Michael Chabon's recent article in the New York Review of Books, The Wilderness of Childhood, wonders where future authors' imaginations will take root, since kids these days don't have free reign to play and think in the wildnesses. Their parents keep them home or in supervised, scheduled activities. I read it with growing anger.
How do I feel about Chabon’s mourning his imagined loss of freedom for other people’s kids? Angry. Angry that there’s one more attack on parents; angry at the unacknowledged privilege revealed by complaining that “middle class” parents giving their children opportunities and supervision but not the one specific opportunity he wants; angry that the risks of unsupervised time are minimized. How many of these complainers are people who were abused or bullied while unsupervised? How many were injured and had no one to call for help? How many were lonely for their parents, who pushed them outside instead of forming a connection? Of course these people support free time for kids–it worked out well for them!
Sure, if you have the wealth to live in a safe neighborhood that contains a wild space and lots of other kids whose parents have similar parenting styles (i.e., let their kids out to play unsupervised), running around in a gang of kids can be a great experience. So can time alone, wandering through a field of weeds and butterflies, pondering your place in the world, with no parent cautioning you not to touch, not to jump, not to cross that creek, not to...engage with the world. But what if you aren’t middle class or above, and the outside world isn’t safe?
I grew up a lot of places, most of them not safe for kids. One city where we lived for about 4 months, I was chased home every afternoon from school by a gang of kids and if they caught me, they hit and kicked me. I was 10 years old. Another place out in the country where we lived for 8 or 9 months, I was bicycling home from the market 4 miles away when a pickup truck ran me off the road into a ditch and I broke my arm. On a deserted country road. I lay in the ditch, tangled in my bike, crying for a couple of hours before somebody found me. I was 9 years old.
Of course it wasn’t all bad. When I was 11 and 12 we lived in a suburb, and I spent hours wandering a weedy field between two housing developments–it was about half a mile wide and a mile long. I found all kinds of debris and garbage, hobo camps, butterflies, and eventually a friend. I spent other hours playing kick the can, stick ball, and 4-square in an empty parking lot. But the common element in the good times and bad? No parent or responsible adult to turn to–my mother was at work or out partying all these times, and my dad hadn’t been around since I was 5.
Nostalgia and rose-colored glasses can't pretty up the loneliness, fear, and struggle of my childhood. Nor do I think I was the only one--again, you don't hear complaints about overscheduled kids from people who were injured by neglect, who grew up too fast, whose boredom led them to delinquency.
Parents have enough to worry about and society has a long history of deciding they're doing it wrong. First we had to ensure college acceptance through a broad range of extracurricular activities: music, sports, and some kind of volunteer work. Now we've overscheduled and our precious kids don't learn how to entertain themselves when they're bored, how to use their imaginations and explore their world. There's no getting it right when society moves the goalposts constantly, and when every wrong is blamed on parents' individual choices whether they match society's expectations or differ from them.
Hat tip Laura at 11D.