her that. But this was the best part of the trip?
Now, I'm not a cruise person in the first place. I can think of few things I'd enjoy less than be trapped anywhere with 2,000 other people and a bunch of "activities". To an independent traveler like me, the whole concept of this kind of holiday is hideous.
I also reject the notion that the only vacation you can take with kids are theme parks or cruises. I grew up going to national parks and historical sites. We hiked and rode horses and talked to park rangers, and we saw our country.
It's not a money issue. This woman's family had first spent a week in Florida (ugh), then did this four-day Disney cruise. She told her friend that the cruise was more expensive than the entire week in Florida including airfare, a giant splurge. I could plan three vacations for this family with what they spent on this one cruise. I kept thinking of all the cool things they could have seen and done for the same cost.
So sure, my reaction to this conversation is tempered by my general disgust at that type of holiday. But the safety issue just amazed me. How fearful she must be to make that such a high priority!
Are you thinking, "if she was a parent, she'd understand"? Well, I'm not a parent (not of humans, anyway), but my parents were. And I thank [something] that they didn't raise me to believe I needed hand sanitation and metal detection every time I turned around.
We knew about safety. We wore seat belts, we washed our hands after the bathroom, we had a fire safety plan. But we were also taught, by example, that there are worlds to explore, and given the confidence to do it.
My sister and brother are parents, and they didn't raise their kids in a fearful environment, either. My nieces and nephews travel all over the world on their own. They move into unchartered territory in their own lives, both figuratively and literally.
I also helped raise a child - I was a nanny, like a second mom, to a boy for five years. I saw risk, and I saw safety, and I saw a person who needed to test the world, to explore.
In addition, I have spoken with dozens of families of children with physical disabilities. Independence and potential over-protectiveness are huge issues in this world. The children who thrive come from families that recognize that life is risk.
But for every parent who is afraid of the big, bad world their children are entering, Disney, and dozens of other companies, are waiting to cash in.
I don't have any huge conclusion to draw from this. I just find it sad, and wrong.