If you are of a certain age it is likely you remember a childhood filled with lots of unstructured time. Chances are when you reminisce about those earlier days, you say things like: “Mom would shoo us out of the house and tell us not to come back until dinner.”
If you grew up in a rural/suburban area, your memories are of trying to catch crawdads in the creek and coming home wet; of exploring on your bikes for the first time a previously undiscovered trail; of muggy summer nights when it seemed like every kid in the neighborhood was playing hide-and-seek.
If you grew up in a city, your memories might include different details, but the sense of freedom and independence would be similar.
You probably remember how you and your friends somehow managed to come together to decide on your own plans for the day, establish your own group rules, settle your own differences and make your own fun.
And if you are of a certain age, it likely has occurred to you that kids of today spend their time in ways quite differently from what you remember.
You observe that children of today have “play dates.” They wear helmets and protective pads anytime they go outdoors. They are continually being shuttled from one organized activity to another, and parents always seem to be involved. You notice this with at least a historical curiosity.
Maybe you are even confused or troubled by where things have gotten. You wonder, “How and when did this happen?”
The April issue of The Atlantic has an essay, “The Over-Protected Kid,” by Hanna Rosen, which explores this change in the way society arranges childhood. She offers several reasons for the increasing need for parents to feel that their children are secure and safe. She presents evidence that suggests the culturewide push for a safe, secure, supervised and risk-free environment began sometime in the 1980s. As a person of a certain age, that timeline seems about right to me.
Each statistic and anecdote she presented offered me a chance to recollect and contemplate a period in my past. She writes that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone and by 1990, only 9 percent did so. It is no doubt even lower today.
As I was reading this, I found myself back as a third-grader walking the two blocks to Greenwood Elementary. I stopped many times along the way, looking through the high fence at the Arvin factory or watching the train rumble on the tracks parallel to the sidewalk I was using.
I had every crack memorized by the fourth grade when we moved away to a more rural setting. All that time alone on that sidewalk, and my parents never feared for my safety.
The area where our newly built house was located was a wonder of creeks and ponds; farm fields and woods; open lots and houses in various stages of construction.
It was, for me, the playground of my dreams.
The newly developing neighborhood was filled with kids my own age, and we made it our business to explore everything — all without adult supervision, of course.
One of the author’s biggest concerns is how modern children — especially middle class children — have so little time to practice independence. She cites a 2011 paper, “The Creativity Crisis,” which tracks children’s scores on tests of creative thinking. These scores have been declining for more than a decade. The evidence points to a lack of both independent play and what might be called controlled risk.
She writes: “Children ... have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking great risks.”
I think about my independent childhood, and I observe how many kids today don’t get the chance to learn that life is not risk-free, at least, not while they are still young. As a person of a certain age, it makes me sad.
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.