When I was just a child, I roamed all over the hills of Eastern Kentucky, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, recklessly climbing trees, exploring abandoned mines and generally tempting fate to the point of taunting it.
Our family moved to Fort Wayne when I was 12, and I regularly walked the mile from our house to Packard Park and covered even more territory on my bike. My younger brother had similar freedom of movement, and my even younger sister was able to — please don’t faint — play out of sight of our mother and father for long stretches of time.
Today, such lax supervision would likely be called neglect or even child endangerment. Even if my siblings and I weren’t shuffled off to foster care, our parents surely would get a visit and stern warnings from child services.
Yes, I know why things changed, how fear of the monsters among us turned parents into hovering wrecks, wringing their hands if their children are out of view for even a second. And I certainly don’t suggest the world is as safe as it used to be.
But I can’t help thinking we’ve gone so far with our protectiveness that we’re robbing our children of the sense of wonder and awe that comes from exploring and discovering.
I noticed the other day that Texas has just become the third state — after Utah and Oklahoma — to pass a “tree-range kids” law to support reasonable childhood independence. As Reason magazine notes, “Parents who live there cannot be investigated for neglect simply for giving their kids some old-fashioned freedom.”
My first thought was, how sad that such a law would even be needed. My second was hope that the 47 other states, but especially Indiana, would get on board. Fearful children become fearful adults.
And, heaven knows, we already have more than enough of those.
Another story that caught my eye was about the paralyzing terror some people are apparently experiencing over the arrival of Brood X, the billions of cicadas emerging after 17 years of hibernation underground.
A woman in Ohio has made herself a cicada shield with an umbrella and two shower curtains so she can summon up the courage to go outside. A Virginia man talks admits the anxiety he feels about tasks like mowing the lawn, and a Penn State football player confesses his “emotional trauma” at the “devastating news” from his mother that cicadas are on the way.
Our feelings of fear and disgust, says a university scientist, are “likely part of an evolutionary mechanism to protect us.”
But, come on. Yes, the cicadas are noisy and ugly, but the same could be said of a lot of people. It’s just about the insect mating dance. They’re going to have sex for a few weeks, then die.
Come to think of it, the way the world has been going lately, that doesn’t sound so bad to me, either.
For the last word, let’s turn to Mitch Daniels, former Indiana governor and current president of Purdue University, and, as is frequently the case, the only adult in the room.
Speaking to the graduating class of 2021, he noted how many of the students’ elders have failed a fundamental test of leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic: “They let their understandable human fear of uncertainty overcome their duty to balance all the interests for which they were responsible. They hid behind the advice of experts in one field but ignored the warnings of experts in other realms that they might do harm beyond the good they hoped to accomplish.”
Before the virus visited us, he said, “there were already troubling signs that fearfulness was beginning to erode the spirit of adventure, the willingness to take considered risks, on which this nation’s greatness was built and from which all progress originates. Rates of business startups, moving in pursuit of a better job, or the strongest of all bets on the future, having children, all have fallen sharply in recent years. And now there are warnings that the year 2020 may have weakened that spirit further.”
Telling students that “certainty is an illusion” and “perfect safety is a mirage,” he urged them to “weigh alternatives, balance priorities, assess relative risks” and have “the courage to act on the conclusions you reach.”
He closed with advice all graduating seniors need to hear, at least the ones who want to live as free-range adults:
“Take that readiness into a fearful, timid world crying for direction and boldness, where the biggest risk of all is that we stop taking risks at all.”
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.