Michael Chabon's essay, “The Wilderness of Childhood,” in the New York Review of Books has gotten some well deserved attention from the blogosphere. I thought I would add my two cents on the subject.
Chabon writes about the adventures that he had as a kid exploring around the neighborhood, with no adult supervision. He said that he grew up with breath-taking liberty. But that's all gone.
The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been
abandoned in favor of a system of reservations—Chuck E. Cheese, the
Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly internment centers mapped and planned
by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked staff only. When
children roller-skate or ride their bikes, they go forth armored as for
battle, and their parents typically stand nearby.
Chabon believes that his childhood adventures and explorations helped to fuel his writer's imagination. What will future writers draw upon for inspiration? It's a really nice piece. Worth a read.
Russell Arben Fox and Tim Burke respond. There's no question that Chabon is right that our kids aren't getting the free reign that we did as kids. Witness the discussion yesterday on this blog about whether or not a 12 year old could responsibly watch a 3 year old at the mall.
Tim says that there is still plenty of room for childhood explorations. Parents can accompany their kids on trips to the woods and explore video games and cartoons together. This will open up new story lines for fiction writers. Tim writes, "But I could easily see that we could have a new wave of stories where
adults and children deal with adventure together without the grown-ups
making all the choices."
Russell is less optimistic than Tim. He seems most concerned about the solitude of the kids. Even if you set your kid outside with a bike to explore the world, there is no one to join him. Russell writes,
Imagination–even the imagination of a child on his or her own,
navigating their fragmentary, mental map of secure locations and danger
zones and unmarked paths in their own heads–is a collective effort;
that "lore" Chabon mentions came from and through someone, many
someones. Brothers and sisters, cousins and schoolmates, friends and
It's probably not accidental that this discussion came up in the summer. This is the time when we wrest control of our kids from the schools and mold them ourselves. This topic has been very much discussed at home over the past few weeks, as I decide how to structure or unstructure the kids' time. Just one story…
Jonah's fancy camp ends after the third week of July. My mom called with information about a soccer camp for that last week. She said that she would pay for the camp, because it would give me another week to get work done, Jonah will have an advantage in soccer games in the fall, and it would keep him busy. I said, rather heatedly, that I didn't care about any sports advantage. I also wanted him to have some free time, without his brother about, to figure out how to use his time himself. He could use some quiet time.
I asked Jonah what he wanted to do. Did he want to go to a soccer camp where he wouldn't know anyone and it would last all day? Or did he want to spend time at home? If he chose home, he couldn't play video games or watch TV until after 3:00. He would have to read and play by himself until noon, because I had to work. But I would do stuff with him after noon. He chose the camp. Frankly, he was terrified at the thought of bored.
I wasn't happy with this reasoning, but I sent in the registration slip any way. We've got August to work on him being bored. Being bored is essential to the creative process. You need to be quiet in order to see things.
So, yeah, there are a lot of problems with the lack of freedom we give our kids. But what am I willing to do about it? I'm willing to give him time freedom.
I'm not sure that I'm ready to give him space freedom. The mom on the next block over is drunk by 3:00, and I'm pretty sure that her kid is a psychopath. I don't want Jonah playing there. Local kids on bikes have been hit by cars. I'm not sure if I want him riding his bike too far. Childless people growl at ten year old boys walking too near their homes. I don't want Jonah to have to deal with the mean people.
So, Jonah has never ventured on his own 100 yards from our front porch. (Ian has never ventured 10 yards on his own. I have to shadow him at all time, because he could get picked on, but that's another story.) I think I'm with Russell and Chabon on this one. It can't be a good thing.