Childhood Bubble Wrap: Why Today's Toddlers Never Drive Cars

Rose Bak

Photo by Carl Figuracion on Unsplash

Kids today are being raised very differently from Baby Boomers and Gen X. Looking back, it’s a miracle any children born before 2000 actually lived, let alone grew to adulthood. Things used to be more dangerous for kids, but you have to wonder if we have gone too far in the other direction.

Are Millenials and Gen Z youth being raised to be too afraid? Are they too coddled?

I was in a meeting one day and the subject of child car seats came up. We had a long discussion about certified car seat installers, how you are not supposed to use previously owned car seats, and all the liability issues related to improperly installed car seats.

"I've heard that 80% of all car seats are installed incorrectly," one of my coworkers said.

I was astounded. Don't you just strap the car seats in with the seat belts? (This is the part of the story where you figure out that I don't have kids).

The installation error rate stuck with me all day. That can't possibly be right, I thought to myself. So I looked it up, and while the number is not 80%, studies estimate that more than half of all infant and child car seats are installed incorrectly.

I also learned there is a whole industry devoted to car seat installation, including 40-hour certification trainings. Installation is so important that many first responders like firefighters and police officers receive special training to help people install car seats correctly.

I further learned that car seats expire, like milk. (Or my father, as per a very weird voice mail I received from my mother informing me of my father's death many years ago. But that's another post.)

Anyway, this information about car seats and child safety brought up two very important questions for me:

First, why on earth doesn't someone invent an infant car seat that is both simple to install and safe?

Second, how is it that anyone in my generation is still alive after riding in cars?

I am aging myself here, but I am old enough that I remember when cars did not have seat belts at all.

One of my earliest -- and happiest -- memories is me as a toddler standing on my grandpa's lap while he drove, holding onto the steering wheel and helping him "steer" the car.

For those of you who are millennials or younger, let me explain that my grandpa was not a monster or even negligent. It was quite common before the 1980s to hold kids in your lap while you were driving.

It was the way toddlers were kept entertained on car trips before there were iPads.

I also remember being in the front seat of cars as a very young girl and a parent's arm flung across me being the only thing that kept me from bouncing off the windshield when someone stopped short.

I always smile fondly at the end of the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special, which I watch faithfully every year, when I see the gaggle of kids sitting in all directions piled into the back of a station wagon.

No one thought of seat belts or airbags back then, we just crammed together and let momentum slide us from one side of the station wagon to the other. And even stranger, when you wanted to back up, you turned your head instead of looking at a camera. Crazy.

Now don't get me wrong, I am all for safety improvements. As someone whose got a lot of glass-related goose eggs on my head in my youth, I am glad that kids don't bounce off windows anymore, although I'm sure that also helped harden my head and toughen me up. Just kidding. Kind of.

And I'm really glad it's mostly frowned upon to be a kid trapped in a car with no ventilation while two parents chain-smoked on a 2,000 mile road trip. I'm pretty sure my lungs have never recovered from that.

I can see the benefit of rubber or other softer surfaces being installed around playground equipment. It must be nice for kids to never have to see a boy fly off the monkey bars and break his arm. When I was growing up, you would see stuff like that all the time.

I think what's most amazing to me is how quickly all these standards for transportation safety have changed.

As a kid in the late 70s and 80s we'd race around on our bikes with no helmets, gone for hours at a time while our parents had no clue where we were. That was fortunate for them because sometimes we were riding our bikes between the rails of train tracks, playing "chicken" with cars, or going to meet boys at the park to drink beer and make out.

As long as we were home by dark and we didn't run into anyone who knew our parents we could run wild and it was all good.

Once I drove my bike into a car, flew over the handlebars, skidded across the car hood, and crashed onto the other side. When my mom saw me all beat up and bloody her only comment was, “You’re lucky you didn’t break your glasses young lady.”

Winter was an especially good time for fun activities that by today’s standards would be considered “too dangerous”.

No one in my low-income urban neighborhood skied, but we did have the poor kid's version of skiing, which we called skeeching.

This was a very fun activity where we would hold onto the back bumper of a car or truck and let it pull us around the snowy city streets, effectively skating on our shoes. The best skeeching happened when the driver didn't know you were back there and would drive accordingly.

When you got tired of skeeching – or the driver took a corner too fast – you would just let go and slide into whatever would stop your momentum. Like a snow drift or a wall.

If one of us were to wear a helmet or protective pads while biking or skateboarding or whatever else we were doing, we would have been laughed out of our neighborhood -- right after being beat up for being a "wuss".

I honestly don't think I even knew bike helmets existed until I was in my mid-20s and moved to Portland.

Sadly, today's kids will never know the joys of skeeching in the snow or driving a car at age four or flying through the air after jumping off their bikes at the last possible minute before impact.

Sure, they'll likely have fewer brain injuries, but is the lack of toughening up worth it?

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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

Portland, OR

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