Early one Saturday morning, I walked outside to pick up the newspaper and received an impromptu education about contemporary childhood.
My 11-year-old neighbor was getting set to ride his bike. First, he shimmied a set of hard plastic and soft-cushion pads over his sneakers. He worked them up his shins and positioned them carefully over his knees for maximum protection.
He did the same with a pair of elbow pads, flexing his arms to make sure the fit was right. Then came the gloves, thickly padded on the palms and across the knuckles. Finally, he picked up the helmet, adjusted it on his head, strapped it down across his chin, and rapped on it once -- for luck, I suppose.
As he peddled off in his body armor, his father appeared. "You be careful," he called after his son. And then the father turned my way and added, some apologetically, "I remember riding my bike barefoot in the rain. Things sure are different nowadays with the kids."
They sure are. Since the 1980s, when the baby boom generation began to shift en masse into parenting, there's been a growing national panic over the well-being of children.
Threats are everywhere, we are told. If kids are not hounded by ritual satanic child abusers at day care, then they're chewing on too much lead at home.
If they're not at elevated risk for brain cancer from eating hot dogs, then they're likely to become punch drunk from heading soccer balls and on and on.
Ironically, such fear and trembling comes at a time when most standard of living measures suggests that the vast overwhelming majority of youngsters are doing better than ever. With some notable, insistent, and tragic exceptions, they have longer life expectancies and lower accident rates than ever before.
According to government statistics, they are far less likely to drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or use illegal drugs than their counterparts 20 years ago. Despite the gloomy forecast, then, the future remains bright for our children. So, why do we talk about the kids as if they are living in a Mad Max environment?
The causes include relative affluence -- we can afford to worry more. Indiscriminate risk assessment -- we mistake the experience of the impoverished child for that of the average one. And a generational solipsism that seems particularly acute in baby boomers.
The first generation to discover alienation, rebellion, sex, and drugs has been painfully slow to recognize some recurrent and uncomfortable truths: that parenting is an awesome and fearsome experience; that your children always grow up speaking a different language; and that youth culture is always precisely calculated to maximize disgust in older generations.
Perhaps once those lessons are learned, we can better attend to the children who remain truly at risk.