Children playing in the street, NYC circa 1900.
Now go outside and do a head-count. How many kids are out in your street?
When I was a kid, I spent as little time as possible in the house. Sometimes I used to take my dog and disappear for the day. I lived in a big city, but there were parks and riversides and wild places to explore. Other times, I would call on friends, see who was coming out to play, often ending up in a marauding gang, engaging in convoluted games, born of our imaginations, or just loitering around annoying the curmudgeonly folk who took umbrage at the sound of children’s play. Today, if you take a drive through any sprawling suburb, and you will be driving, because nobody walks in the ‘burbs, count the number of kids you see on the streets, and if you need to use your fingers to count, don’t worry about endangering anyone with your driving because you won’t have to take your hands off the wheel. You won’t have to use up the fingers on one hand. Children going out to play have become an endangered species.
It’s been a generation now since kids have been allowed to roam wildly. A recent report out of the UK has found that in this time the radius that they have been allowed to stray from their homes has been reduced by 90% and that three times as many kids are treated in hospital these days for falling out of bed than for falling out out trees. Also, 20% of kids are forbidden from playing tag, for the overblown fear that they might get injured. I doubt that British kids are any more molly-coddled than elsewhere; I never see kids playing out here either.
I don’t know what happened to childhood, and why adults thought that kids weren’t entitled to one. Children now, in our more affluent part of the world, seem to have every part of their lives structured for them by unimaginative grown-ups and have lost their freedom to doss, drift and kick about, working out for themselves how to be entertained. Parents seem to be perpetually fixed in their fear that their kids might get bored. It seems to me, though, that being bored is the perfect starting point for finding something to do.
As I see it, along with all the after-school activities, programs and redoubtable children’s organizations with missions to foster character-building, the most prevalent activity I see in families is that of competitive parenting, most obviously manifest in the perpetual pissing contest parents have with each other over who has the superior offspring.
A not too far-fetched conversation between parents of three year olds.
Parent 1: How’s Jessica?
Parent 2: Fine, this week she’s been translating Crime and Punishment from the original Russian into Portuguese, via Sanskrit. And Madison?
Parent 1: Good, she’s just picked up her Nobel prize for chemistry, and we’re off to the Grammy’s now, where she’s up for best jazz album.
There’s also an air of almost desperation for parents to push their kids into having a competitive edge over the other rugrats around. No sooner than they are born, parents start fretting about good schools ( of course, the better parents will start pulsing Mozart at them in utero.) You can’t get into a good school, unless you can convince them that your four year old can offer more than the next one, so you must pick the right pre-school programs. Little Junior a bit nifty with a crayon? Enrol them in art classes. Can bang on a saucepan semi-rhythmically? Music and dance classes. They all do sport, for teamwork and co-operation. It ramps up at school age, with lunch-time enrichment programs and evening activities. School holidays are sewn up in summer long play schemes. Poor little buggers don’t have any time to sit about and stare into space. I appreciate that we don’t live in the Wonder Years, parents have to sort out childcare, but there seems to be a virtue made of just how busy and scheduled kids are.
I do find myself wondering what the purpose of all this is and why parents are actively seeking to deprive their kids of the time and space to play freely and develop their imaginations? We all want the best for our kids, but this is over-scheduled obsession with controlling every aspect of their lives. The constant organizing of their time for them does nothing to allow them to develop any critical thinking capacities, to learn to organize themselves and preventing them from experiencing the pleasures of roaming around, exploring and poking things with sticks in the woods is actively preventing them from taking risks and learning how to handle risky behaviour. Hopefully though, by the time kids reach their teens, adolescent rebellion and hormones kick in enough for them to (politely) tell their parents to fuck off and stop meddling in their lives, but I do wonder what the effect of this hyper-parenting is going to have on the lives of this generation which has grown up with it. I’m probably a bit of a cynic, and I have a tendency to see nefarious forces at play where others see bland cultural norms, but I see a generation of kids raised on the values of keeping to a schedule, good time-keeping, deference to authority, team-spiritedness and playing by the rules.
I’m guessing that the expectations of these kids’ parents was that by providing them with the best that they can imagine for them, that they are giving them the best head start in life. And these kids have been told all their lives that they are special ( and they all are, even the ones whose parents cannot afford all the expensive extra-curricular activities) but I wonder what they are growing up into. From their first Baby Einstein DVDs and kiddy gymboree , they’ve been funnelled through a lifestyle designed to set them on track for a successful life. I’m betting that for a lot of the off-spring of these helicopter parents that things are not working out as well as the parents had planned.
Youth unemployment in the under 25′s is 17% in the States, 15% in Canada, 23% in the UK, higher in some of the Eurozone countries. Jobs that high school graduates could reasonably expect a generation ago are now being filled by university graduates. If you are lucky enough to have a background from which a college education can be expected, the average US graduate leaves college with an average debt of $150,000, a British student is projected to leave university with nearly $100,000. The jobs, if they can get them, pay less in real terms than they did a generation ago, housing and living costs are higher. Young people are increasingly unable to support themselves and leave the parental home. Jobs, when they get them, owing to the increasing casualisation of the labour market are more precarious. They’re going to have less money, more debt, less stability than their parents who signed them up for all those structured activities which were meant to give them a head start.
I glanced at a magazine cover, this weekend, in a store, which proclaimed that our children were angrier than we think. I didn’t read the article, it’s one of those right-leaning, business-type glossies that I would pass up perusing in the dentist waiting room. I’d really rather have a root canal than read Maclean’s. But I agree with the statement, whatever the gist of their argument may have been. There’s been a whole generation of children raised with expectations that are never going to be met. I’d be pretty fucking pissed off too, either that or massively depressed. I’m hoping that anger will win out. And if so, I’m guessing that their parents will be wishing that they had let them climb trees.
Oddly enough, this song has been on my mind for a few days.
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