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CHILDHOOD’S LOST WILDERNESS

Michael Chabon, an author of contemporary fiction I like (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” are my faves), had a piece in the New York Review of Books (July 16, 2009) entitled “Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood” that really resonated with me.

He points out that when he was a boy there was wilderness he could explore alone. No, not jungles but parks, vacant lots, playgrounds in the Maryland city where he lived. Wilderness was anywhere he could reach on his bicycle. He knew where all his classmates lived, how many siblings and pets they had. He notes that children have a mental map of their worlds that they keep refining. “Childhood is a branch of cartography.” A wonderful and accurate description of the way children learn about the world, ever exploring, ever learning.

The wilderness of childhood has shrunk. We paved over nature. But, alas, the wilderness of childhood has shrunk in another sense: parents no longer give their children freedom to explore on their own. “ 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.” Children are scheduled, programmed, driven from place to place so they never have the chance to explore on their own that space between places. If they go out to play it is in the backyard, fenced and monitored by adults. Few kids today know the joy (and adventure) of going out to play on their own, walking or biking to a friend’s house alone. Their world is always mapped by grownups. They are no longer their own cartographers; Mom or Dad or the GPS do it today.

Chabon is so right. I am older than he (he has young children and I am a grandmother) so I have seen two generations of wilderness shrinkage. When I was 11 years old I was accepted at a school far from my home. To get to school I had to take a street car, an elevated train, and another street car…a trip of about an hour each way (good time to do homework). It was a great adventure in my urban wilderness! I was on my own after my mother took me just once. I had to pay for the trip, be sure I got on the right conveyance, and got off at the right stop. Plus, of course, look both ways before crossing the street. Because I passed the cartography course (the exam was getting home safely every day) I was allowed on weekends to go with a friend to watch the Red Sox play or go to the movies in downtown Boston, or go to the Boston Public Library.

My children initially walked to a neighborhood school. Later their school was beyond walking distance so they were picked up by bus. They continued to play out of doors and walk to the field where Little League games were held. But they could not walk or bike to a movie or Sunday School. They had to be driven by an adult so the mapping I did as a preteen was not possible for them.

My grandchildren must be driven to school but, thanks to the wisdom of their parents, they live in a neighborhood where the kids do play outdoors. But they are not able to get to a library or ball game on their own, someone has to drive them. In my neighborhood I never see children playing alone outdoors. I see them walking with their parents but not mapping the world on their own.

Chabon writes that there are reasons the wilderness has become a system of reservations which he describes as “…Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly intermittent centers mapped and planned by adults…” He notes, “There are reasons for all of this. The helmeting and monitoring, the corralling of children into certified zones of safety is in part the product of the Consumer Reports mentality, the generally increased consciousness in America of safety and danger.” An accurate description. Then he goes on to say the main reason we close off our children’s wilderness is anxiety over abduction. I have already told my readers that if a child iso going to be harmed by an adult the overwhelming odds are that the adult is known or related to the child. Stranger abduction is not only very rare but the incidence has not changed in decades. What has changed is that we hear repeatedly about of one of these tragedies when it happens until we think it happens often.

Parents are supposed to protect their children from danger. But for a variety of reasons (fewer children, a diminishing sense of community where everybody looked out for the kids, isolation from neighbors mostly because parents are too busy to hang out together, the scary world we live in magnified by 24-hour TV news) parents feel they, or a surrogate, must supervise their child’s every moment.

But, sadly, this means taking away the sense of adventure and precluding the child’s ability to map his or her world alone without a hovering adult. Chabon tells of his reluctance to let his daughter bike alone to buy herself an ice cream cone in a store just around the corner. So he followed her. “What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of out lovely residential neighborhood at that after dinner hour that once represented the peak moment , the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn’t encounter a single other child.”

I well remember those summer evenings, the thrill of walking home from play or a friend’s house at dusk and even dark. It meant, you see, that my daytime mapping had been correct. On to wider geographies!

He closes this piece with, “Art is a form of exploration….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?”

A good question.

I would never advise a parent to let a preteen take public transportation alone in a dangerous part of town. But maybe parents in quiet neighborhoods can rethink walking the kids to the school bus. Walk instead to your neighbor’s houses, get to know them, make yours a community where everybody looks out for everybody’s kids.

Find creative ways to let your children safely map their world. Show them the orthodontist’s office the first time. The second time wait in the car and let them find it themselves. One small mapping step the child can take alone toward the land where there be brave grownups.

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