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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kids (and their Parents) These Days

I got some real satisfaction out of Michael Chabon's essay on "The Wilderness of Childhood" in the New York Review of Books. Tim Burke brought the essay to my attention, and as he says, Chabon's basic claims are spot-on. Growing up for Chabon was a constant encounter with mystery and adventure, both of which took place in spaces that were unsupervised, unregulated, unscheduled: the woods beyond his house in Maryland, vacant lots and playgrounds, a whole cartography derived from "the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children": that's where the mean dogs are, that's where the kid with the air rifle lives, that's where the grandma who always has Popsicles in her garage freezer is to be found. In the context of all that, you explore. Being a writer, Chabon connects this to our literary imagination, but he fears the connection has been lost, replaced in the experience of our children with a safety-obsessed, "all-encompassing escort service." "We schedule their encounters for them, driving them to and from one another's houses so they never get a chance to discover the unexplored lands between." He wonders, rightly, what will happen to the kind of stories today's kids will learn to tell themselves and others, when their parents--and Chabon implicates himself here--won't let them go out to play.

Tim's reflections on Chabon's piece strike a chord with me, a chord that I've written about a few times in the past. All by myself, I walked and rode my bike and rode the bus to school, to the bowling alley, to the grocery store, to the video game arcade, to the park, to the swimming pool, downtown to the comic book shop, or just out into the open country (the home I mostly grew up in was right on the edge of the suburban development of Spokane Valley; south of us were homes and construction sites, places for bike riding in the summer and sledding in the winter, while north of us were just open fields and country roads surrounded by drainage ponds and stands of pine trees, all there for the climbing and getting lost in). Like Tim--another member of "Generation X" like myself, a man whose childhood was shaped by the 1970s--I would be gone for hours some days, and my parents trusted that I could find my way to where I was going and back again. (And if I couldn't, there was the quarter I carried for calling from a pay phone.) Tim agrees that Chabon's diagnoses--a fixation on consumer safety, paranoia about lawsuits and child-snatching--but he also thinks Chabon is a little too mournful for the past. He writes, "[Chabon’s] missing something new about contemporary middle-class childhood. Sometimes, yes, it’s about ferrying the kids between contained, safe experiences. But also, I think that a lot of middle-class family life is now about the simultaneous adventures of children and adults, that children and adults are sharing far more of their experiences." He goes from there to make a defense of parents and children not having their own separate worlds, but sharing adventures together, and of the particular kind of media and story-telling that allows for a cross-over between adults and children.

I want to be more persuaded by Tim's response to Chabon than I am. My wife and I are very different sort of parents than our folks were (or, at least, than my folks were; Melissa's parents, interestingly, were much more into their children's lives and activities than mine). We interact with them, watch movies with them, involve ourselves with their learning and playtime a great deal; and our habits in the way we treat each other around our children and the way we treat our children themselves, don't seem to be terribly unique amongst our generation cohort of parents, but rather kind of typical. (I'm thinking in particular here of this fine old essay by Damon Linker, "Fatherhood, 2002".) Granted, there is a great deal of self-selection involved here--for reasons having to do with everything from political tastes to the amount of available free time to where we chose to buy our home, most of the parents we end up associating with have a socio-economic background at least vaguely similar to ours; we simply aren't close friends with any either dual-career couples with their kids in daycare and both of them working 80 hours a week as investment managers for high-powered banks. Still, I don't think I'm wrong to believe that our habits are not uncommon, especially amongst middle-class members of the American bourgeosie like ourselves. So I should feel comforted with Tim's suggestion that such behavior on our part is opening up new vistas for our children, rather than seeing it all as just an act of compensation, right?

Unfortunately, I don't think so. There are too many other factors which Tim either ignores or chooses not to address in concluding that Chabon, in his mourning for his own unpatrolled childhood experiences, may have been missing the point. Probably the primary one is contained in the passage of Chabon's essay which Melissa focused on as the real killer: after teaching his younger daughter how to ride a bike, and taking her on an evening ride around their neighborhood, during which they don't see a single other child, he plaintively asks, even if he does send his children out to play, "will there be anyone to play with?"

Imagination--even the imagination of a child on his or her own, navigating their fragmentary, mental map of secure locations and danger zones and unmarked paths in their own heads--is a collective effort; that "lore" Chabon mentions came from and through someone, many someones. Brothers and sisters, cousins and schoolmates, friends and enemies. In the midst of the wealth and changing mores of post-WWII America, with its suburbs and mobility and slowly but surely (especially by the late 1970s and through the 80s) strangled efforts to contain and preserve patterns of assocition and stability in the midst of an economy that spread out wealth ever more arbitrarily (think white flight and globalization here), moving around and actualizing yourself and seeking better meritocratic opportunities and taking care of number one all contributed to the shrinking of family size, the concentration of resources and attention, a thousand little changes (the relative disappearance of front porches and sidewalks, the growth industry in micromanaged and carefully constructed--and therefore expensive--play areas like Chuck E. Cheese and more) that made it hard and seemingly unwise to let kids go at it alone.

