An internet diary
Thoughs on childhood's end
Published on December 19, 2007 By IanTyger In Misc

My wife pointed me at this article in the Consumerist which touched on the policies regarding unaccompanied minors for various airlines. Several of the commentators were shocked that Southwest officially did not escort children of 12+ years; and in general that children of 10-13 or so were not treated as defenseless to the world.

By the time I was 13 (I say that because it was 20 years ago, and my memory is hazy for which summers some of this happened in) I had done or was allowed to do pretty much at whim (in no particular order):

  • Learned to fire a bow, rifle, and shotgun (and the rules of safety for each) and did so regularly over the summer (hay bales, paper targets, and skeet, respectively)
  • Learnt the rudiments of 2 different forms of martial arts and was prevented from learning more of each only by my own lack of dedication
  • Knew both theory and practice of land navigation and orienteering using a map and compass, along with how to find north via either via a watch or a tall stick and some sunshine
  • Had for a short period of time walked to school 1 mile each way on suburban streets (with sidewalks, admittedly) - my brother spent an entire school year doing so when he was the same age
  • Rode my bicycle almost a mile one-way to go swimming at the county rec center whenever I could scrape up the cost of admission with no more than a "see ya, be back later" to my parents (or riding off to friend's houses, etc)
  • Had been camping, including cooking my own food over a can of sterno or a camp stove (and, technically, over the campfire)
  • Knew the theory and practice of starting a fire with a knife, a flint, and whatever materials I could scrounge in the woods
  • Carried a Swiss Army knife almost everywhere I went
  • Had killed, plucked, cooked, and eaten my own chicken dinner (Scoutmaster's parent owned a farm and were willing to sacrifice some chickens one summer)
  • Regularly cooked food for myself, my brother, and our friends on the stove at home (mainly Kraft Mac & Cheese from a box, admittedly, but still that involves a fairly large amount of boiling water and a gas range at the time)
  • Ridden the Metrobus home every day from Alexandria City to the bus route terminus over a mile from my house, and walked the rest of the way (summer school at a private school) almost a mile
  • Learned to swim like a fish, as well as one-handing a canoe and how to row a boat
  • Learned the rudiments of first aid - again stopped from learning more by my lack of dedication

And I was not any kind of a prodigy - these were almost all group activities with peers of my age. Most of it was learned in the Boy Scouts, admittedly - by the time I was 13 I had been a Boy Scout for 2+ years. (But it was not in the Scouts that I learned to shoot, and I wasn't a particularly dedicated Scout - I dropped out without making Star, and I don't believe I made First Class in my first year). This wasn't all that long ago - I was 12 in the summer of 1986. Nor was this in a particularly rural area - that part of Fairfax County, VA hasn't been rural for quite some time.

I certainly wasn't an adult at 12-13. But I certainly wasn't helpless, defenseless, or hapless. I no longer needed the kind of close supervision a young child might need - I was allowed to operate within fairly loose guidelines (in some ways, looser guidelines than I was when I was in my later teens, because I did have somewhat less responsibility). Nonetheless, I'm quite sure that had the need arisen for me to fly unaccompanied, my parents would have made sure the people at the other end knew my flight info, and then dropped me off at the airport (accompanying me to the gate if possible under time constraints), and expected me to make my way onto the plane, into my seats, and off the other end to the people I was going to without expecting much, if any, official support form the airline. Admittedly, by the time I was 12 or so I was not unfamiliar with airports (living in 3 countries for 8 of your first 10 years will do that) - but an airport is a far more structured environment than the ones I had to deal with on a regular basis.

I can't believe that the world we live in now is any less safe on the individual child's level than it was 20 years ago; if anything I would expect it to be slightly safer. There's more sensationalism - and more attention paid to tragedies, but I believe that's due in large measure to the increasing rarity of reported incidents. The advent of cheap cellphones alone makes it that much safer to be out on your own; not having to be dependent on finding a landline that is accessible and working. So why is what was common 20 years ago so unusual today?

on Dec 19, 2007
Do you have any children? I only ask this because I think that in order to understand the depth of a parent's feelings of protection and worry for their child you must have a child of your own (or one that you take full responsibility for the care and raising of).

