A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Saturday, July 30, 2005

those lazy days of summer

Kimberly Swygert at Number 2 Pencil (www.kimberlyswygert.com) cites a recent USA today article ("Childhood pastimes are increasingly moving indoors," July 11, 2005) detailing the lack of desire in today's kids to go outside and play, especially during the magical days of summer. I've had conversations with my students about this phenomenon when we get to the point in the US history curriculum where we discuss "the good old days" for me-- in other words, the Seventies and Eighties (You know you're old when you actually remember stuff covered in a history class.)

Anyway, the article talks about how obesity rates have quadrupled since the 1960s, how kids would rather be playing video games than fishing, even when they acknowledge how fun fishing is:

"The fundamental nature of American childhood has changed in a single generation. The unstructured outdoor childhood — days of pick-up baseball games, treehouses and "be home for dinner" — has all but vanished.

"Today, childhood is spent mostly indoors, watching television, playing video games and working the Internet. When children do go outside, it tends to be for scheduled events — soccer camp or a fishing derby — held under the watch of adults. In a typical week, 27% of kids ages 9 to 13 play organized baseball, but only 6% play on their own, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found....

"'Boundaries for kids used to be measured by blocks or miles. Now, the boundary for most kids is the front yard. A lot of kids are under house arrest,' says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, a book about how children have lost touch with nature...."

There are a few things that we need to acknowledge about this trend. Parents are afraid of letting their kids out of the house for fear they will fall victim to some rapist or murdereer. But have we overreacted and fallen victim to the worst excesses of our consumer society by giving kids every time-waster ever devised to keep them from resenting our protection? Let us consider the following:

1. There were four television stations in my beloved hometown when I was growing up, including the public television station. Children's programming could be found during the weekdays only in the early afternoons (Sesame Street and a local cartoon show were favorites), and Saturday mornings from 7 am to noon were devoted to cartoons on all three regular networks. The Wonderful World of Disney came on after Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom on Sunday evenings. That was it. No Cartoon Network or Disney Channel, or 75 other channels for your entertainment pleasure.

2. Our family had one television to bring us those four splendid channels. It was color, though-- Grandma didn't get color TV until I was 7 or 8 years old. When I had my tonsils removed, my parents rented a tiny TV just for me to watch, and this was a BIIIIIIIG treat. Cable arrived in our town in the mid-70s, and suddenly, you could see all of The Little Rascals and the Mickey Mouse Club you could ever want. Whoo-hoo! We couldn't afford premium movie channels like HBO.

3. Our family had one telephone, and the receiver was connected by a cord to the phone's body in the kitchen, where anyone could hear your conversation. No matter how we stretched that cord, we still had to conduct our conversations completely within hearing range of other family members, especially since my mother spent what seemed like 70% of her life in our microwave-less kitchen.

4. I shared a room with either a brother or sister from the time I was two until I went to college. Even after I understood that a right to privacy had been deduced from the Bill of Rights in general, I knew that my parents were strict constructionists and my siblings were anarchists and there was no such creature in MY life. There was no closing of the bedroom door on that family. I usually climbed up on the roof and hid behind the chimney just to get five minutes to myself while on the familial estate.

5. I saw my first Atari videogame console in high school. We had to go to an arcade in a shopping mall or at the skating rink (with a king's ransom in quarters) to play video games such as Pong or Asteroid.

6. No computers, internet, instant messaging, or text messaging-- well, DUH! I AM a fossil! I also saw my first microcomputer in high school in my geometry class, but the teacher would only let boys play on it (upon my honor!) It had about the processing power of a rancid bottle of ketchup.

At this point, I usually have to assure my students, no, we weren't Amish, nor did we live in Point Barrow, Alaska.

