Monday, February 13, 2012

Where Have All The Kids Gone?

When I was a kid I spent a LOT of time outside. We lived in the city, first in a neighbourhood that wasn’t exactly your ideal white-picket-fence-attached-garage kind of affair, then in a neighbourhood that was neither good nor terribly bad, then later in a really nice quiet one. But that doesn’t really matter. No matter where we lived I spent a LOT of time outside doing whatever I felt like doing in a completely undirected manner.

When my husband was a kid he spent what sounds like ALL of his time outside. He and his family lived in a good neighbourhood with lots of kids through his entire childhood and owned a cabin where they spent most of their summers. No matter where they were he spent nearly ALL of his time outside. He fished, rode his bike, helped his dad do work on the property and just generally milled about.

Neither my husband nor I spent this time outdoors completely alone. We spent it with other kids in the neighbourhood. We got up in the morning, hastily gobbled our breakfast then made a break for it to see who was already out. If no one was out we would start knocking on doors. Last week we went on a little walking tour of my husband’s old neighbourhood and thirty years later he can still remember which kids lived in which house and who had the fastest bike or the best stocked snack cupboard. I could probably do the same in my old neighborhoods as well.

When we found out I was pregnant with my son, Oliver, and were looking for a place to live we settled on an apartment close to parks and schools in a neighbourhood where many young families were living. Not because it is a particularly nice apartment, but because our old apartment (which was way nicer) was home to mostly young childless hipsters and backed onto a hospital parking lot. Not exactly a great place for our child to roam free and make friends. But as Oliver gets bigger and our wandering range grows with him I am starting to realize that making friends with the kids in this neighbourhood isn’t going to be as easy for him as I would have thought.

Oliver and I walk everyday, rain, snow, or shine. We meander along at toddler pace looking at rocks and trees and animal footprints; we have several different routs all of which lead through quiet cul-de-sacs, school yards, and public parks. We have been doing this since last summer, over six months, and we have yet to meet any of the kids who live around here. We see evidence of children; snowy footprints leading to and from school and giant family vehicles full of booster seats sitting in drive ways, but we never actually see any children. No street hockey, no bikes, no swing races, no secret forts, nothing.

Where are all the kids?

This question keeps me awake at night, because more than being kind of disappointed that my son hasn’t made any friends in the neighbourhood yet I wonder what this next generation of kids who don’t play outside is going to be like when they are running the show. Surely a generation completely disconnected from the outdoors doesn’t bode well for the health of the environment. A generation of children raised in front of screens and the media onslaught that goes with them can’t be healthy, can they? Can a generation of children who know only the competition of organized sports and not the quiet synchronicity of nature be able to embrace peace and care for their communities? What happens when a generation of kids who have never spent a single moment without adult management and supervision are suddenly in charge of the nursing home I end up in?

Even more I wonder WHY these kids aren’t outside.

The answer cannot be as simple as ‘video games’. I will concede that kid directed media is part of the issue but I am also going to point out that kids with video games also have parents, and I would hope that at least some of those parents don’t allow their kids to spend ALL of their time in front of their games.

I don’t even think the blame is in organized activities. There is definitely a trend towards over scheduling kids these days but I find it hard to believe that every single child in my neighbourhood is completely booked up with extra-curricular activities every single day of the week.   

It could be homework. I was absolutely shocked when my niece, now 10, brought homework with her to stay with me over a weekend when she was only 7. She goes to a public school for six hours a day during which she was expected to sit still and concentrate, and then they wanted her to do even more busy work on the weekend!? What a total crock! But for every kid that does this homework there has to be a number who blow it off and do their own thing anyways right? I certainly hope so.

To be completely honest though, I think all of these things are symptoms of the same problem. People like their kids to have homework and organized sports and video games because it makes them easy to supervise. The reason everyone wants their kids to be easy to supervise is fear.

Fear of the ‘stranger danger’ boogey man. Fear of loss or injury. Fear of looking like a bad parent; of the parenting police coming to take your children away if you make choices that are not in the main stream. Fear of screwing up your kids. Fear of losing control.

Maybe some of these fears are valid concerns, I am not suggesting that we simply stop caring about the well being of our children, but I am suggesting that constantly supervising and micromanaging their activities is maybe not the best way to go about alleviating those fears.

I am suggesting that we need to teach our children to make good choices and then trust them to do that even when we’re not around to make sure they do, we need to think about the life lessons our children are missing out on when they don’t get to roam free and make connections with other kids (without your help), we need to ignore the sanctimonious glares of less confident parents at play group and make empowered decisions for our own families. We need to throw open the kitchen door and tell our kids to get off their butts, make their own fun, and not come back until the street lights come on unless they have a problem.

