LLOYD GRAY: Free up childhood again



If you’re a baby boomer, think back to your childhood. You probably spent a lot of time playing outside, even wandering around the neighborhood. You were allowed to roam a bit, as long as your parents – or mostly, your mother – knew you were somewhere in the vicinity.

Your parents didn’t see it as their responsibility to keep you entertained. That was your job, and you made the best of it. You were expected to report in every now and then, and to show up when called for meals.

You were involved in a few non-school activities organized and supervised by adults – maybe Little League or piano lessons – but for the most part you lived your free time, which was most of your time, in a culture created, organized and run by children.

If you lived within a reasonable distance, you likely walked or rode your bike to and from school at least some of the time, as well as other places, such as friends’ houses. If you lived in a small town, a rite of passage may have been the first time you were allowed to walk or bike downtown. Your parents saw these excursions not as hazard-filled risks but as a means for you to develop competence, independence and self-confidence.

Your parents rarely, if ever, did homework with or for you. They might answer a question you asked, but they’d just as likely encourage you to go look it up or figure it out yourself.

Now, think about your own children. Did they have quite the same freedom? Likely not. Did they have more adult organization, supervision and helicopter parenting than you? Likely so.

And your grandchildren, if you have them? That’s a whole different world.

When was the last time you saw a group of kids out in the neighborhood at dusk on a summer evening playing some sort of kid-organized game in which they made the rules and settled the disputes?

The disappearance of the old culture of childhood as a time of independent exploration and unstructured time free of adult-driven imperatives is owed to many factors, but two are most prominent. The first is our contemporary society’s fear of risk – any risk – for children that translates into an obsession with safety not supported by data. The second is the middle- and upper-class anxiety-filled transformation of parenting into product development – molding a child not simply to be a decent human being who is capable of making his or her way in the world, but to competitive perfection.

At least that’s the view of Hanna Rosin, who in a provocative cover article in the current edition of The Atlantic magazine titled “Hey! Parents, Leave Those Kids Alone” points to new research that overprotective parents who manage all aspects of their kids’ lives will actually produce “more fearful and less creative” adults.

At a time when parents are spending more time than ever with their children – even though most mothers now work outside the home – children on the whole are less well-adjusted than before. And the fears we have for children’s safety – that the world is a much more dangerous place than it used to be for children – simply aren’t supported by the data, whether it’s abductions by strangers or accidental injuries or deaths. Rosin blames this perception on a few highly publicized cases that are in fact exceedingly rare.

She’s not calling for abandoning rational risk-reduction for children, or for not providing the kind of oversight that’s the job of any responsible parent. But in prohibiting – or even in not encouraging – elements of the freer childhoods of the past, we are in fact stunting the development of strong, secure, happy adults. And in rushing children from one scheduled, organized “enrichment” experience to the next, we deprive them of potentially the most enriching, creative moments of all in crafting their own worlds of creativity and imagination.

As one who often roamed the woods behind my house, rode my bike to school, played pick-up wiffle ball all day long in summer with no adult in sight, then capped off the evening after supper with a neighborhood game of Kick the Can, it sounds right to me.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.

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