Too close for comfort

Growing up in my neighborhood, kids ran in packs, like feral dogs. After school, or on long, humid summer days, we'd roam far and wide from one fence-less yard to the next, searching for adventure.

Sometimes we went on army maneuvers using sticks as rifles and rhododendrons as sniper blinds. Sometimes we caught grasshoppers in jelly jars or built unsuccessful traps for indifferent squirrels. On rainy days we'd squat by the curb over the torrent of run-off, racing tree bark boats with acorn drivers, past twiggy bridges and muddy dams. And in winter, we'd tunnel into snow banks left behind by the plows and plot our snowball ambush of the Thompson boys across the street.

Around six o'clock, my mom would ring the big brass bell mounted on the side of our house to call my brothers and me back home for dinner. We'd pile into the house, tracking grass, or mud, or snow, and scramble to the dinner table where my mom would turn us away until we washed our filthy hands.

Where we wandered all day wasn't my parents' concern. They scolded us when we did something stupid, and praised us when we did something smart—but deciding what we did wasn't their job. It was ours. And hanging out with us while we did it never even crossed their minds. Thank God. I mean, a sniper would have picked off either one of them before they even got the pins out of their pinecone grenades.

Nowadays, our kids' lives are scheduled and coached and planned right down to the last millisecond. Many of them go days, maybe weeks, without a moment of unsupervised time. Childhood is now produced and directed almost entirely by adults.

A man named Roger Hart chronicled this change in a remarkable project that spanned over three decades. In 1972, he tracked 86 kids from a small New England town, interviewing them extensively and following them wherever they went.

What Hart found was that children roamed in wider and wider circles as they grew older, and became more and more self-sufficient. Once they learned how to ride bikes, they literally traveled miles, seeking out favorite places that their parents didn't even know existed. His research became a rare and revealing look into the secret lives and movements of children.

In 2004, Hart returned to that town to study the children of the subjects he had followed 32 years before. What he found was a completely different world. For the most part his grown-up subjects remembered their childhoods with great fondness, and regretted that those days were gone. But they were all adamant that they could never give that kind of freedom to their own children. The activities they remembered most fondly were ones they actively denied their kids. And the vast expanse of time that children once spent away from adults had not merely shrunk. It had disappeared.

How did this happen?

I think many of us grew up getting less attention from our parents than we wanted. Back then, mothers were raising bigger families, fathers were more distant, and "attachment" was something that came with your vacuum cleaner so you could clean the upholstery. Now that we have kids of our own, many of us are intent on giving them what we lacked. We strive to be the highly-engaged parents that all the parenting books tell us to be. But when does engaging become engulfing? And knowing what we do about our own childhoods, do we really believe that this constant scrutiny is what our children want and need?

When you scratch below the surface of parental engagement, you find something much less rational that also fuels our parenting style. Fear. Ask any parent why they don't allow their kids to roam around the neighborhood on their own, and they give you a strange look. It's as if you asked them: "Why don't you let your kids play with razor blades? What could go wrong?" The norms of parenting have shifted so far that parents who let their kids wander unsupervised seem almost negligent.

I wonder if our omnipresence in our children's lives and our attempts to protect them from every possible danger are doing more harm than the dangers themselves. Are we robbing them of the chance to explore, create and discover on their own? Are we depriving them of the skills to evaluate risk and tolerate uncertainty? Are we forcing them to experience the world through the filter of our fears and expectations, rather than directly through their own hearts and minds?

I want to sit with those questions for a while. Next month, I'll write down some ideas about risk, and self-reliance, and putting childhood back where it belongs—in the hands of children.