The Scheduling of Childhood
In catching up on my backlog of magazines this weekend, I got the chance to read the last issue of The Atlantic which featured an interesting piece entitled, The Over-Protected Kid (http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/).
The basic premise of the article is that contemporary parents, in our well meaning contemporary way, have screwed things up royally. We have done our best to keep our children safe. Despite good intentions, however, we have limited independence and risk taking for our children. Furthermore, to add insult to injury, our kids don’t feel any safer. We have pretty much scared them to death.
I have to admit, the article made some salient points. It got me to thinking about my own childhood. My mother did not work outside the home. She was always busy, though I never paid much attention to what she was up to. Our house was immaculate and our cookie jar filled. She read stories to me at bedtime and, I know, loved me very much. That said, she had no idea what I was up to most days.
After my sugar laden breakfast of Captain Crunch and chocolate milk, I’d hop on my banana seat bike and take off for parts unknown. I loved to explore new territory and take the road less traveled. That often meant I was four to five miles from home, but I did not worry. Everything was fine unless I was late for dinner. If I wasn’t home by then, hands washed, seat in my chair at the table, there’d be hell to pay.
But other than my 5 o’clock dinner hour, my time was my own. We had time to be bored back then. Summers lasted forever and each day stretched out before us like a promise we had only to reach for. If my mother knew half of what I did in those hours, she would have skinned me alive.
Much of the time, I meandered down by the railroad tracks. Why, in God’s name, children are drawn to train tracks is beyond me, but they take to them like flies to honey. And in those days, there actually were trains that roared their way through. From our bikes, the force of them blew our bangs from our sweaty foreheads as we waited impatiently for them to pass. It wasn’t that we were blissfully unaware of the danger. When I was nine, my father was killed by a train, but it did not deter me.
For down by the train tracks in a certain wooded area deep behind the McClellan’s yard, was a dump. Well, to some it was a dump, but to us it was a treasure trove. This was the age of The Boxcar Children, you must remember. If they could forage for survival, why so could I.
That was where I found the birds nest full of freshly hatched babies, some half in the shell. I made an honest sweep, looking for mother bird, then smuggled my treasure home, packing the nest and birdlings into my bike’s trusty plastic basket (the one with the big flower on it), and pedaling fast for home.
Once there, I knew better than to tell the folks. Instead, I stole a shoe box from mom’s closet and set up a bird sanctuary in my room. Having no worms in stock, I cleverly cut up bologna in worm size slices and fed my babies.
All was fine and good until the Long Arm of the Law did the weekly vacuuming and discovered my stash. She wasn’t quite as upset as she was about the baby field mice, but she let me know they had to go. I sobbed and wailed and swore to never forgive her, but she probably didn’t hear me over the vacuum.
My grief was my own.
She didn’t really console me. She didn’t mourn my loss. She continued on with her life and expected me to do the same. Later that night, at story time, I was determined to make her feel the weight of her crimes and deliberately chose that old childhood favorite Are You My Mother? Her eyebrow quirked once at me. Then she turned the page and began to read. And in her soothing voice, I forgot the injustice of the world and felt the safety of a mother’s love.
Under her semi-watchful eye, I grew up. Sure, she came to some softball games. You know, when it wasn’t raining. She tolerated dance lessons until the teacher moved and it would take a 20 minute car ride to get me there. Then, my career as a Jazz professional was over. But, you know, I kept on dancing. I just made it up by myself from then on.
I never felt unloved.
So, how is it now- in the age of organized sports and competitive dance and library story time and summer recreation programs- so many children feel so lost?
Because let’s face it, today’s child is booked. Their little lives are so strictly scheduled, so carefully measured out in teaspoons of enriching activities, there should be little time to be bored.
But bored they are, I’m afraid. In fact, the more we try to fill up their days, the more empty they feel. The more we try to protect them, the more we make them weak. The more enrichment we give them, the less enriching their lives are. Today, even play dates with friends are carefully scheduled and monitored. But the more friends we make for them, the less they really know of friendship.
I’m talking about the kind of friendship that happens naturally, on a long summer day, when you find another bored soul coloring with chalk on the driveway…
Seriously, today’s children know soccer games, and skating lessons, and cable television, and video games and cell phones.
But they don’t know junk yards and bike rides and baby birds crying out for their mother and the type of boredom that drives you to discover a world that is ripe for the taking…
Featured image: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2658/4207686885_535c8709c5_b.jpg