Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Laughing, Running, Jumping, Playing

In his column this week, RJA talks about how his kids constantly ask if they’re going somewhere. It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed firsthand, both with his kids and my own. And while I agree with his idea of making the family-friendly attractions of Memphis more financially friendly, I think there’s another issue at play here.

At play. Get it? See what I did there? Well, not yet you don’t. Just wait.

If you’re between the ages of 30 and 112, think back on your childhood. More specifically, call to mind your free time, your evenings and weekends, your long summer days and stunted winter afternoons. Where were you? What were you doing? If you’re like me, you were running around with a pack of other kids, roaming neighborhoods, riding bikes, playing complicated variations of tag. If the weather was bad, you were in someone’s basement or rec room, rollerskating on unfinished floors, thinking up exciting new ways to melt G.I. Joe figures, choreographing complex routines to the songs of Purple Rain (What? No? Just me? Liar.).

Now, if you have kids, or know kids, think about what they’re doing after school, or how they’re spending their weekends. Chances are, your seven-year-old isn’t wandering alone through the woods behind your neighborhood. And I’m willing to bet that there’s no ten-kid game of Ghost in the Graveyard going on across multiple yards on your street. If there are two unrelated children in the same area, it’s safe to assume that the situation was planned, approved, and supervised by at least 50% of the involved parents.

It would be easy to blame overprotective parents for this shift - Michael Chabon does as much in his own lament for the lost wilderness of childhood (if I cite it, I'm not plagiarizing it!) - but I think there are multiple factors involved. Our neighborhoods really are less safe than they once were, not just due to crime, but also suburban sprawl, reduced green spaces, and 16-year-olds on cell phones. Plus our kids are taught from preschool to be wary of strangers, which is a good policy when it involves dudes in windowless vans, but not as useful when it comes to their own peers.

And, and … okay, yes, some of it is the parents. I can’t imagine letting my 6-year-old spend an entire afternoon building a tree fort in a construction lot with no one over the age of ten in attendance (although I did) any more than my parents would have let me play on an active train trestle (like they did). I think it’s natural to retroactively panic about the risks we took as children and swear never to let our own kids take those chances, but I’m afraid we’ve reached the generational nadir of acceptable childhood danger.

So I feel sympathetic when the kids start asking what we’re going to do, where we’re going to go, because I know their desire to go out into the world is normal, but their ability to do so on their own has been so greatly limited. Even if you can get them to bike off down the block by themselves, as Chabon wrote (far more artfully), they’re unlikely to see another kid while they’re out there.

The conundrum is that any adult intervention to change this dynamic is just one more way of meddling in their world, when what we all need to do is just step off. It may already be too late, though. The die is cast.

But what with the pendulum swinging and nature abhorring a vacuum and whatnot, we can at least be comforted in knowing that our kids will someday see their own childhoods as dangerously sheltered and will raise their own offspring in the other extreme. We might as well sit back and enjoy the regulated rambunctiousness now, because we’ll be spending our golden years dragging our grandchildren off of train trestles.


Chip said...

I've often thought about this. I rode my bike to school by myself before I was 10. And I roamed about freely on that bike, even a few miles from home. The thought of letting my kids do that now freaks me out.

Stacey Greenberg said...

I just read the Freerange Kids site and am convinced that the world is just fine. We parents are scarred by the media's fixation on spending 99% of their time reporting on the crazy fucked up 1% of crazy fucked up things that happen.

Sassy Molassy said...

I think we are pretty 70s parents, actually.