The Fear That Crept ‘Round the World

Hi Readers — Here’s a letter from Korea (where my book was just published in translation!). What’s upsetting is how parental paranoia seems to be creeping around the world, like a virus. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’m an elementary/middle school English teacher in South Korea, arguably one of the safest countries in the world. Here, kids work very hard, spending almost all of their time studying in school and in private academies. However, what little free time they have is entirely their own. It’s not unusual to see older kids and young teens (10-16 year olds) out on their own, travelling to academies or out with their friends until quite late in the evening, often up until about 11pm. Here, children are pretty safe and adults would have no reservations about helping a child in need.

However, this is beginning to change. A couple of incidents over the past two years or so have made parents more wary about their children’s safety and the same paranoia that afflicts western society is gradually taking a grip. For teachers, more and more restrictions are being placed upon us, too.

Myself, I grew up in the Scottish glens. There, I had complete freedom and have very fond memories of dissapearing for entire days; leaving the house at 8 or 9 am with a packed lunch and returning in the evening, filthy dirty, tired, scratched, cut, bruised and utterly happy. My friends and I would cycle to town, a distance of 8 miles, on public roads. We were always aware of the dangers of traffic and strangers and acted accordingly.

These days, in the UK, children don’t get to be children. They are treated like fragile objects, like pets. Restricted to the garden or even kept indoors, supervised and monitored at all times, their friends are vetted and held in suspicion, and every opportunity for some good, mud-raking, knee-bruising fun is denied or restricted by health and safety paranoia.

I fail to see how the current generation of kids can grow up to be responsible, sensible, world-wise adults if they cannot learn the important lessons that sensibly unrestricted childhood and good old fashioned play bring. — T.B.

7 Responses

  1. Sad to hear that parenting fears are expanding everywhere. My husband and I try to give our kids a good bit of freedom, and they seem to be more free than most of the other kids in the area. It’s hard to do sometimes, but the minor risks are worth the boost in confidence they get.

  2. Haven’t read this book yet, but it sounds like it might address some of this:

  3. When my husband was stationed in Korea with the Air Force, he ordered a custom made goretex jacket at a store in a small town just outside the base. We went to pick it up & the owner was out for dinner. We were leaving very early the next morning, but decided to see if he was in. One of the street vendors had told him we had come by and he had left the jacket hanging out all night with the bill attached. We put the money under the door and took the jacket. Can children really be in that much danger in South Korea? Perhaps in Seoul, but everywhere else, this seems to be one of the safest countries in the world. If parenting paranoia has crept in there, we are all in trouble.

  4. I don’t know, the UK is weird. In Australia there is more of a protective culture with kids than when I was a child, but this is countered by the fact that children are included more in daily life – you’re likely to see kids at restaurants at 9pm etc and there are many public spaces spilling over with kids, not just playgrounds. Not everyone open-heartedly embraces this, but it’s the way things are.

    But in the UK along with the uber-over-protectiveness, I got a generally anti-kid (and anti-mother) vibe. My daughter likes to talk to people (but she is very sweet and charming really). This trait is considered delightful in Australia, in England she was regarded with suspicion and often she was outright ignored, much to her sad bafflement. One day a woman stood right next to us and complained loudly about all the kids everywhere – mine was the only child in a mile radius. In the same town, teenagers who gathered in the park at night were considered a nuisance, but there was seriously nowhere else for them to go. I’d hate to be trying to be free-range there, when it felt like there was no space available for them, no patience or tolerance, no energy (it wasn’t so bad in laidback Brighton). I know this is an outsider’s perspective and that communities flourish everywhere. But my heart went out to UK parents.

  5. I am surprised more is not made of the connection between mono-culturalism and feelings of safety. In more monolithic cultures, where social mores are shared, people feel safe, know more what to expect and feel more comfortable intervening with other people’s children.
    In polycultural atmospheres/societies people are more uncertain and have a greater diversity of opinions about everything, including child rearing and discipline. Like it or not, people fear the unfamiliar.

    I experienced the difference when living in a small town in Germany, as opposed to the extremely diverse urban neighborhood I live in now. I prefer the diversity of my present situation, but as a naturally outgoing person, I don’t mind the extra conversation and negotiation required with my neighbors. Others might feel differently.

  6. It does make me cry inside. I was one of those kids…never wore a helmet, took my two dogs canoe with me where we paddles miles into town. Once a sailboat sunk and my friend and I floated around in life jackets in the middle of lake MI. until we were picked up. Sounds awful…somehow it’s still a fond memory. We knew we wouldn’t perish, so we laughed it up knowing our parents would eventually find us. Can you imagine…I’d be locked away for life.

  7. […] my new favorite blog, Free Range Kids (thanks, Julie, for the […]

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