At some moment--or at a hundred distinct moments--along this continuum, you hit a tipping point: so many families consist of dual earners with no one at home during the day, and so many kids live far away from grandparents or other trusted figures, that you just have to hire someone to watch them (if you're rich) or put them in daycare (which is another growth industry all its own). And if you do that, you might as well get them into the best situations possible: not just any kind of substitute authority to keep an eye on them during the day, but organizations and teachers that will give them sports and preparatory school work and musical lessons and youth leagues and awards for participation and more. All of which is, of course, depending your situation, eminently defensible. And I'm not even touching on the real, often difficult, issues and requirements posed by children with special needs, or with idiosyncratic talents, or just whose home life is anything other the classic two-parents-in-the-home model. But generally, by and large, all of these "helps," all of these ways we assist in our childrens' navigation of their worlds, whether natural or suburban or urban, just build. And then, once you see all the other kids getting ready for school in the middle of summer, you need to do it for your kids; once you see that there's no one at the park except the homeless and the meth addicts, you refuse to let them head out on their own. In which case, they get bored, and you have to find more projects of them inside the walls of the home, or you need to chauffeur them to even more places. Etc., etc., etc., wash, rinse, repeat.

The possibilities of parents and children together--learning together, exploring together, telling stories together--are admirable to be sure; Tim is right to highlight them, and I completely defend them. But I still strong suspect that Chabon has the better argument, if only implicitly: the sort of learning and exploration that we experience together is wonderful, but it tries to do more than it should, and the reason why it tries is because I am taught--by the hysterical warnings of predators on the talk shows, by the competitive mindset of the super-prepared kids in my daughters' classrooms, by the patterns laid down by choices that shape so much of our living environment--that it just isn't worth the risk to allow kids these days to make their own adventuresome way on their own.

To an extent, then, this is a call loosen up, to slack off, and to praise those forms of work and play--and, therefore, also praise the somewhat limited sorts of lifestyles and economies which such forms can allow, as well as sorts of polities and infrastructures which enable more people to purposefully choose such forms, with all their limits--which better leave kids alone: not entirely alone, of course, but alone more often than they are today. I don't mean such a call to be all a mournful "kids these days!" complaint. There are good things which have come along with the responses of parents to the changes of the past thirty years, and I don't want to dismiss or downplay those good things: we aren't 1970s parents, we're 21st-century ones, and happy for it. But if our way of patrolling our children's lives and environments were slightly more slanted towards the more open-ended, more adventuresome options that were already disappearing for us suburbanites when we were kids way back when, our kids, I think, would be even more happy for it as well.

[Update: Laura McKenna has a fine contribution to this discussion on her blog here. In talking about her own children, she adds an excellent and important distinction: "time freedom" along with "space freedom." We often don't give our children unstructured time, because we are bothered by what destructive thing they may come up with, and because they are bothered at the prospect of being bored. But as Laura rightly says, "being bored is essential to the creative process." Freedom in terms of the space to explore and map out on their own--which is really the heart of Chabon's original complaint--is harder for her, and I sympathize, as I say in a comment. Anyway, check out what she has to say.]


Anonymous said...

I recently lifted our household ban on overnights with friends. It seemed like a wise idea, given all the craziness I was exposed to on overnighters when I was growing up, and the potential for my kids to confront even greater craziness. But recently I recognized that I gained much more than I lost on those overnighters, and I don't want my kids to miss out on the overall experience, risky though it may be.

Russell Arben Fox said...

That's a good way to bring this argument down to earth, Kathy. Sleepovers--an entranceway to the occult, to stalking pedophiles, to pot use? Sure, possibly, any and all of those things. But also, going on my experience as a dad, potentially a hell of a lot of fun for girls ages 6 to 14 or so. In our family, we say you have to be 8 to go on or invite someone over for an overnighter, and we've mostly stuck by that. And, of course, we have to at least know something about the family before we say yes. Seems like a decent compromise to us.

morninglight mama said...

Isn't all just about striking that balance-- I LOVE spending time with my kids, exploring together, reading together, simply being silly playing together, but guess what? I also LOVE when they spend time on their own, playing individually, or if the heavens are aligned just right, actually playing cooperatively together. I simply cannot stand to settle every little squabble or to come up with every idea for play or to soothe every single little perceived offense. They have to learn to use their imaginations and to communicate with each other and to solve small conflicts independently.

So, finding that balance of independence and security is one of the biggest challenges that we 21st century parents may face, huh? I do think it's good that we're thinking about all this, and that it's not as easy as just doing it like they did in the olden days. We have to find a new way-- somewhere between the over-protectiveness of today and the almost-completely hands-offedness of yesteryear.

Whew! Sorry for the crazy long comment here!! Can you tell you've hit something that I'm impassioned about? :)

And if you and Melissa are on Twitter, it would be great for you guys to join the 'Tweet-up' tomorrow night on this topic with the author of 'Free-Range Kids,' Lenore Skenazy!

