Last week I posted this article from The Atlantic to the MaW Facebook page. When I first skimmed it, my immediate reaction was that good old smug sense of betterness. And no, that’s not a spelling error, I really do mean betterness – as in, this is so not a problem for me because I’m better at being a cool, progressive parent than the parents articles like these are about, which is exactly why I can read articles like this and smile, because I know it doesn’t apply to me. Because I’m better.
And then I read it again. And yeah, you guessed it. This article is absolutely, totally, one hundred percent about me.
It’s kind of a long article, so in case you’re reading this at work or in the precious last moments before your child wakes up from a nap (or you just don’t care to click through to another page), I’ll sum it up for you:
1. Kids used to run wild, filthy, and free through the big, scary world that was just as dangerous then as it is now. They would roam and explore and make believe their ways in and out of trouble and emerge unscathed from one close call after another. This is how they (or we, actually, since the halcyon days described actually were ours – ours, as in the people who are becoming parents now – and our own idyllic childhoods) learned to navigate the world and be independent.
2. Now, kids wear leashes and never leave their parents’ sides or the confines of their vacuum sealed backyards.
3. This is probably not a good thing for the development of the next generation.
The author of this article, Hanna Rosin (of The End of Men fame), begins by describing a gutter punk fantasy of a park in the UK, a sort of Neverland meets Lord of the Flies movie set where kids can be their natural pyromaniac selves – literally. The park looks like a garbage dump, with filthy, worn out furniture, piles of rotting pallets and rusting garbage cans, and lots and lots of things that can be set on fire – literally. There is virtually no adult supervision, which means kids are free to burn big piles of junk or to go swimming with their shoes on in the near freezing river, to skin dead rats or to practice giving each other prison tattoos.
Compare this, then, as the article does, to the standard safety tested playground design that has taken over virtually every park in North America, a trend which can be traced back to one big tragedy and many flurries of little lawsuits, and which can be singlehandedly blamed for curtailing the natural progression of childhood independence.
This is not the first time I’ve read about the shameful way playgrounds in America have been killing play. There was this article from the New York Times back in 2011, for example, or this one from the Wall Street Journal in 2012. Everyone seems to agree that we adults, or we American adults to be more specific, are ruining all of the fun. And I, too, agreed. Wholeheartedly.
Until, that is, I didn’t.
I never used to worry about the harm my child could do to herself, in large part because I myself did not have a particularly exciting childhood. I didn’t get up to the sort of mischief about which parents in Rosin’s article waxed nostalgic. I never was part of a large group of street kids, never explored anything remotely resembling woods or fields or scary abandoned anything. I’ve never even broken a bone.
I did, however, have independence. I used to play unsupervised with the kids from a couple blocks up, used to wander around the busy commercial districts two neighborhoods over. I would go to the swimming pool, to the ice rink, to the candy store, to the movies. In the era before cell phones, I would spend long full days away from the house and away from my mother’s supervision in a way that children today have never experienced. It wasn’t until I hit double digits that I started to show signs of trouble, smoking cigarettes, dressing all in black and pretending to like the taste of cappuccino at little back alley cafes, trying to convince teenage boys that, despite my round little baby face, I really was almost twelve and a half years old.
I am very much aware of my propensity toward being an overprotective mother (combine being Greek with experiencing a child on life support and you’re pretty much doomed to this fate), so until recently I’ve used these uneventful, boring memories from my own life as a little human as a sort of self-imposed straight jacket to keep me and my crazy tendencies from hovering too heavily, as a way to will myself into becoming that responsible yet relaxed parent I always imagined I would be.
And then my kid tried jumping head first off of the jungle gym. She took advantage of her leash-free living to leave her parents in the dust and make a run for the street and oncoming traffic. She used her unsupervised indoor playtime to stack three wobbly pieces of furniture together so she could climb all the way to the tippy top of a very, very tall bookshelf.
I know I must give her the freedom to explore and to imagine, but her discoveries all seem to fall into the realm of real physical danger. She simply has no fear.
The result is that now I can’t tell whether I’m overcorrecting or undercorrecting or not correcting anything at all. I know that when I used to go to the park and see parents following their children up and down the jungle gym like slouching giants trying not to squash the beanstalks, I would think, No Effing Way, not me and my kid. My kid listens. My kid is learning the value of responsible independence. My kid will never, ever need a leash.
But now I just don’t know. It’s not that I believe we should all be suing cities for installing play equipment off of which our children can fall and hurt themselves, but my scoffing at the new era of overprotection has softened somewhat, sort of like those playground surfaces that are designed to help keep our kids safe.
Maybe it was this lack of real danger that drove quasi-suburban Gen-Xers like me to create the illusion of danger through ever scarier drugs and punk rock mosh pits and not always totally happy raves. Maybe this is what is driving all those little Millennials to trade in their upper-middle-class comforts for a truly sort of dangerous homeless train hopping lifestyle.
Or maybe some kids a just drawn to danger in ways other kids are not, no matter what kind of playground they grew up with. Maybe we all are just letting our nostalgia get the best of us in wishing our children could live in the same world we grew up in, and failing to recognize generational shifts occur whether we like it or not. Because from where I stand (or run or jump or dive to the rescue), no amount of handholding or handsfree time will make any difference to who my child is at her core. All I can do is stay out of her way, let her soul run free, and always – at least for the time being – be there to break her fall.