Remember when kids rode stingrays but didn’t wear helmets?

Mothers have always loved their children, they just didn’t worry about them as much.

When I was a kid, I rode my green 1969 Schwinn Pea Picker with a big sissy bar all over Milwaukee and West Allis with my friends. We never had a safety class other than what our dads taught us, and we didn’t even know there were helmets. We left in the morning and knew we had to be home for lunch or dinner. We all walked or biked to school, to the hobby shop, to the bakery, and to the corner store to get penny candy.Our parents really had no idea where we were or what we were doing.

This really is what my days were like with my friends when I was a kid.

Yes, the Thudguard is for real.

I know our parents loved and cared for our safety, but people just didn’t really worry about things like bicycle crashes that back then. We didn’t even start wearing safety belts until much later either, so perhaps we didn’t worry about car crashes either. It was easy to get a job and everyone had great health insurance, so maybe we didn’t worry about much.  Today parents even worry about their kids in the house.

I can’t believe the Thudguard Baby Safety Helmet is a real product and not some comedy skit from Saturday Night Live or Portlandia. It is a sign of the times that parents are so afraid that they think kids need helmets in the house.

Look at the trend in crashes since 1970.

Back in 1969, about 50% of kids walked or biked to school. Fast forward 45 years, and only about 12% get to school without a car or bus, even though it is actually a lot safer to ride a bicycle now than it was when I was a kid. We have more trails, bike lanes and even robust safe routes to school programs with great bicycle education, like the program we run.  But it isn’t just biking to school that has almost vanished in one generation.

Kids today spend most of their time indoors on the computer, watching television,  or playing video games. About the only time kids go outside is planned, supervised events like soccer practice. A child is six times more likely to play a video game on a typical day than to ride a bike, according to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the CDC.

The change can be seen in children’s bodies. In the 1960s, 4% of kids were overweight. Today, 16% are overweight, according to the CDC, and there is a very dangerous ride in childhood diabetes.

I really am beginning to wonder what “progress” we have made since I was a kid. I’m not advocating to bring back Wham-O Style advertising or saying helmets are the cause of all this. But maybe we should worry less about risk and more about our preoccupation with risk, our addiction to the myth of convenience and comfort, and how so much of our daily lives are spent sitting indoors looking at LED screens.

I certainly recognize the hypocrisy of writing that (as I work at my computer 10-12 hours a day) for you to read on your computer. I don’t have the answer, but maybe it will come to me on my ride to the office this morning.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

6 thoughts on “Remember when kids rode stingrays but didn’t wear helmets?

  1. I’ll keep wearing a bike helmet and encouraging others to, but I get how over-caution has its downsides.

    As one of the El Capitan climbers just said: “I love to dream big, and I love to find ways to be a bit of an explorer. These days it seems like everything is padded and comes with warning labels. This just lights a fire under me, and that’s a really exciting way to live.”

    If we do more dreaming big and being explorers, that obesity rate will drop.

  2. Very much my experience in Milwaukee’s white trash north shore burbs in the 70s, blowing paper route cash to tweak out our Stingrays. Parents didn’t care much where we were, as long as it was out of the house. Of course it was easy to figure out, where would you go but the track, ball field, skating rink or wheelie-ing around the neighborhood? Parents had bells or whistles to announce mealtimes, and from a half mile off the party would instantly break up as we sprinted for home. Sounds like a TV show, but it was also very Lord of the Flies!

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