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Are we Raising a Generation of Softies?

By Karen Karbo

At a recent block party a bunch of dads were lounging around the neighborhood basketball hoop bemoaning a worrisome trend: their kids weren't getting banged up enough.

"By 4th grade, I had already broken my wrist twice and had cracked my head trying to teach myself flip turns in the pool," says one Dad, a designer of web sites. "I had stubbed toes all summer long. Both feet. No one gets stubbed toes anymore. Remember that flap on your big toe, just above the nail, that never healed because you were always restubbing it? None of my kids have ever even stepped on a bee."

"My wife insists on shoes all the time," said another Dad. "Except on the beach, and then only on hard sand."

"Shoes are the least of it. Don't forget the helmets, knee pads, elbow guards, mouth guards and what all," said Toe-Stubbing Dad.

The consensus was that we are raising a generation of children who won't know the proper way to pick off a scab, or how to use a wire hanger to scratch their arms inside a plaster cast, a generation of softies. I should clarify, the neighborhood Dads are not interested in spinal injuries or an accident that might result in physical therapy or a splenectomy, but they are anxious for their kids to understand that a splinter doesn't qualify as a real owie.

My own dad, a member of the Greatest Generation, as well as the generation who knew all the short cuts to the nearest ER, said life was much easier when I was growing up. No father ever lost sleep worrying that his daughter was missing out on an important developmental milestone, such as almost getting her nose torn off. It was the week before I began kindergarten and I'd jumped out of a tree house built by kids not much older than I was. The nails hadn't been properly pounded in. What were the odds? I jumped, and snagged my nostril on the way down. It was a bad year for me and nails. Several months later I was playing by myself at a construction site (!) near our house and stepped on a 1 x 4 with a protruding nail. Fastened that sucker to my foot, right through the sole of my red tennis shoe.

Speaking of nails, just the other day my husband was reminiscing about the time he got his fingernails ripped off. It was the summer between third and fourth grade and he was goofing on a patio chair, pretending he was flying a plane or something, kneeling on the seat, his hands wrapped over the top of the back. He went into an imaginary dive and fell flat on his face, his fingers stuck between the metal frame of the chair and the concrete, his full weight resting on his nail beds. He pulled them out from under the chair and. . .riiiiiiiip!

This dearth of split lips and broken fingers in our young speaks to a larger issue. Scars gained in childhood are badges of honor in the way that all those silly tattoos never can be. No scars mean no lurid tales of how brave Josh was when the doctor pulled out that piece of glass from his forehead and gave him that big shot or how Dad swooped down, picked Lucy up, popped her shoulder right back in the socket and swore not to tell mom. It's just not the same to stand around the school yard bragging "you should see the red spot I got from where my wrist guard was rubbing!"

And for once it's not a gender issue: most of the Moms I know also feel their children are overprotected. Still, it must be said that while we complain that our kids are missing something, that they're somehow not "out there" enough, we also can't knowingly but them in the path, not of danger per se, but of something which has the potential of being unsafe.

The trouble is, everything falls into this category. Being alive is essentially unsafe. The problem becomes a metaphysical one. If the technology existed which would allow you to prevent your child from experiencing a single wound, whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual, would you take advantage of it?

Another father on our block, a statistician, has five children, all of whom excel in sports, and occasionally show up on our front porch with a finger splint or chipped tooth. They strike me as role models for an acceptable amount of mishap. The whole gang is tan (their mother confided in me that while they all know about sunscreen, sometimes they forget, and she lets them get sunburn.), outgoing, confident. I asked the father his secret.

"Good medical insurance and knowing when to shut my eyes and pray."

Karen Karbo, our Mrs. Dad columnist, is the author of Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me (Bloomsbury)

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