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The best father does nothing

Courtesy Weldon Owen

Earlier today I read one of Parenting’s blogs about the new breed of playground. Forget about tall monkey bars, seesaws and tire swings. Those are now relics, rendered impotent by federal guidelines and lawsuits. The new ones are really, really safe. No one falls. No one gets hurt. No one has a wide-eyed “whoa!” moment after reaching the jungle gym’s apex.

Let’s take a tour of a family household near that playground, shall we? In the living room, there is an entertainment center with an empty, square-shaped space in the middle. Open the fridge, and you won’t see Coke, Capri Sun, chocolate milk, pizza, white bread or cupcakes. In the playroom, you won’t find toys with small parts or sharp edges. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom holds no medicine – no cough suppressant, no antibiotics, no children’s Tylenol. There are no bunk beds in the kids’ bedrooms, only organic mattresses flanked by child-safe bed rails. Outside, an eight-foot fence surrounds the property.

 It is a home of nothing, which has its benefits. Nothing has no side effects. Nothing doesn’t lead to childhood obesity. Nothing won’t require eight stitches on the chin.

The children in Nothingville will be healthier and safer than yours. They will also be anxious, boring wusses.

At what point did we take the childhood out of childhood? Without question, our collective watch-doggedness has improved health, extended life expectancies, and reduced injuries. But for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, and that would be children with no threshold for disappointment, no understanding of cause-and-effect or consequence, no concept of thrill or risk.

Let me be clear: I’m not romanticizing the philosophy of that older male relative in your family, the one with the gold necklace and pinky ring, who discusses how much better it was back in his day. I’m not advocating that we ignore lead paint poisoning, forget about recalls, and let our kindergartners walk home after dark. But we need to admit that for the most part, it’s not the food or the toys that’s the problem. It’s us.

To better explain what I’m talking about, here are some stereotypical headlines from your average six o’clock news.

“Local youth believed to be abducted.” Nearly 50 percent of all kidnappings are classified as “family kidnappings” (committed by a member of the family) and are most often committed by one of the child’s parents.

“Soda and fruit juice linked to childhood obesity.” I didn’t know you let your child buy his own drinks, and consume them at his discretion. It must be a huge time-saver to not have that responsibility. 

“San Francisco bans Happy Meal toys.” Who is buying the Happy Meal? Is your child pulling up to the drive-thru window?

“Is your local playground safe? Shocking footage at 11.” Sometime in the not-too-distant past, a parent was checking his daily Groupon on his BlackBerry when his child fell off the monkey bars and broke his wrist. The parent sued the parks and recreation council, and got the metal climbing structure hauled away. In its place is a boring, low-rise structures that tells children, “We know you can’t do it, so we gave you playground equipment that won’t remind you of that.”  

We’re bubble-wrapping our children in our own anxieties. Our kids don’t know their limits, because we’re creating a world that doesn’t test them. If this continues, we will not foster the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or Jay-Z or Sonia Sotomayor. We will create middle management. We will create circus elephants with meager chains around their ankles, each link fashioned from our prejudices and neuroses.

The fix: involvement. It’s a simple concept. If you’re involved in what they eat, what they watch, how they play, you provide them with a customized portal to experiencing something kinda important: life. They can fly on the trapeze if we’re the safety net.

Take a good look at these sentences: I fell out of bed last night. I ate two ice cream sundaes. We played in the yard until dark. I got stitches after falling off the monkey bars. Take a good look. Because they are going out of style. Childhood is going out of style. What’s hot right now is nothing.