While my own son is admittedly not at this stage yet I am already finding ways for him to explore his independence. I let him trail behind or run ahead a ways when we are out walking, I don’t insert myself in his play unless he asks me to and I make a lot of room in our lives for free play at home and out of doors, I let him get hurt sometimes, I give him space to do things for himself, and when a fenced yard is available to us (we don’t have one of our own unfortunately) I let him play with only intermittent supervision. But if you are still feeling unsure about allowing your child free play outside in your neighbourhood here are a few safety suggestions that may put your mind at ease:

1) Establish reasonable boundaries: Where a toddler or preschooler may be able to find hours upon hours worth of fun in a small fenced yard, older children may tire quite quickly of the same-old same-old and find themselves right back in front of the television in search of stimulation. I think it is important to let a child’s boundaries grow with them. An older child will want to break out of the yard and explore his home street, a year or two later walking known routs to parks or friend’s houses is perfectly reasonable, a preteen should be geographically adept enough not to get lost in a boundary of blocks and blocks. And your teenager, well once they learn to drive and realize they are independent people you pretty much don’t have a say anyways so unless you plan to chain them up in your basement you may feel better about them having practice being free-range before that particular milestone.

These boundaries depend a lot on your individual child, some six year olds are more responsible than others just as some adults are more responsible than others, but make sure you are giving your children enough opportunity to demonstrate their competence and that they understand and agree with their set boundaries.

2) Regular check-ins: If your child can read time give them a watch and ask them to come say ‘hi’ at set times throughout their time out doors or give them environmental cues like a local church bell or regular delivery service. If your child is not old enough to read time chances are they will be nearby anyways so you can always peak out the door or window occasionally to make sure they’re still playing happily.

3) Decide on a password: Have your child pick a special word that is just between you. If your child is approached by an adult (ANY adult. A stranger or someone they know.) have your child to ask for the password. If you have not OKayed that adult they will not know this secret word and your child should know to come and get you right away.  My password was ‘poopy diapers’ and it was so well established by my mother that I once refused to let my own father drive me home from school because that wasn’t our routine and he couldn’t remember mine and Mom’s password.

4) The buddy system: Two tiny heads are generally better than one. I can’t count the number of times I watched out for younger siblings and other kids, and my siblings and other kids from our neighbourhood looked out for me. If something does happen like a child is hurt or about to make a really poor personal safety decision there is another pair of legs to run home for help (or another voice to second the poor personal safety decision, but really, who didn’t twist their ankle or break an arm trying to fly from tree top to tree top as a kid!?).Either way, finding your kid a friend/side-kick can help alleviate a little anxiety you may have.

5) Be available: Just to be clear, while I think unsupervised child-directed time outdoors is a right of passage, I am by no means suggesting you say good riddance at the door. Your children need to know that you are there for them if they happen to have a problem and they need to have a safe place to come home to. In short you need to be available.

In my opinion the kind of free-range childhood that I am suggesting does not work without a strong parent-child attachment. If your child is going to be unwilling to tell you things because they don’t want to be punished, don’t feel they will be listened to, accepted, and loved unconditionally no matter what it leaves room for dangerous situations to go unreported and overlooked. If your child has been taught through common punitive forms of discipline that they have no power, or that right and wrong can be dictated to them by anyone bigger than they are, there is room for manipulation. I will even go as far as to suggest that without a strong attachment, spending a lot of time outside alone may feel to the child more like abandonment than freedom. I will also say that while unsupervised and undirected time to play is important, our children also like to spend time with us so if they ask you to play, be available.  

In whatever way you can, whether you are willing to try giving your kids unsupervised time outside or not. Just get your kids outside as much as you can because my outside loving child and I are getting kind of lonely out here! 


Malcolm+ said... [Reply to comment]

There was an article a few years ago that traced children's "ranges" over a several generations of a family living in the same house in England. IIRC, while the great-grandfather had ranged as far as 12 miles from home in his tween / early teen years, the great-grandson was scarcely out to the end of the street at the comparable age, unless supervised or transported by parents.

Can't remember where I read it to try and find the link.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

I had miles to wander as a kid growing up on a family farm. My kids had blocks to wander, an always-growing area, as they aged. At one point there were about 13 kids on our block and they all played outside whenever they could.

I do hear kids outside now and then on our current block, not so much in winter, but in the summer they own the back alley and make their way to the park! So, there's hope, Julian.

Julian@connectedmom said... [Reply to comment]

SO glad to hear that! Next time we move I will be looking more for actual people outside and not just lots of schools and parks.

Around here the only people we see on a regular basis are the dog owners.

The Water Girl said... [Reply to comment]

My son is only 8 months, so there isn't a lot of going out on his own yet, but when the weather is nice my neighborhood is full of kids. A few weeks ago it snowed on a weekend and a bunch of them were out in the yard next door making an activity I remember doing with neighborhood kids 20 years ago. So there is hope!

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