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Childhood safer but not as fun

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My husband and I finally decided it was time for our 6-year-old son to learn to ride a real bike. So in the tradition of modern parents everywhere, we suited him up.

Helmet, check. Elbow pads, check. Knee pads, check. Gloves, check. He looked like the Gladiator on a nice safe driveway, check.

Off we went. Over the course of two days my husband progressed from holding both ends of the bike while he ran alongside him, to holding only the seat, to holding the seat with just a few fingers, to . . . Well, we may need another day or so to fully launch him off, which has nothing to do with my son. It has to do with his protective parents.

How different things were when his dad and I were kids. I was the youngest of five in a typical Chicago suburb. One day, when I was even younger than my son is now, my older sister just put me on a two-wheeler on a neighborhood street, ran beside me for a few moments and launched me off at full speed.

Now, she may have actually been trying to kill me, but of course it didn't work. The bike riding lesson did — in about 2-3 minutes, not 2-3 days. Back then, helmets were unheard of and any kid wearing elbow and knee pads would have been laughed out of the neighborhood. In fact, as I remember, it was "uncool" to use handle bars. One quickly learned to balance and ride without them, which is not so easy when going around corners.

It was just a different time then I guess. I mean, my mother used to tell me to go play in the street. Literally. My friends and I would play four-square or hopscotch, right out there in the middle of our little neighborhood road. We would get out of the way when cars came through, then resume our game until the next one came along. Now I live on a quiet cul de sac — and I get nervous when my kids get within 20 feet of it.

Though I practically live in the country, it's only recently that I became comfortable letting our kids play outside without my constant supervision. Yet when I was just a little older than my son is now, I was freely roaming my neighborhood with my little friends.

There just seemed to be an attitude of benign-neglect back then when it came to children. I guess I think it was both healthier, and more dangerous, than today's protective parenting.

It was a time when trips to the doctor were for near-death experiences only.

Car seats? Forget it. I remember countless cross country treks with all of us bouncing around in the back of the station wagon. Or maybe I'd sit on my mother's lap in the front seat — inches from the steel dashboard. (Seat belts were almost as unheard of as children's car seats.)

I remember my father pulling the toboggan behind that station wagon on snow-covered streets with the neighborhood kids piled on. Dad would put the pedal to the metal, spilling kids everywhere, while we both screamed with delight and tried to hang on for dear life.

Yes, it was a different and more dangerous and more care-free world then. Sigh. I had an absolute blast as a kid. Still I confess — though with a bit of regret — that now that I'm a mom I'm very thankful for bicycle helmets and everything else that comes with them.

And once their dad and I finally, however carefully, do launch our kids off on their bikes, I sure as heck had better never catch them riding without their hands squarely on the handlebars.


Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by e-mail at: hart@aol.com.