Kaid Benfield Archive


Has lousy planning contributed to “the lost wilderness of childhood”?

Kaid Benfield

Posted August 6, 2009 at 1:13PM

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Sharon and I often marvel at how over-scheduled and over-supervised the lives of our friends' kids seem to be.  Although we grew up in different environments, she in a ranch house in a then-new suburb of DC and me in an apartment close to downtown in a small North Carolina city, we both have fond memories of wandering, exploring, following childhood whims in and near our neighborhoods.

in a park in Ohio (by: Kelley Boone, creative commons license)I could be wrong, but it seems that no one does that anymore.  Instead, we have scheduled activities, almost all of which require car trips and parental accompaniment.  Say the phrase "soccer mom" and everyone knows what you mean: a mom (and/or a "soccer dad") who chauffeurs her kids around from the time they can walk to scheduled activities, many of which do indeed involve soccer and most of which involve continued supervision.

Nothing wrong with that on its face - soccer is "the beautiful game" and I'm a fan - but when are the occasions when kids get to decide for themselves and with their peers what to do and, within some reason, when and where?  When do they get to learn from their parental role models that grownups lead their own, independent lives?  I have some very happy memories of tossing baseballs, basketballs, and especially footballs with my father; and I played the usual kids' team sports.  But if my parents had been there for every practice and every game, as seems to be the norm now, I would have gone absolutely batty.

I won't pretend to understand all the reasons why parents today seem more reluctant to encourage their kids to explore on their own - surely they are complex - but here are a couple:

  • Parents are afraid, especially of abduction or harm from strangers (though statistically these are no more common today than when I was a kid);
  • Our culture of spread-out living and car dependence means fewer sidewalks, more car trips, more dangerous automobile traffic, perhaps weaker friend networks in neighborhoods, and less free time.

All this is implicit in a wonderfully written and provocative essay by Michael Chabon in The New York Review of Books.  It is so good that I am tempted to reprint the whole of "Manhood for Amateurs: the Wilderness of Childhood," but instead I'll give you a taste:

"When you went out into those woods behind our house, you could feel all that history, those battles and dramas and romances, those stories. You could work it into your games, your imaginings, your lonely flights from the turmoil or torpor of your life at home. My friends and I spent hours there, braves, crusaders, commandos, blues and grays.

a boy and his canine friend (by: Tony Alter, creative commons license)"But the Wilderness of Childhood, as any kid could attest who grew up, like my father, on the streets of Flatbush in the Forties, had nothing to do with trees or nature. I could lose myself on vacant lots and playgrounds, in the alleyway behind the Wawa, in the neighbors' yards, on the sidewalks. Anywhere, in short, I could reach on my bicycle, a 1970 Schwinn Typhoon, Coke-can red with a banana seat, a sissy bar, and ape-hanger handlebars . . .

"Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map - marked here there by tigers and mean kids with air rifles - that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children . . .

"I have been to Chicago maybe a half-dozen times in my life, on book tours, and yet I still don't know my North Shore from my North Side, because every time I've visited, I have been picked up and driven around, and taken to see the sights by someone far more versed than I in the city's wonders and hazards. State Street, Halsted Street, the Loop - to me it's all a vast jumbled lot of stage sets and backdrops passing by the window of a car.

"This is the kind of door-to-door, all-encompassing escort service that we adults have contrived to provide for our children. 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. If they are lucky, we send them out to play in the backyard, where they can be safely fenced in and even, in extreme cases, monitored with security cameras. When my family and I moved onto our street in Berkeley, the family next door included a nine-year-old girl; in the house two doors down the other way, there was a nine-year-old boy, her exact contemporary and, like her, a lifelong resident of the street. They had never met."

I want to go on and on, but you should read it for yourself.

kids playing in Auckland, New Zealand (by: Sandy Austin, creative commons license)Two really good bloggers found this before I did, and make some very good observations relevant to neighborhoods and community planning.  First, John Michlig, writing in his blog Sprawled Out: The Search for Community in the American Suburb, echoes Chabon's thoughts and relates them to his own community of Franklin, Wisconsin:

"Another sad victim of suburban non-planning is the ability of our children to enjoy the freedom of wandering a 'territory' of their own. Our children now need to be escorted via car to pretty much every event in their lives. Even the occasional decently sidewalked subdivision is enclosed by wall-of-China collector roads that are impassible and limit safe travel.

"A few nights ago the local news featured the story of a child hit by a car in a nearby suburb. A neighbor pointed out the road it happened on; a typically winding, wide, pedal-to-the-metal subdivision speedway. The kid made the mistake of riding his bike a few hundred yards from his house in the hostile environment we currently embrace.

"There was talk of an ice cream shop going into Andy's on Rawson and 51st (still planned, as far as I know). Sadly, it's a horrible idea - who would let their child travel there independently, crossing 51st or Rawson? Yet, there it will likely stand, beckoning for - - cars. We will drive our children there, and they will have their ice cream under our sheltering eyes."

Second, Sarah Goodyear, writing in Streetsblog, echoes that what is most stifling to kids' freedom today is a preponderance of streets that are unsafe because of automobiles.  "Enchanted Woods" (by: CLMinc/Carly, creative commons license)Her article links back to an earlier post in which she made the point that, while parents are terrified of letting their kids ride public transit (the city bus was a godsend when I was a kid) or walk a few blocks, they think nothing of driving them everywhere.  But car crashes, she reports, are the leading cause of death for kids in the US. 

Now, the odds against dying in any one car trip are certainly very favorable.  But Goodyear goes on to quote Lenore Skenozy, author of Free-Range Kids, to the effect that "the chances are 40 times slimmer that your kid walking to school, whether or not she's the only one, is going to be hurt by a stranger."

Two days after I write this, I will be visiting my own mother on the occasion of her eighty-ninth birthday.  She's in a different sort of wilderness now, a sad one, but I am so glad that she and my father had a few other things to do when I was growing up and allowed me to find my independence.  Would I have become a tennis player if I hadn't been able to find my way on foot to the courts a mile or so away?  Would I have become an environmentalist if I hadn't explored the woods on my own?  Would things have turned out differently if everything had required a car trip?  Those were the days.