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June 27, 2009

<< Sanford's Odyssey, Book III | Flights 001 >>


Cross-reference these two:

  • Joanne McNeil explains why teenagers read better than you. (“China Mieville, at his talk at the Harvard Bookstore a few weeks ago, said he wrote his YA book ‘Un Lun Dun’ because he’s ‘jealous of the way [young people] read.’”)

  • Michael Chabon writes about the lost wildness of childhood. (It made me remember roaming deep in the thickets that curled around my subdivision, ears perking up when my mom called my name from far down the street — because it was time for dinner.)

I think the rumors of childhood’s death are exaggerated. I base this not on any first-hand experience with children — I have none — but rather on my skepticism that mass media, in any format, can ever match, in terms of pure play potential, a glade of trees and some fallen sticks.

Posted June 27, 2009 at 11:18 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


"... but rather on my skepticism that mass media, in any format, can ever match, in terms of pure play potential, a glade of trees and some fallen sticks."

Agreed, but kids would have to have those things available to them, which is a point for older suburb or rural living.

Many good things in the Chabon essay. (And yes. I'm about to blockquote in the comments.)

"the Wilderness of Childhood, as any kid could attest who grew up, like my father, on the streets of Flatbush in the Forties, had nothing to do with trees or nature. I could lose myself on vacant lots and playgrounds, in the alleyway behind the Wawa, in the neighbors' yards, on the sidewalks"

"Most great stories of adventure, from The Hobbit to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, come furnished with a map. That's because every story of adventure is in part the story of a landscape, of the interrelationship between human beings (or Hobbits, as the case may be) and topography"

I grew up behind a row of factories that included a brickyard. We would climb a neighbor's tree over the stone fence and play next to the loading and unloading trucks, carting masonry bricks over the wall to build forts in the yard. When we weren't doing this, we were playing tackle football with the high school kids, or wandering in the woods where teenagers had sex, homeless built impromptu shacks, where you'd find anything and everything.

My wife Sylvia often says that my childhood was more like her parents' than hers, even though I'm only six months older - her mom raised her, in D.C. and then suburban/rural Georgia, in the shadow of Adam Walsh, child kidnapping, drug gangs, craziness. She had a stay-at-home-mom, a housekeeper, and virtually no unsupervised time.

At the same time, when I think of my dad's childhood, in Detroit in the 1950s, immigrant parents, smoking cigarettes at eight, working close to full-time at thirteen, getting in brutal fistfights that his dad would supervise and sometimes provoke -- I think, hmm, I don't want to do THAT.

At the same time, a lot of that freedom depended on a lot of extrafamily surveillance. It's a lot easier to let your child run free if you're willing to let any adult they know have the authority to supervise and punish them. (Mad Men has a great nod to this - when a child almost knocks over a drink at the party, a guest lectures and spanks them. Then the kid's dad shows up, and apologizes on behalf of his kid.

It's a tough thing. Someone in a family - usually the mom - has to make sure that a child is and feels safe. Someone - in my household's case, the dad - has to make sure the child has the room and the capacity to be fearless. Sometimes these contradict each other, but at a deeper level, I don't think they have to at all.

Robin - I too, thought nothing of mass media could rival my meditations on life in the drainage ditch, the creation of forts out of cut weeds, the creek bed, the path and the big tree but in terms of pure play potential my online experiences of the last few weeks have come pretty damn close.

Posted by: Betty Ann on June 28, 2009 at 12:31 PM

I think there will always be some children/teenagers for whom those woods and magic rival all media, but I think it depends very much on the child. I bet 10 to 1 odds that Robin Sloan, born 12-15 years ago, would still find time to go tromping through the woods, no matter how magical his iPhone/coding adventures/Wii/Garageband set. 5 to 1 that I would. (While I did not get complete access to my own thickets and creeks until the age of 12, I made plenty of use of the parks, building sideyards and even--to my mother's extreme consternation--the water in the gutter in front of the house.) But I bet that many of our playmates, were they also to be reincarnated in the mid-nineties, would not, despite their seeming outdoor enthusiasm in all eras leading up to the late eighties. Kids who played outside because it was social, or an escape, or athletic, have all been given more organized ways to vent that energy. I base this on my experience returning to the same thickets and creeks mentioned above, as a teacher. While these grounds are slightly spoiled by encroaching development, they are still pretty magical. And some kids still do go tromping up there, from the residential tots to the pig-tailed middle schoolers to the veteran backpackers in the senior class. But far fewer, both in absolute terms and percentages, than previously. They've got too much to do and too many friends and too many social networking apps. The ones who rediscover the woods often seem to find it while pursuing some curricular or or organized extra-curricular goal: cross country training, photography, an honors biology project, outdoor 3D art, airplane design, even just training for our big backpacking course. It's a credit to the school that it comes up with 10,000 ways to get them out and playing while still jumping through the hoops, but we all mourn the fact that there's so much nudging required.

Of course, when its time for chemistry class, they always wanted to have "class outside." :-)

A few years ago, Michael Chabon keynoted the American Association of Museums conference with what was to my mind a much more interesting "lost childhood" argument: the loss of kid-controlled crap. He talked about MAD magazine and the first time that adults marketed crap for kids, the first time that saying "poop" was something adults saw as monetizable instead of undesirable. He talked about being small and making up gross and mysterious worlds which he then ditched for the infinitely grosser and cooler worlds marketed to him by adults. He suggested that adults should not be writing books about boogers, that boogers were better when they belonged only to kids. And he called children's museums "unctuous butlers of the imagination." I'll never forget that phrase.

I'm less worried that kids will stop going outside than that we may never stop selling them crap.

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