I think my childhood was far more enjoyable, adventuresome and healthy than that of my children. And I feel guilty about this. I’m the parent, after all. On the other hand, our current culture makes it nearly impossible, legally, socially, and practically, to expose my kids to the same level of risk and freedom that I enjoyed…
The sound of children was a constant in my old neighborhood. Kids were everywhere outside, playing sports, racing bikes, chasing each other through back yards. Today, in a suburban neighborhood packed with kids, you can’t find a single one outside on most weekends. Even if I wanted to encourage my kids to disappear for a few hours, there’s no one for them to run around with.
I’m both saddened and chagrined at the fact that neither of my boys, ages 5 and 10, have ever climbed a tree, went creek walking or ran the neighborhood past dark. They’ve never played kick the can, toilet papered a house or swam in a pond.
About twelve years ago I took the train from Philadelphia to the little town of Media PA, and since it was a beautiful June evening I decided to walk the last five miles to my final destination rather than call a cab. I strolled through tree-lined neighborhoods where every house seemed to be well cared for, with big flower gardens and welcoming porches. I saw not a soul. The only sign of life was a blue flicker emanating from the houses, the flicker of TV sets. It was one of the oddest experiences of my life, feeling utterly alone in a pretty, prosperous, middle-class town of 5,500 people.
As I walked I imagined that all humanity had been suddenly wiped out leaving the buildings intact, the way we had been told neutron bombs were supposed to work, and that I was the last man alive; totally creeped myself out. I think it was the beginning of my distaste for TV, though it would take me another ten years to finally pull the plug.
But as Warden points out it is not only TV (and video games), but also the nature of parenting. Even though crime today is much lower than in the 90s, we also live in a lower-trust society. Parents are supposed to be omnipresent, everyone is worried about getting sued, risks are mitigated out of existence.
Maybe the neglect was not what it seemed, when we were kids we were not directly supervised, but our parents must have assumed some neighborhood adult was in earshot in case there was ever trouble, and that that adult had more or less the same values they did.
I guess you can’t assume that any more.
A couple of times I’ve caught myself lecturing my friends’ kids about proper safety when skating or sledding, because that is just what you do nowadays. Children having unsupervised fun? BE WATCHFUL! BE ANXIOUS! Yet I can never recall any adult ever caring whether I skinned my knees, got soaking wet, got in a fight, or didn’t wear sunscreen.
I’m grateful for all the benign neglect I received from my parents, though looking back I’d have preferred that they had imposed more limits on one thing: how much TV I was allowed to watch.