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I remember being out and about in the neighborhood before I started school — at four, in the Netherlands — with other local kids, poking sticks in the mud and playing together. At four, I was given my first pocket knife. I recall being told not to play with it at the dinner table, but doing so anyway. I once cut myself right as we were eating pudding, and can still see the red droplets of blood coloring that squishy pudding. In the hope that my mom and dad wouldn't notice, I quickly licked them away.
By the time I was five, we got our first Shetland pony. My sisters and I used to ride him by ourselves, sent off with some simple safety messages: either make sure you don't find yourself behind the horse, or if you really have no other choice, squeeze through as closely behind him as you can, so his kicks won't do too much damage. I fell off plenty of times of course, and there was another message: always get right back on.
When I was six or so, I used to get sent to the local shops to buy groceries and cigars for my grandpa. After school, my friend and I were always allowed to "go on adventures" by ourselves, climbing trees, jumping streams, collecting rocks, playing in the mud, and whatever else we fancied. Our parents knew that we'd be back by dinner and never came looking for us.
When I was about 10, I was assaulted by a group of older boys who tried to force me to eat a live fish. Though skilled in judo, I knew I wouldn't be able to go up against such a large number of bigger kids and tried to stay calm. When I told my dad what happened, he called the police. A unit promptly came round to our house and the offenders I could identify by name in turn got a stern talking-to from the boys in blue.
We weren't told not to talk to strangers, though we were told not to go anywhere with a particular guy who gave us kids the creeps anyway.
A "EuroSafe" booklet on "potentially dangerous products" tells me that everything is considered a danger now, from adult beds to bicycles, from child car seats to trampolines, and balloons, soccer goals, magnets, marbles, strings, toy chests, and even child safety barriers. We now live in a world where letting your kid ride the subway on his own gets you labeled the "world's worst mom". (Yes, that actually happened to "free range parenting" advocate Lenore Skenazy.) We live in a world where all playgrounds look alike, a vast sea of rounded corners and dreary boredom. We live in a world where every second of a child's life is micromanaged, and where some kids don't taste the kind of freedom I had during my years of childhood until they go to college — only to get near-fatally drunk as soon as they can.
Have we gone too far? "EuroSafe" is quite right — all the things they list can indeed kill, under the wrong circumstances. Could it be, though, that we're living in a dystopian world where common sense is a fatal victim too rarely remembered? Could it be that we're coddling our kids so much that they're not really living any more?