Freedom For Our Kids ?
    By Tommaso Dorigo | July 6th 2010 08:25 AM | 19 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Tommaso

    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

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    This is a post that has nothing to do with physics or other sciences, for once. I just report here my thoughts as a father upon allowing my 11-years-old son to go spend a day to the beach alone with his friends. Is it too early ? Is it about time ?

    Perhaps I should qualify my description of the whole business, since the data above are of course wholly insufficient to answer the question. Filippo (on the left in the picture below, taken last year in Klagenfurt) today left our home in Venice a bit before noon, walked 10' to the boat station, got in a boat directed to the Lido of Venice (a half-hour trip), arrived there and proceeded by feet to the beach, who is on the other side of the island, a mile away. At the beach he will probably find some of his friends, play with them, hang together. Later today he will come back home with the same means, again alone.

    Now, while there are no cars in Venice, there is car circulation in Lido, and this is a concern for a kid who never before had to worry by himself about when and how passing on the other side of a street. But other apprehensive parents might find scary the very fact of allowing a 11 years old kid to wander around alone, cars or not. There are many dangers in today's society for a young kid. Or are there ?

    In Italy we have been brainwashed to feel less and less secure. Criminal activity has not increased significantly since I was a kid 30 years ago; only its reporting has! We feel less secure because inhabitants are increasingly of foreign origin (mostly chinese, eastern europeans, africans, latin americans), and we are brought to believe that they are "different" from us, and thus inherently dangerous to our way of life, our habits, our traditions, our jobs; at a different level, a clear attempt at making citizens feel threatened in their belongings and safety is also in place. There is a clear agenda.

    When I was a kid, I used to go from one place to another in Venice by myself already at a very young age -seven or eight years. I was not alone in being allowed that kind of freedom: it was generally considered safe. Things have not changed in Venice since then so much: Venice is special and certainly overall less dangerous than other towns because of the lack of cars, but one might still envision dangers like drowning in a canal or getting raped by a pedophile. Drug dealing is not frequent but not inexistent either; theft is endemic. So what has changed is mostly our way of looking at things. I fight that, and I coherently decide that my own kid can, at the age of 11, go wherever he likes, after being instructed by my wife and I (and okay, I also have to use some diplomacy with my wife to bring her on my side on this topic!).

    I think kids nowadays are pampered too much by their parents. Until they get big enough to raise their voice against dad they are deprived of the possibility to become autonomous, to feel responsible, to learn from trial and error on their own skin. This contributes to a general underdevelopment in their self-esteem, their self-confidence, and their good judgement. Not Filippo - I am going to give him the freedom he needs to grow and become a responsible adult. Time will tell if I have made the correct choice!


    I think so.  Like you, I had parents that did not worry as much.  I rode my bike to the beach at a younger age than 11 and perhaps my parents were concerned (and perhaps they were not) - there is only so much worrying about eliminating all risk that is possible.    

    This is crazy, Tommaso. We would be playing whole days with my friends outside when I was six. Sometimes, a gang of gipsies led by a white immigrant, the bullying son of a local communist official, would kidnap and torture us, which I survived as a hero and a gang leader, but otherwise it was fun. If your son has survived days *with* you, I am sure he can survive days without you, too.

    LOL Lubos. Maybe your story has to do with your visceral hate of communists. Anyway yes, you describe a more relaxed society, not unlike what was Italy 30 years ago. And sure, he will survive without me -hopefully he will survive me, too.

    Dear Tommaso, when I was 7 years old, I was as much a communist as you are today. My grandfather would always say "psss, shut up, [don't say anything bad about the USSR], the boy is red!"

    I only woke up when I was 8 years old (and when my mother and grandmother independently returned from West Germany with some experience) - which translates roughly to 150 years of your experience.

    I didn't know that the father of Bugos, the gang's boss - who has beaten me up repeatedly (when I was 8, he destroyed my bike's tires; I didn't have a replacement; he pushed my breath out of the lungs; when I was 17, I informed police when I saw that he stole a Mercedes together with his friend; the car belonged to his friend's father: I was severely physically punished by him at the end, he wasn't) - was a communist until 2002. During the big floods, their house was the only house in my childhood neighborhood of Roudna that collapsed. So the media wrote about them and who they were etc.

    I wish the best to all the people but when I learned who the son was and who the father was inside the collapse building, I was tempted to believe that there could have been a God, after all. But of course, they were probably insured etc. and lost nothing.

    It's comparably relaxed today. And schools are much more relaxed than what they were during our childhood - there's really limited discipline over there. But it seems that the kids today are more sissy, too.

    I think gipsies in Czech Republic are suffering, here is a news about them

    It would be kindness from you if you address their suffering in your well known blog as a scientist from Czech Republic .

