Folks, I “live-Tweeted” this yesterday:
Walked by my local elementary school. Stopped to watch the kids playing at recess. So much joy. Teacher told me I, on public sidewalk on other side of fence, no phone or photo taking, am not allowed to stand and watch the kids. She is calling security now.
At first I walked away, because I am scared of confrontations. But then my curiosity and umbrage got the best of me and I walked back to see what would happen next. For reference: The sidewalk runs alongside the playground. There’s a big chain link fence between the two. This is an urban neighborhood — Queens, New York. It was a sunny day, lunchtime.
The security guard — actually, she looked like she was a playground monitor — told me I had to move along. “But why?” I asked. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”
Because there are too many creeps in the world, she replied. These poor kids — she’s just trying to keep them safe.
But they ARE safe, I said. They’re certainly safe from me — all I’m doing is watching them play. That doesn’t hurt anyone.
It’s not allowed, she insisted, because there have been flashers. There have been disturbing people.
I pointed out that I wasn’t flashing anyone and then asked how many flashers they’d had to deal with this year.
Well, zero, she said. But still…
And it’s that “But still…” that is the crux of the matter. It’s almost as if it doesn’t matter if there really are flashers, because — but still — there COULD be. Some day. Some year. And that possibility justifies treating all strangers as dangerous, and all children as in harm’s way, requiring draconian protection from…everyday life.
I told her I think it’s wrong to treat all adults as a threat to all children. But I didn’t even say the most radical thing that came to mind, which is this:
A few years back I was talking to my friend’s 80-year-old mom. She’d grown up in Manhattan and remembered back when she and her sister would play at Riverside Park together, on their own. Once when they were quite young — maybe 7 and 9 — a man in a car gestured for them to come over. They did. Then he pointed down to his lap.
You can guess what he was showing them.
“And to this day,” said my friend’s mom, “we still giggle about it!”
This is not to say that I endorse or even encourage flashing kids (though perhaps on Twitter my words will be twisted that way). It’s to say that I do endorse remembering that kids can handle a lot more than we have come to believe they can.
I don’t think anyone should expose themselves to kids (can you believe I have to keep saying this?) and I understand it could be upsetting and confusing for a kid to see a flasher. But I also think that to a certain extent kids take their cues from the culture. And if a culture says, “You’re a kid. Inevitably you’re going to see some weird things, experience some pain, deal with some minor risks, and make some bad decisions. And you will be okay. In fact, you’ll grow stronger and smarter. Because (as Winston Churchill put it): ‘We have not journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.’”
Then kids know we believe in them and their basic resilience. And they expect it in themselves.
But if our culture says, instead, “Oh my God, there’s a lady on the sidewalk looking at you! You should be protected from that! She could be bad, or even if she isn’t, she is an adult and you shouldn’t have to deal with an adult who isn’t your parent or your teacher! And even though you actually are NOT dealing with her, you shouldn’t even have to be in public where strangers can see you. I wish there was a solid fence to keep you from having any spontaneous human interaction not pre-approved by your elders! You could get hurt! You could feel uncomfortable! Same thing! How will you ever cope?”
If you have a culture saying that — treating kids as fragile and in need of constant protection even from fantastical dangers — I don’t think we should be too surprised when they seem remarkably anxious and depressed. We’ve told them the world is scary and they are helpless.
Which is something I couldn’t totally explain to the security lady, and eventually I left.
But, hey: We have not journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy, right? So please join me as we fight the culture-rending, childhood-ruining, kindness-killing belief that our kids are in constant danger. Let the world know: We believe in kids and adults and each other. — Lenore
Photo: National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.