Friday, July 10, 2009

Freedom to explore the "wilderness of childhood"

Michael Chabon, author of some of my favorite grown-up books (you've got to read Gentlemen of the Road - and the Yiddish Policeman's Union - oh, and all his others as well) and of one children's book (Summerland, which I've never read), has written a fascinating piece in the July 16 New York Review of Books called Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood. After pointing out how many of the best children's books feature kids who have plenty of opportunity to go off on their own and explore their world (whether realistically or fantastically), he writes:

"The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. 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."

When I was a kid, we walked to and from school by ourselves, went to the beach unaccompanied by grown-ups, roamed the streets and boardwalk for as far as we could walk, bike, or rollerskate, and in general felt as if our neighborhood belonged to us entirely. However, by the time I was a parent, times and attitudes had changed and it was years before I let my kids go farther than three houses down the street. It's strange how easy it is to get sucked into the fear - but I do believe it's necessary to teach your kids how to be sensible and safe and then let them be free to skin their knees, cross that busy intersection, and ride the bus (sitting next to the busdriver, natch) all over town.

I can say that now that my kids are savvy teenagers - and they do bike and bus all over Los Angeles - but it took me a long time to let them do this stuff. It still makes me nervous. I'll feel anxious about their safety forever, most likely.

Chabon suffers similar doubts and anxieties with his own kids - believing in giving them their freedom but worrying not only about their safety but about the fact that, if he sends his kids out to play, they might not have anyone to play with - the neighborhood kids are all tucked safely indoors or in their backyards! I experienced this sort of problem when I was allowing my second child to walk or bike to the park by herself - but none of her friends, in 5th grade, were allowed to go past the end of the block. Jeepers!

Chabon wonders what will happen to children's literature when the only adventuring is done on the pages of children's books, and ends with these remarks:

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. 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?

It's horrible to think that kids may find the notion of hopping on a bike and riding to the ice-cream store by themselves for some summertime refreshment as exotic and dangerous as going on a magical quest.


  1. I try. I bought a house with woods, and I say to them, "Go. Have adventures. Leave home." And they say, "but we want you to come too...It's more fun with you...please?"


  2. That's a wonderful testament to their relationship with you - and just think, when they're ready to go off on their own, they will be able to do so.
    My husband commented to me that the problem is not only overprotectiveness, but also overconnectedness. With cell phones and such, kids are rarely actually on their own and out of touch. And there's so rarely that needed solitude...