Have you ever noticed how in many of the best books for children the author removes the parents from the picture as soon as possible? Whether it's children slipping through a portal into Narnia or Hogwarts, or simply sending Mum out for the day when a Cat comes to play? (Or if you are the ever-subversive Roald Dahl, you just kill them off on page one!) There's a very good reason for this. Think back to your own childhood. How present were your parents in the most exciting periods of your life? I don't know about you, but mine were always very much on the periphery. I'm sure they were watching me from some distance away (or at least checking up on me from time to time) but all of my 'adventures' were always played out very much in my private child's world, with parents just kind of like an annoying fly to be swatted away, buzzing in my ear every now and then to go and take a bath or eat some food - right when I was in the most important part of my game! Like many people of my generation, I imagine, (OK - I'm a seventies child!) I was given an enormous amount of freedom by my parents. I walked to school from grade 3 with my friend from across the road and our younger siblings in tow. We would hang out at each other's houses without consulting our parents, go to the park by ourselves and down to the milk bar to buy mixed lollies. We climbed trees, played in mud, waded in creeks. And survived.
These days, in many places, this is unheard of. A friend and I went to see a talk at the Wheeler Centre on Monday evening called ‘Free Range Kids’ by American journalist, Lenore Skenazy. Lenore published an article a while back in the US about letting her nine-year-old son use the New York subway on his own. Within twenty-four hours she was officially labelled 'America's Worst Mom' and found herself defending her decision on countless TV and Radio talkback Shows.
Lenore was a fabulous speaker (and incredibly funny!) and gave us some terrifying examples of how obsessive contemporary society has become in 'protecting our children'. She said an obvious example of how much childhoods have changed over time can be found by watching the original episodes of the educational children's TV show Sesame Street, where kids used to play in vacant lots and eat cookies and generally do their own thing (with the adults either absent or very firmly planted on the periphery). Nowadays when you watch one of these original episodes, apparently they come with the warning: UNSUITABLE FOR CHILDREN! I find this horrifying. And sad.
Lenore explained why, as contemporary parents, we are so much more frightened of allowing our children the same freedoms we enjoyed. Along with the fear of being disapproved of by other parents and the money made by selling us protective gadgetry we don't need, our 24/7 sensationalist media is the most obvious culprit. While statistics have proven that crime rates in the US and Australia are continually going down (and most crime committed towards children comes from someone they know) we are constantly being bombarded by terrifying news stories and Crime-based TV shows. The result being that people are becoming afraid to even step out their own doors. Surely it is much safer to keep our children locked inside on the computer, playing Nintendo games or watching TV? We all know the result of this on our children's physical health, but what about their mental health? What about the health of their imaginations? Creativity? And sense of community?
I was very inspired by Lenore's talk. My family and I are fortunate to live in a great community where many of the local kids walk to school, know their neighbours and play in the local parks. All this month, for example, my youngest son and I have been watching this little nature strip garden bloom and grow. It stands all alone on the street, in front of no house, yet some one has planted all these beautiful flowers just for everyone who passes by to enjoy. It may only be a small, simple gesture, but to me it represents all the good and beautiful things about an open, trusting and generous community and how there are many more good things out there than bad, if we dare to look for them.
(PS Thanks to Cath Crowley for inspiring me to write this post after posting a gorgeous clip on Facebook of Paul Simon on Sesame Street.)