Though it's been on my list for some time, I haven't had a chance yet to read his book, but I spent some time listening to Michael Ungar's story on the media clips at his website this morning (my children are all away for March break, so it is possible for me to listen to things inside my house today -- a rare and welcome treat as I look out the window and see myself slowly but surely being snowed in).
Ungar's main argument is that we in middle class North America are "bubble wrapping" our children. By this he means that we're trying to insulate them from risk and experience because we're afraid of losing them to any one of the perceived risks of living in modern society.
I've thought about this before, discussed it from time to time with other parents, and I've written about it in one section of my book. A part of the problem is that we're overreacting to media accounts of the risks from which we're trying to shield our treasured kids. The obvious argument would be that we do this because the media give pride of coverage to reports of pedophiles, drug pushers, and roving gangs of Nogoodniks. There may be some truth to this. In fact, the woolly and slightly paranoid socialist buried deeply inside me still sometimes wonders about the connection between our exposure to stories about threats to our kids and those who have vested interests in keeping bums in chairs facing screens selling products. But Ungar makes a subtle point here that I really like. To some extent, the media report what they report because of what we want to hear. We'd be up in arms if there was a dangerous criminal ranging the streets, attacking our kids and this was not blaring from the headlines. Where things go wrong is with our estimate of the risks. We make two kinds of errors, it seems. One is that we overestimate frequency (if one child falls from a tree and breaks his neck out of a million tree climbing escapades, we don't necessarily conclude that our child's risk of breaking their neck is one in a million). The other is that we contract space. If there's a killer on the loose in Austin, Texas, those of us in Whitehorse NWT start looking over our children's shoulders more closely.
These kinds of confusions of geography, brought about by the globalization of information, are yet another symptom of our loss of spatiality, no less threatening to our understanding of the world than a loss of literacy or numeracy, it seems to me.
There's another ironic twist to this, a nasty little positive feedback loop, where we respond to the perceived risks by doing exactly the wrong thing. Rather than giving our kids wings, letting them do the exploration on foot that is so necessary to developing their own understanding of space, we quickly shoosh them into the back seats of our cars and we drive them wherever they want to go.
In a world brimming with threatening messages, it will be a hard fight, if not an impossible one, to convince parents to ease up on their surveillance of the little beings they cherish more than their own lives. Though I know there are many who would disagree (and some of them have already yelled at me), it still seems to me to be a smaller sin to allow ourselves to use locative technology as a psychological "walking cast" for parents so that they can loosen their white knuckled grip on their kids, but not lose their own minds in the process.