Corinne said...

Your wife brought this to the attention of my friend Dawn, so I had to stop by :) This whole topic has been on my mind a lot lately because of a book that Dawn recently read called Free Range Kids (I'll let her expound if she stops by).

Anyway, I have recently let my 6.5 year old son start having some "free range" in our neighborhood (we live in a quietish townhome cul-de-sac in a town between DC and Baltimore). He can scooter, ride his bike, run around, play bakugan with his friends, whatever, as long as he NOT alone and is close enough to hear me when I yell to touch base with him. Yes, that makes me one of "those" moms,the yelling ones, but I've found that it has been so good for him to wander around the neighborhood and figure out for himself what his limits are. The kinds of imaginings they have out there are fantastic - sometimes they just play freezetag on the big greenspace but other times they are ninjas and I don't know what all - but they are doing it without me guiding it or being in charge of it. I think, for me, that's what I appreciate most - they are having to make rules about their play and self-regulate the enforcing of their rules.

Anyway, I appreciate this post, as well as Queen K's comments. Great discussion :)

Corinne said...

ha! by the time I finished writing my comment, Dawn had stopped by :)

Matt said...

I think that a lot of middle-class family life is now about the simultaneous adventures of children and adults, that children and adults are sharing far more of their experiences.

It's surely good for kids to spend time with adults, and vice versa. But I wonder if there isn't something pretty bad in the way that the modern (upper?) middle-class families do this, both too "adult" and structured for the kids, and too childish for the adult, making the both worse off.

This sort of thing also fits in with Annette Lareau's work (in her _Unequal Childhood_) in interesting ways, in that "lower class" kids, even in big cities, like the Harlem neighborhood I live in now, still do play outside and on their own quite a lot, more than it seems the children of my siblings in Boise, Idaho do, though Boise is surely safer (less traffic, for one thing.) I think there's also strong regional differences, with the East (or at least the mid-atlantic to the North East) having much more "structured" time for kids than in the west, though this seems to be changing (for the worse.)

Russell Arben Fox said...

Morninglight Mama, Corinne, Matt, thanks for your great comments.

MM, I completely agree with you that, when the rubber meets the road, all of this just boils down to balance. Balancing the need to provide structure and protection to our children, with our need to attend to ourselves, as adults, so we can give our children the space to both explore and figure things out for themselves, as well as hopefully see us as beings that are different from them and worthy of their consideration, respect, or even emulation.

Corinne, don't apologize for being a yeller--that's what we are, and that's what I, at least, grew up with. If you're yelling, that means you given your children a lengthy leash they can stretch themselves against, one that almost takes them out of earshot. Of course, eventually you'll have to give up on or at least be selective with the yelling, because your kids will be traveling the neighborhood way beyond your voice. But at 6 1/2 years old, I'd say yelling is still just fine.

Matt, thanks for bringing class and regions differences and considerations into this. I thought about pointing out in my post how very much I'm speaking to a subgroup of parents (for the most part not poor, not rural, and not living in inner cities either), but then I figured that such was probably obvious. I also really like your point about some of these combined stories/activities being "too 'adult' and structured for the kids, and too childish for the adult." I think Tim might be just a little too sanguine about the many obvious failures our society's various attempts to jointly engage parents and children, from movies that are either wildly inapprorpiate to condescendingly dumb, to museum designs that come off as either overly directing versus just plain dull, etc., etc.

carosgram said...

I haven't check your site in quite a while but Laura sent me over here and I am again moved by the topic. I firmly believe children need some time without adult supervision. Time to try things out without someone 'helping' or correcting them. Time to make mistakes and figure out how to correct them on their own. Time to be foolish as well as wise. Time to learn they are competent to solve their own problems. One issue my daughter has with trying to let her children go outside to play without her is neighbors calling child protective and reporting her as a negligent parent. Amazing to me who grew up in the 50's with parents saying that unless we went outside they would find chores for us to do inside. I even heard of a parent who was arrested for letting the 12 year old watch her little sister. I babysat for 5 kids when I was 11 and no one thought I wasn't capable of doing it well. Times have changed but I don't think for the better. Kids need parents to act as parents. They can find plenty of friends but only have one set of parents. And the parents need to "get a life" and stop living it through their children. JMHO

Anonymous said...

Thought of this post yesterday when a random 7-year-old girl on rollerblades knocked on our door. Said she heard there were a bunch of kids living here, and would they like to play? I thought maybe she was new in the neighborhood. But no, her home was more than a mile away. Apparently she'd been rollerblading along the streets between there and here, knocking on doors, looking for kids. I was horrified. And then I remembered how common such an activity was 30 years ago (with skates instead of blades, of course). The times, they have a' changed. As much as I want to foster my kids' freedom and independence, I wouldn't want them going door-to-door in an unfamiliar neighborhood looking for friends...