Remember when we used to jump on our bikes with a sack lunch, take off on a summer morning and not come back until suppertime? And nobody worried. Mom said, "Be careful"; Dad was at work; siblings were otherwise occupied or along for the ride. What did we do all that time? Nothing special, which turned out to be very special.
When we speak of our childhood we don't mean babyhood or toddlerhood or the first day of school. We mean that burst of mobility after the training wheels came off the bike (or in my case, after my sister gave me a push to get me started but neglected to tell me how to stop). The speed! The rush of wind in your face! The thrill, the terror, and finally (after a few bad spills), the sense of control; of knowing just how tight you could take a corner and not crash. That's classic childhood, between the ages of, roughly, 7 and 13, that passes so quickly and lingers forever in perpetual summer.
This is the territory that novelist Michael Chabon recalls in a recent essay in The New York Review of Books: disappearing for long summer days of unstructured time and uncharted neighborhoods through which he was allowed to get his own bearings and find his own landmarks. Today, middle-class kids are shuttled to play dates, camps, and scheduled events at Discovery Zone. Even casual hanging-out gets organized. Rather than the haphazard camaraderie of neighborhood kids jointly deciding what to do, parents ferry Justin over unknown streets to spend the afternoon playing video games with Shawn.
What makes parents so fearful they can't let their kids off the reservation? Not rational concerns about crime-random kidnappings do happen, but on a ratio so small as to be negligible. Chabon believes parents have fallen prey to a "Consumer Reports" mentality, an aversion to risk, an anxiety due to 24-hour news cycles.
And guilt. Due to what? "The poisoned legacy of modern industrial society . . . the world of strife and radioactivity, climatological disaster, overpopulation and commodification." No mention of abortion, which became legal during the decade he was wandering in the wilderness of childhood.
Just about any ill wind can be blamed on a "climate" of greed or corruption, or a "world of strife" created by capitalists or Republicans. But millions of babies were terminated in the womb because of millions of individual choices, adding up to almost one-third of a generation erased.
Chabon makes an interesting comparison: "As the national feeling of guilt over the extermination of the Indians led to the creation of a kind of cult of the Indian, so our children have become cult objects to us, too precious to be risked." Children are not being "exterminated" except by abortion, but he shuffles the guilty feelings to other causes, even, ironically, overpopulation!
He may have touched the truth without realizing it. Once one accepts that a pre-born human has no inherent right to exist-that is, no rights an adult is bound to respect, that human is objectified. Rather than an independent person who must have freedom to grow and develop on individual terms, he becomes a project or an experience or a self-improvement program to be taken on when all conditions are right. One who will not grant the precariousness of life to an unexpected fetus may be less inclined to grant that precariousness to a 5-year-old on a tricycle. Someone who's so into control may find it hard to stop controlling.
Chabon tells of the thrill his own daughter experienced when learning to ride a bike, and the letdown when both realized there was no place he would let her go alone. "Even if I do send [her] out, will there be anyone to play with?"
There are a lot of reasons kids today don't come out to play. But we can't discount the fact that almost one-third of their peers are missing.
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