Saturday, June 27, 2009

Kids these days

Michael Chabon writes in the NY Review of Books. Parents these days are probably the most risk averse, fear driven and statistically innumerate decision makers of all. (Me included!)

Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood

...Matt Groening once did a great Life in Hell strip that took the form of a map of Bongo's neighborhood. At one end of a street that wound among yards and houses stood Bongo, the little one-eared rabbit boy. At the other stood his mother, about to blow her stack—Bongo was late for dinner again. Between mother and son lay the hazards —labeled angry dogs, roving gang of hooligans, girl with a crush on bongo—of any journey through the Wilderness: deadly animals, antagonistic humans, lures and snares. It captured perfectly the mental maps of their worlds that children endlessly revise and refine. Childhood is a branch of cartography.

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. 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 kind of door-to-door, all-encompassing escort service that we adults have contrived to provide for our children. We schedule their encounters for them, driving them to and from one another's houses so they never get a chance to discover the unexplored lands between. If they are lucky, we send them out to play in the backyard, where they can be safely fenced in and even, in extreme cases, monitored with security cameras. When my family and I moved onto our street in Berkeley, the family next door included a nine-year-old girl; in the house two doors down the other way, there was a nine-year-old boy, her exact contemporary and, like her, a lifelong resident of the street. They had never met.

...But the primary reason for this curtailing of adventure, this closing off of Wilderness, is the increased anxiety we all feel over the abduction of children by strangers; we fear the wolves in the Wilderness. This is not a rational fear; in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of abductions by strangers in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was. What has changed is that the horror is so much better known. [My brainy wife, upon reading this, asked -- if parents are more vigilant, shouldn't the rate of abductions have gone *down* in recent years? If it stayed constant, isn't the world indeed more dangerous for non-vigilant parents?]

...What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children's imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible.

...Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. 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?

5 comments:

Paul said...

The fewer children a couple has or is planning to have, the more protective they will be. If the average number of children is going down, then this may partially explain the phenomenon.

donna said...

Well, this a generational shift. As the ridiculously unparented reactives become parents themselves, they become overprotective and raise adaptives instead of civics. "Generations" describes it all pretty well.

Don't worry, the cycle will shift again later, and a new generation of little idealist kids will follow, free to explore the world at their leisure again as their civic parents drink and ignore them...

zarkov01 said...

By this logic we should not vaccinate our children against polio because polio occurs so rarely today. His logic also reminds me that in the 1970s New York City newspapers constantly told us that Central Park was notreally that dangerous at night because hardly anyone is ever attacked. But on a more serious note, it's not kidnapping parents fear, it's violence.

The changing demographics since the 1965 has made the US a more dangerous place for both adults and children alike. Immigration from the third world plays a big part. For example about 70% of California's prison population consists of illegal aliens. But an better example comes from the UK. Once a low crime country, it's becoming a high crime country thanks to a massive influx of immigrants from North Africa, Pakistan and the Carribean.

That's one reason parents are fearful. There is something to be afraid of.

Clark said...

Um, with all due respect to your brainy wife, maybe parents are not actually more vigilant, they are just more paranoid. Has anyone actually systematically studied the correlation of violence with the perception of violence? Consider zarkov01's comments here. His perception of violence appears to function as a proxy for his zenophobia.

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