A fitting follow-up to the recent post on the tragic decline of unstructured play in the lives of children, not to mention yesterday’s one on insomnia, this time in a Wall Street Journal editorial by Lenore Skenazy, “The War on Childhood.” She uses Amtrak’s recent decision to bump their unaccompanied minor age from 8 to 13(!) to talk about the competing forces of control and freedom when it comes to the treatment of children. Control appears to be winning by landslide these days, and, as reasonable as some of the decisions in question might be, the hidden cost of the overall shift may be dangerously high. She wisely points out how fear/risk can justify pretty much any constraint, how once you enter that arena, there really is no end to the God-playing game. One shudders to think about the balloon-related rebellion brewing in Europe, for example… Who knows, though, maybe the end result might be that even more of a premium is put on grace? Wishful thinking perhaps, but hey, you can’t fight Penn Station, ht TB:
Ten is the new two. We live in a society that insists on infantilizing our children, treating them as helpless babies who can’t do a thing safely or successfully without an adult hovering nearby. Consider the schools around the country that no longer allow kids to be dropped off at the bus stop unless there’s a guardian waiting to walk them home—even if home is two doors down.
Or how about all the libraries I’m hearing about that forbid children under age eight or 10 or 12 to be there without an adult—including in the children’s room? God forbid a kid wants to spend the afternoon reading books by herself.
Over in Europe (where I guess they’ve got nothing else to worry about), the European Union just ruled that children under age eight should always be supervised when . . . wait for it . . . blowing up a balloon. It’s just too darn dangerous. A child could choke! And those little whistle things that uncurl when you blow into them? Those have been classified “unsuitable” for children under age 14. (And somehow they’re suitable for kids above 14?)
The point is: Children are not being allowed to grow up and do the normal things we did as kids, out of the fear that, just maybe, something bad could happen. As if all the good things that happen—from exercise to independence to the joy of blowing up a balloon—don’t matter at all. All that matters is the possibility of risk.
When that’s your focus, nothing seems safe enough, which is why park districts are removing merry-go-rounds (kids could fall off!). A New Jersey day-care owner I spoke with was ordered to saw off all tree branches on her property that were lower than eight feet off the ground. Why? Because kids could run into them. They might even (I shudder to write this) climb them.
Which brings us to the latest casualty in this war on childhood: Train travel. As of Nov. 1, Amtrak raised its unaccompanied minor age from eight to 13. Whereas last month your third grader could get on the train, give the conductor a ticket, and proudly ride to the station where grandma (or, more likely, your ex) was waiting, now you and your kid have to wait another five years. Thirteen is the new eight.
In Japan there is a special fare for unaccompanied minors under age six. The Japanese believe their kids can function independently. But over here, even when Amtrak does allow minors to travel on their own, look at the rules it imposes: 13 to 15 year olds must wear a special wrist band identifying them as youngsters. They cannot travel after 9:05 p.m. They cannot get off at an unmanned station. An adult must be at both ends to sign them in and drop them off.
Why not just put them in a crate with a chew toy and be done with it?
There’s a difference between minors and babies. But if we never let the babies grow up and have some adventures on their own, they could end up as befuddled as Amtrak officials.