I have 3 children, ages 10, 7, and 1. My 10 could go from the gate to the plane, get boarded, get off the plane and meet someone at baggage. I've no doubt he is responsible and competent enough to do this. I suspect my 7 year old would be capable of doing it as well.

What I would worry about is the factors outside my child's control. I would worry about my child being preyed upon or abused or taken advantage of by adults.

Scouting (at least Cub Scouts) does address this with the earning of the Bobcat Badge (stranger danger/personal safety issues are covered in the steps leading up to earning the badge).

It's not that I feel my children COULDN'T do these things. I just wouldn't want to unless it was ABSOLUTELY unavoidable.

I'm not really alarmed about the airlines' policies. I think most children 12 and up could see to it that they followed directions and did what they needed to do to get to their destination. I just cannot imagine a scenario in which I would be comfortable allowing my child to fly alone, even at age 12. Too many bad things can happen that aren't the child's or the airline's fault. I don't know at what age it would be palatable to me to put one of my children on a plane by themselves. I just know we haven't reached that point yet.

Incidentally, where we live (military base) children are not allowed to be unaccompanied under the age of 10. That means anywhere. In the house. In the yard. Walking to school.

Interesting article.

on Dec 19, 2007
I don't have children yet - which is why I was posting from my perspective AS a preteen. My parents had 2 children by this point, and were still perfectly willing to allow me to do these things. My peers were all allowed to do these things by *their* parents.

What changed in the past 20 years to make things less safe?
on Dec 19, 2007

I don't think the world is inherently more dangerous than it was 10,20,30 years ago, we're just more aware of the bad stuff now than we were before.  We also don't put as much emphasis on teaching kids practical world skills as we once did.  I see so many kids today (kids of friends, neighbors etc) that are over-protected, shelted to the point where they can't actually deal with something going wrong. 

The prevailing wisdom now seems to be that if you're under 18, you're incapable of doing for yourself, or you're somehow intensely vulnerable and some predator is going to sweep out of the shadows any second to snatch you up!  It's part of the whole "My angel would never do anything wrong!" and "You can't give little Johnny a bad grade!  He tried really hard" attitude that's been growing and growing for years now. 

Kids are a lot tougher and more resourceful than most people give them credit for.  Treating them like a china doll that you keep under lock and key all the time isn't going to help them at all when they're suddenly out in the real world and have to deal with danger and mean people for the first time in their lives.

on Dec 19, 2007
I have a child, and I fear more that should would not learn how to handle herself in the world, more so than something dramatic happening.
on Dec 19, 2007

40 years ago (when I was that age), it was the same for me.  I flew unescorted across country and took Greyhounds regularly. However I do have some experiences that at the time were scary, but today they would probably be front page news (nothing traumatic, but with the sensitivity towards child abuse, it seems ANY touching is now considered abuse).

Maybe the times have not changed, just our perception of them.

on Dec 19, 2007
I don't have children yet - which is why I was posting from my perspective AS a preteen.

I suspected as much.

It's easy to say how kids should be when you don't have any.
on Dec 19, 2007
My kids did a lot of what you talk about here... in the 90s and 00s. They often chose to walk home from school... it is 4 miles away.

There is the threat of danger, but I also think there is something else that you didn't mention. As a society, we don't expect people to fully "take on adult responsibilities" until well into their 20s. If we still consider them "kids" at 21, how must we look at then when they are 12?
on Dec 19, 2007
It's easy to say how kids should be when you don't have any.

Did I not post that this was how I was as a preteen? This is not some airy-fairy Gedankenexperiment - this was my actual childhood experiences. It wasn't how I should be - it is how it was.

I don't have to be a parent to understand how to be a child...
on Dec 20, 2007
This is a fascinating read. I just have a couple of things to say from my perspective as an overly protected...girl.
My brothers were allowed to ride their bikes to the library at ten and twelve, whereas I wasn't allowed to do that until I was sixteen and could drive myself. I, nor any of my female friends, were in scouting, all we learned about strangers was from school, and my parents in particular watched over me very carefully. I think girls are indeed treated differently than boys when it comes to "capability." So, while I see where you are coming from, there are indeed other factors, and Texas Wahine said.