Monday, June 05, 2006

Challenges to the Modern Family

Last June I posted here and here about safety in the Boy Scout program. The latter post was written as vast amounts of resources were committed to finding Brennan Hawkins, the boy that wandered away from an organized Scout camp in the High Uintas and was miraculously found by searchers in good condition a few days later.

I got to thinking about this issue all over again this past weekend as I attended the first of a number of Scouting activities planned for this summer. Having been involved in Scouting for over three and a half decades, I have seen a lot of changes in the program, especially with regard to child safety.

Safety was not a new thing to Scouting when I became a Cub Scout in the late 60s. In early 50s the BSA held its national jamboree on the west coast for the first time. The promotional literature for the jamboree promised that every attendee would be able to swim in the Pacific Ocean. Concerned experts explained to the BSA that statistics showed that at least 3% of the anticipated 50,000 attendees could be expected to drown. The BSA then instituted programs of physical examinations and safe swim plans. Consequently no one drowned at the jamboree, and these programs continue today at all BSA camps.

Eventually the BSA instituted a requirement that units traveling for any purpose file a tour permit showing that basic safety requirements have been met, both to ensure that the essentials for safety are in place and to have a record of where any unit is expected to be at a given time for emergency purposes.

In the early 80s the BSA was hit with a vast number of lawsuits in a single year alleging child abuse, particularly child sexual abuse. The organization’s annual insurance premium increased twelve-fold in one year. Over the next several years the BSA implemented a system of background checks on adult volunteers, began requiring that at least two adult leaders be present at all Scouting meetings and events, and began requiring all volunteers to attend child safety training.

This is where we are today. Today, every adult Scouting volunteer accepts a huge responsibility and liability simply by becoming involved in the program. This narrows the field of potential volunteers. It hopefully screens out creeps, but it also screens out otherwise qualified candidates.

I wonder what the base factors are behind all of these safety requirements. Is it simply the fact that we are more aware today of safety issues that have always existed? If so, why was there apparently less concern about those issues in the past? Is it simply that safety fascists are working hard to eliminate all risk from childhood, thereby, also limiting potential for personal growth? Some argue that our push to reduce childhood risk factors to zero is an element in self-destructive high-risk behaviors by kids, as they strive to satisfy the portion of the human psyche that needs to learn from risk.

President Thomas S. Monson, the #2 man in the LDS Church, recently recounted (here) his experience as a youth where his scoutmaster dropped the troop off for several days of completely unsupervised camping. Perhaps most boys in young Tommy Monson’s troop in the late 1930s had outdoor skills that most of today’s youth lack, but this idea seems completely preposterous to us nowadays.

We have a deep history of responding, or perhaps overreacting, to emotional events. Over 30 years ago a farm truck loaded with Mormon Boy Scouts on their way to camp rolled over, killing 22 boys. Both the BSA and the LDS Church almost immediately issued mandates that no one was permitted to ride in the bed of a truck at any of either organization’s events (a rule that is routinely broken by some.) This rule makes great sense to me and I would never condone anyone riding in the back of a truck in connection with a Scouting event. But a farmer friend of mine who has ridden in the beds of farm trucks throughout his life thinks this rule goes too far.

There is at least a grain truth to the idea that some safety issues have always existed. As a young man I personally knew three men that were Scouting volunteers that I later learned were pedophiles. I became partially aware of the transgressions of each while each was still serving in Scouting positions. Although I was never a victim, I later discovered that boys I knew were among their victims. I understand that all three of these men have since served prison time.

The BSA leadership was completely blindsided 25 years ago when evidence of pedophile volunteers surfaced. They couldn’t imagine that anyone would deliberately get involved in Scouting to engage in sexual acts with boys. Were we as a society simply blind to this kind of thing because it seemed unimaginable? Were parents less able to deal with these kinds of things because family size was bigger, thereby, limiting per-child attention capacities?

A friend in law enforcement would never let his family travel by vehicle without everyone being properly restrained, while my farmer friend thinks nothing of driving around with unrestrained family members. My law enforcement friend has two children, while my farmer friend has nine. Does having fewer kids make the children more precious to the parents, or do parents with more kids simply have less ability to pay attention to details like that?

This line of thought leads me back to birthrates, which I have written about recently (here). I wonder about the transition from an agrarian society to a more modern, more affluent society. In the old agricultural based economy where most work was done by manual labor, large families provided cheap labor and enhanced retirement planning. In other words, children were net assets (economically speaking). In our modern society, we are far more affluent, but children are a net liability. Most children today provide little or no benefit to the family economy, remaining net consumers until they are able to leave the nest (and often long after that). So, children are less valuable from an economic viewpoint.

In the agrarian economy, child rearing occurred in the normal course of the family economy. That is, children were naturally raised as the family worked together in the family business. Family together time and recreation occurred naturally during work and during lulls. Some work activities also had a recreational element. In our modern economy, child rearing (for the most part) has become a separate activity from earning a living. Society has responded by creating avenues for occupying children: day care, full-time school, sports, arts, clubs, etc. These things have increased the cost of child rearing, imposing limitations on family size.

I wonder if our affluence limits family size. Stick with me here. Our affluence means that we have more money, but studies show that affluent people have no more free time than did their poor ancestors. Studies show that today’s busy families have little together time. One recent study where families were (willingly) on camera 24x7 for 90 days found one family that never had all members present in one room during that period. As our society has become more affluent, each succeeding generation has acquired more stuff. Much of this stuff has come with the promise of increased leisure time. While some of the stuff has definitely caused a shift away from manual labor, it has not necessarily increased available time, and much of it has decreased family together time.

Every item we acquire has both a monetary and a time cost associated with it. (True economists will say that these two elements are essentially the same thing.) We often ignore this as we anticipate the acquisition of stuff. Due to the time/money cost of our things, many items we acquire reduce the time adults could spend rearing children while also reducing fiscal resources that could be spent on child rearing.

We can all rightly argue that some of the stuff we own aids child rearing, but if we are honest, most of us can easily find a great many things among our stuff that directly or indirectly detract from our ability to fulfill parenting roles. As homes grow in size, each family member drifts off to his/her personal space and tunes into his/her own media device. As the number of families eating dinner together declines, some families take meals while staring at the TV, robbing them of actual involvement in each other’s lives.

I’m not saying that it’s inherently bad that our modern economy is more robust and much less agrarian. It’s so easy to say that everything was better back in ‘the good old days.’ I’m not arguing for an impossible return to yesteryear. I believe parenting has always been a challenge. We face some unique challenges in our modern society with which parents throughout much of history have never had to deal. I think it’s important to recognize these challenges and deal with them in a positive manner for the good of our children and for the good of society.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Nice post.

I think you are correct that we are over coddling kids these days. What is scary is that these over coddled kids seem to develop a feeling of invincibility and take to extreme sports (BASE Jumping) like flies to fly paper. Our eliminating risk from every day live seems to have bred a generation of extreme risk takers. Go Figure?

Being a boy involves risk. It is best that the risks occur with in a structure like the boy scouts than letting them have their risk taking adventures in unsupervised adventures.

This expectation that articipation in the BSA should be risk free is absurd. Boys need to swim in oceans and climb some trees, despite the fact that some will die in the the process.

Riding in the back of a pick up has proven to be excessively risky. My guess is that your friend is an idiot. The farmer might be talking about moving people short distances. If he is talking longer distances, trips to town, etc., then he is taking excessive risk. That is a really bad business decision. The fatality rate for farming is 21/100,000. The only thing worse is mining at 25/100,000 workers.