    I have a son the same age. He is sufficiently streetwise that I have no concerns about him being outside alone or with friends in similar situations, but if he forgets to take his mobile phone I go nuts. How did we ever survive childhood without such gadgets?

    We are soooo spoiled by our gadgets! We were much more relaxed once (well, our parents were I guess). Anyway, Filippo has lost two cellphones already, and I am rather reluctant to get him a third one right now :(

    Challenges, ordeals and death are natural along the life road of adventure. Soul-stunting, danger-free habitats can become more like cremation urns.
    That's right Liz, but I guess anybody would choose a non-naturally long life without pain or troubles and leave a more natural life to others... The problem, as Hank correctly says, is to remove all the identifiable, removable threats and accept the others as a controlled risk.
    Then the question is, how much risk am I willing to take in exchange for a reasonable freedom for my siblings ? I know no recipe to compute an answer in any situation.

    I agree heartily with your approach, as you express it in your blog post, especially the final paragraph. (I did not intend to imply otherwise!;-) It's just that your words brought to mind how: The best intentioned parental worries and safeguards threatened to suck the life-fun out of my own privileged, (over-)protected childhood. Then, I began circumventing, ending up in much riskier situations, usually, and living on through, fortunately (but it sobers me to realize some don't, or experience much pain and many troubles).

    I share your feelings as parent of two boys (now adults in their thirties) growing up in US. My advice is to start trusting your son but to continue to keep a discrete eye on what he's doing and his whereabouts. Don't be too alarmed if he looses his cellphone or behaves in a way that crosses the line. It is rather normal for a boy his age. Remind him that you treat him as a grown-up man and wish to give him full responsibility for his actions. He will likely be more careful next time...
    Building mutual confidence helps kids develop life skills through their teenage years. From my experience I know it's easy to become over-protective and over-anxious about your children. There is a learning curve with everyone and everything, so don't let your parental worries overwhelm you!



    Thanks Ervin, I think I intend to do exactly as you describe... I will have to fight a bit the overanxiety of my wife, but I am determined to do that.

    I recall that I had many days to myself beginning at around age 8. Of course we wandered around places our parents might not have approved of, but it didn't seem to hurt anyone. I recall my youth as one of great freedom and happiness.

    What I'd really like to know is if someone has statistics which show whether the risk to children is higher today than in the past. My bet is that it is smaller today. Instead, what is going on is that the news media provides entertainment to people in the form of scary stories. And as time goes on, their ability to scare the public has increased. Now we live in a state of fear similar to what must be experienced by members of a police state. This fits in with my theory that the way you get your students to pay attention to a lecture is to make sure that it mentions sex, money, and murder.

    You may like the "Free Range Kids" book by Lenore Skenazy, a New York city mother who got a lot of media flak for letting her son ride the subway alone:

    The book argues nicely about how the rather paranoid "popular opinion" about how unsafe the world is, is really media created "reality" that has not much validity. Until I read this blog post I figured that this was more of a North American cultural issue, than a global one.

    Interesting! I will try to get the book and read it. No, people are paranoid in Italy too, as in any country where the political majority has an interest in creating fear in the population.

    It's not just the political majority that is interested in creating fear in the population, it's nearly everyone. In the US, our personal freedom has been sold and is being sold to allay exaggerated or imaginary fears of such things as WMDs in Iraq or Iran, climate change, terrorist activity, cancer, heart disease, etc. We're constantly reminded we should be afraid of driving without helmets, smoking, fireworks, pesticides, sexually transmitted diseases. Whenever there is a freak accident it's considered a call for another layer of government bureaucracy (when will I learn to spell that word), or an opportunity to sue some unlucky person or corporation. The truth is that the vast majority of children, whether they are watched like a hawk or not, live to adulthood and then die of the same diseases that our generation is dying of now.

    Fear causes people to short-circuit their morality. It is the brave person who believes in "death before dishonor". It is the dishonorable person who invades Iraq because of the fear that "the smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud". But the same applies to all the political spectrum. What has happened is that we have become a culture of materialism on both sides of the aisle. What is most important now is our own personal skin and the skins of those we happen to feel empathy for. This is put ahead of all other traditional considerations such as honor, equality, duty, liberty, country, and brotherhood. This is only a few steps away from the chains of slavery. [/end rant]

    Gerhard Adam
    This is put ahead of all other traditional considerations such as honor, equality, duty, liberty, country, and brotherhood.
    I agree with most of what you've said, but I think that it is optimistic to suggest that it has ever been otherwise.  As in any situation, there will be people that behave with those characteristics and those that don't.  Politics has never been a clean business and even the mythology surrounding the establishment of the United States is filled with enough incidences to suggest that it was never about idealism. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Wow Carl, I am led to subscribe to what you say wholeheartedly. Thanks!