Jean Barker

Children, learn to save yourselves

2015-01-16 13:18

"You and your brother always had matches on you," my Ma said. "And you were always making little fires in the garden. I'd smell smoke and go out and see, oh, it's under control."

Of course, at this point - just as I did when I was 10 years old - I decided not to tell Mom about the time my brother and I made a fire with some homeless people to toast the cheese sandwiches we'd brought to share, and nearly set an entire park on fire.

The firemen arrived to find two pre-teen kids and a few bergies fighting the blaze with green tree-branches when they pulled up in the very exciting red fire engine.

What were we doing visiting homeless people a mile from home? Well, that was just stuff we did. We'd together disappear in the morning and come back for dinner, covered in mud. This, apparently, is no longer normal. Not in South Africa, and especially not in the USA.

Safer back then

Maybe it was "safer back then"… in South Africa… if you were white and middle class. But not in America - child kidnappings and abuse are down year on year, despite increased reporting. And yet, parents are ever more protective. Perhaps they'd argue that kids are safer because they're more protected.

My question, though, is whether protecting your kids is worth the risk that they'll turn out to be complete idiots.

There were creepy people around then, just as there are today. But I survived it all and learned when I got burned.  I have a three-inch scar on right leg, because if I wanted stitches back then I would have had to confess to my mother why I was running away from a BMW driver through a junkyard across a river. At the time, bleeding heavily in secret seemed safer than explaining.

It seems like many kids today don't get to practice surviving, taking risks, or getting hurt. You can't learn to climb a tree if you’re afraid to fall.

And I’ll never forget the day I saw the school jock cry when he fell and broke his leg while climbing the giant stone pine in our schoolyard. I had witnessed the impossible! The school jock was human. But that wasn't enough excitement, so I (and a few others) climbed up where he had fallen from, just to see if we could do it.


Today, a teacher would probably have stopped me climbing that tree.

In the USA, ever the leader of the nanny-state trend, young kids seem to be subject to 365, 24/7 parental control. I know parents here in the USA who won't drop their kids at a movie theatre and let them watch a film alone with friends, or allow them to go see Lady Gaga. Kids as old as 12 are supervised every minute of their lives.

And it doesn’t stop there. Many 25 year olds I know have never travelled on their own, and never had a job and until they graduated college. (I have to wonder who the hell would even want to hire someone like that.)

When I was a kid…

I know how this is going to sound but I'll say it anyhow. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s South Africa, it was traditional for white South Africans in my parents' circles to kick their children out of the nest at 18. Why so mean? Because nothing prepares you for college better than working a series of humiliating below-minimum-wage jobs for a year. (And also, imagine being stuck with me for 18 years. You'd be keen to get rid of me too. )
Did bad things happen to me, that year in the UK on my own with no money? Sure. Do I regret a moment of it? No. When I went to college, I knew how to get a job waitressing so I could buy beer. More importantly, I knew that if I didn't succeed at college, I might end up doing some of the things I'd done to survive the year before… forever.

I do bear some small scars, but I think of them as free tattoos. I now also have stories to tell – some of them so shocking that I'll wait til my parents die or go insane before I publish my memoirs.

A middle ground

Whatever your stance on parenting, I'm certain there needs to be some kind of middle ground. The world seems to have gone to extremes, and as usual, America is a great place to observe bizarre trends.

A lot more decisions are up to parents here, so this allows parents to behave in crazy ways that would be illegal in terms of civil rights violations in other places. Middle class kids here are growing up so over-protected that they’re practically helpless. Some parents even monitor their kids’ online activities and track their cell phones.  

My question is ultimately: how is this good - for anybody?

Firstly, how will these helpless creatures survive in an increasingly competitive economy? More importantly, how could these spoiled, overprotected grubs possible begin to understand or empathise with the more than one billion children who, unlike them, live in abject poverty and war – and whose parents can’t even protect them from the number one killer worldwide: Starvation?

Id argue that overly caring is creating a generation, that couldn’t care less, because they don't understand what it's like to really need help. They are too busy trying to figure out how to help themselves to the soft life they believe they’re entitled to live.  

- Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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