Brian Mackey: Fear robs children of their ‘kingdom’
Many of our childhoods were defined by frontiers — a certain street you weren’t supposed to cross, or a natural feature, such as a creek, that limited your wandering.
For me it was the Illinois Central Railroad tracks that divided my suburban Chicago town in half.
In my kingdom were a park, a public library, local businesses, my school and two churches.
It was the era of Morning in America, and my parents allowed me to roam freely between my house and the railroad-defined edge of the world. I went to the library, I biked alone, and with friends I went to the video store to rent “Top Gun” more times than I care to admit.
“Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity,” Chabon writes.
In a literal sense, Chabon’s wilderness was a small strip of woods, about two acres, behind his house. For me, it was a narrow patch of forest lining those railroad tracks.
The “forest” was probably no more than 20 feet of trees and undergrowth, with a narrow path worn through its length. But for my friends and I, it was the site of many adventures, playing as explorers or soldiers.
Aside from a well-heeded admonition to stay away from the railroad tracks, I was largely free to roam. So was Chabon.
“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,” Chabon writes. “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.”
Where Chabon had his woods and I my railroad tracks, modern childhoods are bounded by backyard fences and what Chabon calls a series of “reservations”: Chuck E. Cheese, Discovery Zone and the like.
Bombarded by news reports of child abuse and abductions — a phenomenon that’s statistically about as rare as it’s always been, Chabon says — parents have grown afraid to let their children explore the world.
“The insanity crept up on us slowly; we just wanted what was best for our kids,” Nancy Gibbs writes in the cover story of this week’s Time magazine, “The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting.”
“Death by injury has dropped more than 50 percent since 1980, yet parents lobbied to take the jungle gyms out of playgrounds, and strollers suddenly needed the warning label ‘Remove Child Before Folding,’” Gibbs writes.
In reality, the most dangerous things most kids do is get into a car. But no one is suggesting they be banned from vehicular transport. At least, not yet.
At the vanguard of the backlash, such as it is, are parents such as Lenore Skenazy, attacked a few years ago after she wrote in a column that she let her 9-year-old ride the New York subway alone.
“I’m not saying that there is no danger in the world or that we shouldn’t be prepared,” Skenazy tells Gibbs. “But there is good and bad luck and fate and things beyond our ability to change. The way kids learn to be resourceful is by having to use their resources.”
Chabon worries that we’ve fetishized childhood, making kids “the objects of an unhealthy and diseased fixation.”
He writes that after his daughter learned to ride a bike, she was disappointed that there was nowhere he’d let her go. And what does that do to a child?
“Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map,” Chabon writes.
“If children are not permitted — not taught — to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?”
Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.