Lighten Up America! Give the Kids a Break

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The kids will be all right – if we let them.

The summer of recovery has become the summer of discontent. Though the economic news waxes and wanes, unemployment – the most important issue before the country – remains disappointingly high. Americans feel let down by President Obama, who promised healing and comity and then pushed through legislation that the majority of the country disliked. People of all political persuasions are unhappy; an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey released a month ago showed that 70% of those asked described themselves as angry – 70%! We’re still at war, we’ve not closed Guantanamo, the economy is losing steam and Washington is as vitriolic as ever.

My advice – don’t take it out on the kids. As children stream back to school this fall, I hope that most will look back on their summer vacation as a time when they raced on the sand, played kick the can, got dirty, chased fireflies, went fishing, read an entertaining book or did whatever it is that gives them a break from the demands of the classroom. Kids need to have fun. I worry that as a country we are worked up about so many issues that we’re dropping “fun” to the bottom of the to-do list.

For instance, yesterday I saw a bright purple and yellow bouncy castle brought in to entertain families gathering for a cookout. It looked great, and kids were literally squealing with excitement. Then someone mentioned that in California Attorney General Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown has filed a lawsuit aimed at prohibiting bouncy castles that are made of vinyl, as, of course, most are. Apparently, an advocacy group in Oakland, the Center for Environmental Health, has been testing these jumping toys and found that some have lead levels far above the federal limits. They are recommending that bouncy providers post hazard warnings, and that children wash their hands and faces after rolling around on the castle. Or possibly banning them altogether.

Really, how much harm can come of playing on a great plastic bubble? My guess is you’d have to bounce till your knees were protruding through your shoulder blades before any significant amount of toxins could rub off. This kind of overreaction is so damaging. For one thing, heaven knows we need to encourage kids to have fun in physical ways. Every time the authorities create anxieties about the dangers of playground equipment or biking or rollerblading, kids retreat a little further into their comfort zone – most likely their couch. Part of the obesity epidemic stems from too much time sitting and watching TV or playing video games – a very safe and ultimately life-threatening activity.

The concern about lead in bouncy castles seems as idiotic as a notice the other day that the EPA was worried about the amount of lead in bullets. Seriously? I’d love to see a guy just plugged by a .357 Magnum wake up in the hospital requesting lead screening.

The fun police have also been cracking down on a real childhood staple – Good Humor trucks. Parents have complained about unsafe drivers, or that the vendors encourage unhealthy eating, and that they dislike having to face down their kids every time the cheery bell rings on their street. OK, so too many American kids are overweight, and parents need to be careful. But a Toasted Almond bar isn’t going to ruin an otherwise healthy diet. Ice cream trucks used to be one of the fun signs of summer; I say, let the Good Humors roll!

Like everything else in life, there is a balance between being careful and protective of our children and allowing them the freedom to explore and take chances. Trying and failing, doing things that might be chancy – that’s how children grow up with the confidence to be risk-takers. That’s how we develop entrepreneurs, and boy, do we need people ready to roll the dice with a good idea.

I’m not advocating letting your kids do stupid things. Rather, I abhor today’s predilection for cramming our kids’ heads full of anxieties. They are taught from an early age that nearly everything is scary: foods, toys, sunshine, playgrounds, the air they breathe, the world at large. I saw a report the other day on a northern state’s efforts to calm elementary school kids about the Gulf oil disaster. Are five-year-olds really worked up over an oil spill a thousand miles distant? I bought lemonade from a youngster earlier this summer and asked her what she was saving up for. “College,” she advised me with a stern look. “I have a savings account and it needs to grow,” she explained. She was eight years old. As Dave Barry would say, “I am not making this up.”

It’s one thing to spend the day worrying about cell phones frying your brain, melting glaciers, identity theft, salmonella, additives in laundry detergents and Al Qaeda. It’s quite another to hang all your anxieties around your children’s necks. They have bigger things to worry about – like competing in an increasingly tough global marketplace.

Americans used to be known for our great sense of humor, for our resilience and grit – but also our relaxed view of life. In the era of P.T. Barnum, wags with too much time (and money) on their hands would construct huge elaborate pranks – just for the fun of it. My favorite involves a duo who advertised that Manhattan was sinking at the offshore end. They worked up New Yorkers to the point where thousands turned out to watch them, as advertised, saw off the island and row it around. Despite the delivery of huge cutters and oars, no sawing took place. The scamps had sailed for Europe the night before. Can you imagine someone doing something so silly today?

Things are tough and we are all feeling anxious. But, over the coming Labor Day weekend, let’s give kids a good time. Let them eat hot dogs, drink unfiltered tap water and maybe even visit a Bouncy Castle. My guess is they’ll be OK.

Editor’s Note: Liz Peek is a financial columnist.

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