7. I remember, from the time I was 8 or 9, getting on my bike as soon as I got up in the summer, and riding to the nearest park which was one block away, sitting under a tree and reading with my transistor radio (shaped like a Pekingese dog, from Radio Shack, powered by my free 9 volt battery each month) tuned to the local AM top-40 radio station. I might come home at lunch, or I might not if I had enough scratch to go buy a salad or a burrito, and I would play tackle football or a pick-up game of baseball with the neighborhood kids. We had bike races and played war and cops and robbers and mowed lawns to pay for, for me, two sessions a week at the rollerskating rink and books about horses and science fiction.

8. I also remember nearly getting snatched off the street when I was five by a creepy old man before we moved to a safer neighborhood, so it's not like that kind of problem suddenly was invented in the last few years.

I remember when people began putting triangular signs up in their windows with symbols of an adult with its arms around a child, indicating that they were willing to be a safe house for any kid who needed protection. Late 1970s, I think. This was, I believe, the beginning of the end of summer as we knew it.

Well, now that I've completely dated myself, let's fast forward to now. I have three of My Beloved Offspring under the age of twelve. When I let them play by themselves within hearing range of my backyard in the common ground of our subdivision or on the cul-de-sac around the corner, I am accosted as the World's Worst Mother by some neighbors. Okay. There are currently not enough kids in the neighborhood to have pick-up ball games, nor is there a park nearby in which to play games, if they were able to do so, but they are each allowed to belong to one organized sport at a time. It's the best I can do.

But there are some things we as parents can do.

There is no TV in My Beloved Offsprings' rooms, and, hence, no VCR or DVD or Playstation. I bought a Playstation for my hubby, but it is difficult for the kids to get to without my active cooperation. They do have handheld gaming devices, but I try to limit that.

There is no phone in MBOs' rooms, and if I see the handset missing from our cordless phone, I may just get on that phone and listen to anything being said or embarrass said BO by instructing child to hang up said phone-- with no warning. Since our phones are now cordless, this is not a perfect system, but it'll do for now.

An antique Macintosh is now on one of MBOs' desks, but it is not connected to the internet, nor will it ever be, even if its little guts could stand the strain. Its purpose is to print reports for school and to play CDs by some group named-- so help me-- Atomic Kitten.

I have been awarded the Meanest Mother Ever Award (for several years' running now! I'm like the Cal Ripken of Mean Mothers in terms of longevity and dependability) for turning aside all wheedling for a cell phone ("But Mom! Then you could always get a hold of me!" I can already always get a hold of MBO-- I have a pretty good grip, especially since I started judo at the Y.)

They still watch too much TV. But, as much as they can, my kids play-- with each other, indoors and outdoors, even when I catch flak for it. I believe that those long days spent relying upon ourselves in a completely unchoreographed way made us capable of taking responsisbility for ourselves and our actions. Ironically, we were more mature for being allowed to be kids. As a mother who also holds down an outside job shepherding other people's children through adolescence and the mysteries of history, I was only a temporary part of the whole contrived "playgroup" experience. But I know people that orchestrate their kid's every movement because they feel that that is the best way to protect them. But, ironically, the parents whose kids are drowning in the most schwag are the ones who bemoan their little ones' dilated pupils, pasty white complexions and Nintendo Thumb from too many hours plugged in to some device.

One of the parents in this article admitted to calling her kid "The Caveman" because he basically barricaded himself in his room 24/7. See, if you complain that your kids never come out of their room, it's because you've given them all the incentives in the world to stay there. And here's the amazing part-- it doesn't have to be that way! You can make that room less like a palatial refuge breathlessly extolled by Robin Leach and more like a place for sleeping. Just because they're in there doesn't mean you give in have to leave 'em there.

But, unfortunately, there is no way my kids could be gone for hours anymore, even if we moved to the country. The last five kids I can think of that made the local news by being abducted lived in really small towns near our metropolitan area. And I do need to do a better job of getting up and going outside and playing with them. It IS a different world out there. But don't blame the technology; blame the fact that we allow it to be so ubiquitous. We do have to be brave enough to take control of the things in their lives that we can, which means pulling the plug regardless of all the howls of juvenile protest. That's why we're their parents, not their friends.

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