Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Roaming the Neighborhoods

Some experts have recently concluded that today's children are being micromanaged to a fault and, as a result, are growing up without the ability to think and act creatively and independently.

My two oldest grandsons are pretty much tied to a schedule during the school year, though not so much during summer vacation. My youngest grandson, who is in first grade, appears to have more free time which he uses mainly to exercise his powerful imagination.

My daughter reports that it is difficult sometimes to weigh the advantages of learning a new skill against the advantages of unstructured play. Some of the mothers she knows worry about safety and are loathe to let their children out of their sight.
Is the world really less safe that it was?
Or are fears of lurking kidnappers, dope dealers and pedophiles exacerbated by media hype?
Is learning to ice skate, playing soccer and practicing the piano more important than playing Hide and Seek with the neighborhood kids?

I can't answer those questions, of course. I am not an expert.

Though I didn't, by any stretch of the imagination, have a perfect childhood, I did have more freedom than most middle class children have today.

Back in the fifties there was no such thing as a play date.
After briefly informing my mother of my plans, I would dash over to a friend's house five or six blocks away. Most of the houses in our neighborhood were large with many rooms and the rooms had many cupboards and closets. There was also a lot of free-standing, bulky furniture -- in other words, a perfect environment for playing Sardines or Hide and Seek.

I loved the exotic tension of holding my breath as the designated seeker came near my hiding place and the suppressed giggles when several of us were jammed into a closet attempting to remain hidden for just a while longer.

Often a group of us would ride our bikes up and down the maple-lined streets in search of adventure. One day we found a lost dog and returned him to his owner.  Another time we discovered a fire in someone's yard and proceeded to stomp out the flames until the fire department came and chased us away. (We left knowing in our hearts that we were the real heroes of the day.)

We climbed the stone wall by the Methodist Church and dared each other to jump down. We rode our bikes like fury downhill taking our hands off the handlebars and waving them triumphantly over our heads. We rode with the wind in our hair since no one, in those days, wore a helmet.

We ran from bullies and laughed at the crazy old lady on the corner who claimed she talked to ghosts.

We made up plays and performed them, with or without an audience.

We built snow forts and tree forts. We jumped into huge pile of carefully-raked autumn leaves.

We played Jump Rope, Red Rover and Mother, May I.

When I look back on these exploits, I don't remember a single adult intervening except showing up briefly to scold us, warn us, or chase us away. If one of us acquired a lump on the head or a skinned knee, we usually took care of it ourselves, at least over the age of eight or nine. After all, we knew where the band-aids were kept and how to make an ice pack.

Many aspects go into what constitutes a happy childhood. Unscheduled, adult-free time is perhaps one of them. On the other hand, acquiring skills is important, too, and I often wished I had learned to do more things like ice skate or play the piano.

I know I would have hated being watched over all the time. I was, in many ways, a timid child and I credit what bravery I acquired to the dares and taunts of my peers and to my desire to live up to their expectations.

Ironically, my mother thought of me as rather fragile and worried that I would never live to grow up. The fact that I was allowed to roam freely in the company of my peers was due mainly to 1950s society's view on childhood and not to my mother's temperamental inclinations. Also, my mother was British and the British attitude toward children has frequently been described as one of "benign neglect."

A teacher I used to work with often said of his students, "They learn in spite of us."
This is perhaps the best description of how children survive the interventions (or lack thereof) of well-meaning adults.

As human beings, we are paragons of imperfection. In general, I think we do the best we can while the absolute knowledge of right and wrong remains forever hidden.  This seems particularly true in regard to parenting.

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