The Mysteries of Childhood

Sometimes we post on things that have nothing to do with religion.  Or, as Homer Simpson would they?

For some time since the birth of my two young nephews, I've been thinking about how much childhood has altered since I was a boy.  Yes, I know, blah, blah, blah: O tempora!  O mores!  Don't worry: I'm not about to launch into a lengthy excursis on how much better things were back then (i.e., the 70s), but merely make an observation.  When I was in the First Grade, at age five or six, I used to walk to school, a distance of roughly a mile.  Admittedly, it was through our neighborhood and sometimes it was with other kids, but still, my mother and father gave me the freedom to walk, or ride my bike, or meander, or even explore all the way to Ridge Park Elementary School in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.  Today, I would wager, if a parent sent a five-year-old out alone, you would be arrested or at the very least thought a "bad" parent.   Moreover, during the summertime, my sister and I were given free reign to explore the "woods" near our house, spending many hours with friends turning over rocks, making our way over small ravines, and building little forts when we had enough time, that is, when we weren't running into poison ivy, oak and sumac.  And, to speak plainly, my parents were hardly the "lax" type.  By no means.  

Dilating on that theme is an elegiac article I can't get out of my head.  It's by Michael Chabon, the talented author of Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.  In a piece in The New York Review of Books called "Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood," Chabon links the loss of that freedom to explore to the possibility that children will grow up without a sense (or less of a sense) of adventure and exploration.  It's a great piece.  Here's part of it.


"The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

The traveler soon learns that the only way to come to know a city, to form a mental map of it, however provisional, and begin to find his or her own way around it is to visit it alone, preferably on foot, and then become as lost as one possibly can. 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."  Read the rest here.

What, he wonders, will all of this do to our sense of adventure? 

Or, I might add, of contemplation, of wonder, and of God?

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9 years 6 months ago
It was a part of my childhood, too, and I agree it has been lost, and I certainly agree it's a significant loss to our kids.  I think you pinpointed it: a loss of a sense of adventure. 
I'm not so sure we (parents) have "contrived" to provide the "all-encompassing escort service," as perhaps the need for it has been almost forced upon us in many ways.  There's a reason parents who send their kids out alone would be considered bad parents, no?  I mean, most people would agree that today that would be an unwise thing? 
On the other hand, it's also true that the video games and television that are available today make the kids willing cooperators in all this.  (One of my kids recently asked, "What was your favorite cartoon station when you were a kid?"  They were astounded when I explained that there were no such things as cartoon stations, and that Saturday mornings were just about the only time I could watch cartoons.) 
I have to push my kids out of the house most days in the summer, and they're often ready to come back in after an hour.  To stay out most of day, and only come back in when called (as I used to do) is ... well, almost unthinkable. 
These are just my initial reactions, so I'm open to correction here.  I'd be interested to hear others.  As a father of 7, most in elementary school, I'm very interested.
9 years 6 months ago
I think Barry's point about electronics is important. Many of our conversations, even as adults, never require interpersonal interaction, imagination, and a hospitable attitude toward the other (it's easier to demonize on the internet because you'd don't actually have to look the opponent in the eye while you do it).

It seems to me that there are lots of consequences to this sort of change in lifestyle that we won't recognize for some time still (history will probably have to judge it for us). But one in particular is a lack of mental discipline. No one is required to struggle to understand anything on television (except maybe Lost) - CSI concludes nicely in about 1/2 hour, bad guy caught and crime solved. The great texts (indeed, the great tradition of the Catholic church) are not things absorbed in a half hour, and we have little training as children to be able to approach this task as adolescents and adults.
9 years 6 months ago
Very good observation; I was given some of the freedoms and took some of them on myself (skipped piano lessons or altar boy practice to go hunt snakes by the creek, for instance). Still, it is a miracle of sorts I didn't kill myself (mostly)or get killed; today there is awareness and fear aplenty about the possibility of both; then it was mostly about kids harming themselves or others(examples abounded of these). Plus, where are stamp and rock and coin collections and toy trains and erector sets and such that taught geography and history and physics? What will the internet and computers and time spent therein accomplish - time cerebral as versus time in the flesh? Guess we will find out!
9 years 6 months ago
Childhood days are very exciting to remember. Though now, we can't seem to compare the excitement and joy made before than now. Before, exploring the "wilderness" is already our playground. Now, they can't seem to get our of the house, but they can virtually play anywhere in the world, meeting different people with unique cultures. Both high technology and aimple nature are enjoyed by children to buid a strong foundation for their future.
9 years 6 months ago
It's not clear that things are less safe for children, it seems to be more of a case that parents are more concerned about risk.  I had not thought about Fr. Martin's question about what impact having such "enclosed" lives might be having on our children's experience of God.  Many of my children's friends - in their teens - have never been without adult supervision or escort, some have schedules that are so tightly packed they would make a CEO blanch. Having elected otherwise for my sons, I can testify to the difficulties:  The mother aghast that I am letting my son (15 yrs old) ride ALONE to the train station and take the train into the city?  My 13 year old son, who enjoys cooking and is spending the summer honing his skills (fresh bread, cakes from scratch) reports odd looks at the grocery store when he and his 11 year old friend  list show up with their shopping list.  I have some sense of how this sort of child rearing affects their education and their behavior, now I'm wondering how it has affected their spiritual formation!
Technology has given them a greater range in some ways, though.  I walked across the family room last spring and had one of my son's friends greet me; he was some miles away, and the two were video conferencing about their school project.


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