A kid can’t have fun anymore

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

To begin this entry, I need to explain a little about Sausalito, at least as I encountered it as a cab driver in the late 1990s. It is a picturesque and wealthy–the money here seems a little older and the people seem a little mellower than in the rest of Marin County–town built on the east side of the Marin Headlands, the hills at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The tourist areas, consisting mostly of restaurants and small shops, are mostly along a flat strip that hugs the San Francisco Bay. There are houseboats towards the north end of town, but a lot of people live on steep hillsides along very narrow streets.

For the most part, I enjoyed driving cab there, and during tourist season, the money was pretty good. Off-season, it was a losing deal, with mostly only very short trips taking people home from bars. As I watched my earnings take a nosedive, I hustled my tail through the process of becoming a San Francisco cab driver. I think I only drove in Sausalito for about four months.

But one day I was driving up a hill to pick up a fare and I turned onto a street, surprising a female jogger who was pushing her baby carriage (of the type with big wheels that jogging parents often use) down the middle of the street. I didn’t hit her–this isn’t that kind of a story–but the look she gave me was unforgettable. I suppose she expected me to drive on the sidewalk to avoid her–except I don’t think there was one. Or perhaps a working class cab driver should not sully the streets with a cab that one of her neighbors had called.

But the way I interpreted the episode was of a misdirected over-protectiveness towards her child. To be safe, she shouldn’t have been in the street at all. She might at least have been running along the side of the street rather than right down the middle. But instead, I was the threat and I was in the wrong.

I also interpreted her over-protectiveness as a consequence of delayed maternity. As our society moves–or attempts to move–towards greater gender equality, many women are deferring having children to advance their careers. The notion of a biological clock may be a myth, but one might infer from the fuss over fertility treatments that a certain urgency arises as a woman who wants children gets older. And the children she does bear may represent her last chance at fertility.

Parents should be protective of their children. But if the baby you’ve got is your only chance at having one, I imagine you might be a little more protective.

And in the wake of that encounter, I wondered what the consequences of that over-protectiveness would be for the children.

At the other end of the spectrum is the saga of 16-year old Abby Sunderland sailing across the Indian Ocean. As Leonard Pitts, Jr., of the Miami Herald renders it,

And now, a rebuttal from inside the cotton-wool tunnel.

That, according to Laurence Sunderland, is the safe, heavily padded place where critics of him, his wife Marianne and their 16-year-old daughter Abby live, cushioned from life’s dangers and risks. If the names sound familiar, there’s a reason. Abby Sunderland is the California girl whose attempt to become the youngest person to ever circumnavigate the globe ended in near tragedy when her boat became crippled by storms in the Indian Ocean. Laurence and Marianne are the parents who let her go.

The girl was found and rescued last week, but her brush with disaster has earned her folks international reproach.

Pitts, whom I think is an awfully good writer and whom I think is often right, adds to the criticism:

There was no compelling reason for Abby’s voyage. She was hardly Ferdinand Magellan seeking a western route to the Spice Islands. Rather, she was a teenager from Thousand Oaks whose parents allowed her to risk her life in search of a dubious and ultimately, meaningless, record.

The effort to rescue her involved the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, a search plane and a French fishing boat. According to Australian newspapers, this will cost taxpayers there hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the risk for the sailors who saved Abby; the French captain fell into the ocean and had to be rescued himself.

All that, and for what?

Well, it will surprise no one to hear the Sunderlands were shopping a reality show. Laurence claims he pulled out of Adventures in Sunderland before Abby sailed, when it became clear he and the producers had dissimilar visions. He wanted an inspirational program celebrating a family of daredevils and risk-takers; they wanted to chronicle what they saw as a family sending a daughter off to certain death.

I suppose in the wake of the balloon boy hoax, we are indeed supposed to all be as cynical as Pitts. But there was a day when kids could take risks, sometimes hurt themselves, and sometimes do great things; a day when we would celebrate their accomplishments rather than smear their parents as money-grubbing publicity seekers.

And I think it is a sign that money has truly perverted our society when we can’t do that anymore.