In the picture, a girl and two boys face off against each other, guns in hand, on a mound of sand between a small brick bungalow and a clapboard garage. There weren’t a lot of trees back then and the rather barren scene is rendered harsh by the mid-day sun. Even in black and white it looks hot and bright.
Flash forward twenty years. Another suburbia, another city. A group of boys – 8 or 9 years old – clamber across bungalow and garage roofs, jump on their bikes and disappear down paths, across fields, into parks.
You could also flash back twenty years or more – 100 years even – and you would find the same thing. Kids kicked out of the house after breakfast, into the snow or into the sun, and reminded to come back when the evening lights come on.
Everywhere, for generations, kids roamed their neighbourhoods and beyond, exploring together, fighting together, growing up together.
Without their parents hanging over them.
They learned how to behave because if they were out of line, there would be a scuffle, a punch thrown, maybe a fight, and the next time they would understand where the line was drawn.
In the same way, they figured out their place in the world. They had the freedom of trial and error. They became independent and self-reliant. They had fresh air and exercise.
And then something happened and it all changed.
Now, parents don’t let their kids out of sight and get involved if there is even a whisper of a fight. Kids don’t really understand their place in life, or who they are, and they don’t get to run free, to enjoy themselves, to play and be kids, to fall down and pick themselves up.
It’s the lost art of childhood.
Yes, I know, children have been abducted, and killed and hurt. I don’t minimize that because no matter how statistically insignificant it is, it remains significant for the family struck by the tragedy. I have a child; I really do get that fear, that instinct to protect.
But I still let him roam freer than most. I am mindful of the dangers, but also of the fact that it is highly unlikely something will happen to him.
That’s the choice my husband and I have made.
We’ve looked at both sides and decided the damage is surer if we keep him locked in with us, ferry him guardedly from place to place, or hang around in the shadows ready to solve his problems.
He needs to get out there and figure things out for himself. How to be. What it means to be street smart. How to solve problems. What to do if he gets hurt. How to play.
We have no TV, no video games and only a family stereo system. He doesn’t have a computer, an iPod, or a phone.
He has books, Lego, a bike, a scooter, soccer balls, tennis balls, a football. And the great outdoors. There is a park two blocks from here and miles of bikepath along the canal. And he goes to camp for a month in the summer – boys taking care of younger boys in the woods, in tents. Total Lord of the Flies. On trips to both Mexico and South Africa, he ran free with the kids there, recalling the other childhood classic, the story of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.
Both camp and these holidays were the happiest times in his life, he has enthused. He was happy and free – to play, to roam, to discover, to just be.
My point is, he does not spend his free time holed up in a basement, staring at a screen.
He gets out there and lives.
The problem, though, is that he is a rarity. Most of the kids he meets in the park are chaperoned. So even if we’re not there, there are parents hovering. Watching to make sure that if someone skins a knee, they can step in. That if there is a disagreement or a scuffle, it doesn’t turn into a fight.
It’s not that I want my son to fight. But sometimes it’s necessary, to get rid of the pent up aggression and to learn, to be put in your place.
Fifty years ago, if he did the things he does now, the things that annoy his friends and get him in trouble with his teachers, some kid would have clocked him and he would have learned that the behaviour was unacceptable.
Because adults telling him over and over that he shouldn’t do this and he shouldn’t do that, and kids going to teachers and parents to solve their arguments, isn’t teaching him or his friends anything. The behaviours aren’t really changing. The kids aren’t learning to fight their own battles or to solve their own problems.
And they aren’t free and they aren’t really playing.
This is the lost art of childhood.