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June, 2004

COUNTY LINES; Life’s Warning Label: Caution! Contents Hazardous!

By Marek Fuchs

HERE’S an enchanting thought: Our children will soon be floating into the carefree summer days of their youth. The sun will be shining high in the sky as the birds blithely chirp and we festoon the little innocents with so many helmets and pads that they will seem better poised for battle than bicycling. Armor in place, the darlings will then be rebriefed on the dangers of strangers and, upon their return, inspected for everything from Lyme ticks to West Nile mosquito larvae.

Read a book or watch a movie about the suburbs, and you will invariably see people like us flitting across the screen and page, blithely unaware that our world is not perfect. For decades, we’ve witnessed fictionalized versions of ourselves living out life lulled into the notion that any place with a patch of lawn and a scooter in the driveway comes complete with a guarantee of shininess and safety.

But the trendy hacks writing so repetitively about subdivisions must not visit often. If they did, they would see that we’re actually living in a state of persistent alarm. Maybe it’s watching all those happy suburban lives unspool and splutter on film, but many of us carry on as if unutterable dangers, from molesters to the long-term effects on nonorganic produce, lurk in every cul de sac.

It could be that fiction has little to do with it. Maybe there are other reasons that staying on heightened alert for cruelties down to the last scratched elbow has become the intellectual fad of the day.

Earlier generations had Freud and Dr. Spock. We have tear-free SPF 300 sun lotion, triple protection.

Even though it’s mostly ignored, the garden of fear that has become modern suburban life offers rich material for anyone wanting to write about it.

One wouldn’t even have to reach for the low-lying fruit, like the duct tape kept in the cupboard as insurance against Indian Point’s impending explosion.

In Pelham and elsewhere, some homeowners put ‘‘safe house’’ posters in their front windows. They are there to let any child who is being attacked know that he or she is welcome to seek refuge in the postered home.

Call it suburbia’s coalition of the willing.

Maybe it’s because I was nearsighted as a child and have visions of being chased for miles as I squint fruitlessly for a home that will have me, but such efforts must make kids feel more leery, not less.

No matter where most of us grew up, chances are good that if a kidnapper was breathing down our neck, we’d probably have felt welcome to make an unannounced stop at a neighbor’s house—even without a ‘‘safe house’’ poster.

Fortunately, kidnapping is not much of a reality in suburbs like Pelham. The occasional playground accident, though, is.

When a girl in Hastings-on-Hudson fell off the monkey bars and broke her arm, there were discussions on whether the wood chips had been laid on thickly enough to cushion her fall and whether the monkey bars, a childhood staple, should be removed. In many parks around the area, the seesaws are already gone.

Though these changes to some extent reflect our membership in the liability culture, there is also something larger going on. From protecting against a scratched elbow to knowing ahead of time just which house Johnnie and Jane can duck inside of, we seem to be having trouble with randomness—any sort of randomness.

For answers, I turned to Dr. Wendy Mogel, who lived to tell about the crime of letting her 9-year-old daughter (gasp!) walk to town alone. Dr. Mogel, a psychologist, wrote a book called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.

She has been an outspoken opponent of what she calls the ‘‘hovercraft’’ parent, the one who espouses the hyperprotective attitudes of communities like ours because any stand against them smells like neglect.

Overcompensation by working parents is a factor in hovercrafting, Dr. Mogel said. But she pointed out that in a nonreligious age, people search in peculiar reaches of the secular world for the answers they crave. The certainty of What Was and What Will Be used to come from a Bible; now people now turn to nanny cams.

Many parents today, she also noted, are children of the 1960’s and 70’s, and overpermissiveness may have left them with ‘‘free-floating anxieties.’’ Those reared to let it be are in their turn letting nothing be.

College deans, Dr. Mogel said, have recently adopted a nickname for a growing subset of incoming freshmen: teacups.

’‘They have been protected by their handler-parents for so long that they have become teacups. The parents are very intelligent, devoted and loving, but they were ruled by their fears and they created fragile children.’‘

How do these teacups tend to fare in the world at large?

Dr. Mogel said: ‘‘In three months, they are back home in a wheelbarrow.’‘

June 6, 2004