Monday, July 30, 2007

Let Today's Children Explore

Most days at lunch, I hear cell phones go off, or see middle-aged moms dialing in near-desperation to reach their teenage children. These children are not in Darfur or in the path of a tornado, they are nine blocks away at the high school or grocery store. The children also call their parents, though they usually call their friends first.

When did this desperate desire for constant contact develop, and why? It is surely true that security is on people’s minds these days, but the amount of hourly contact between parents and children seems absurdly high. Perhaps it is unreasonable to single out parents, since teenagers have always been phone-happy with each other. Yet it is the claustrophobic embrace of parents that limits children from developing their own judgment.

I know a family in which the only child, seventeen at the time, once ran six miles home—uphill—to ask his father to come help him change a tire rather than figure it out himself or ask anyone in the small, friendly town where the car had its flat. Even today his parents, accomplished professionals, stick to him like remoras in the apparent absence of lives of their own, though at 21 he has now held a number of interesting summer jobs elsewhere in the country and indeed the world.

How did children get so dependent on their parents in today’s society? When I look back into history, I see a different model. I see Robert Ridgway.

Remembered today as one of North America’s preeminent ornithologists from the late 1800s until his death in 1929, Ridgway had corresponded as a boy with naturalists in the biological survey in Washington. He was eventually offered a spot with one of the major natural history research expeditions to the west.

These surveys were sometimes formally associated with commercial needs, indeed, one of the greatest sets of reports from such expeditions is incongruously titled “Pacific Railroad Reports.” Of course, today in Texas the oil and gas industry is regulated by a body called the Railroad Commission, so nomenclatural peculiarity may not have changed much.

Ridgway went west with the expedition in 1867 and spent almost two years collecting specimens and living detached from towns. He was sixteen years old when he left for the west.

If today’s parents allowed their teenage child to go off into a wilderness for two years with a group of people largely unknown, the child would be forcibly removed into state custody, stuffed into a lavender-scented suburban home, and the parents would be charged with a crime. The child would learn nothing except not to trust the government, which I concede is a good start in life.

The argument that today’s world is more dangerous is simply erased by the example of Ridgway. More dangerous than traveling across the Rockies and into the deserts of the interior west on foot and by horse in 1867? That is not a remotely credible assertion. What are the dangers between home and the grocery store? Sure, drugs are fairly easy to come by, but constant parental phone calls will hardly stop that. I have a good friend, a lawyer, who is the very avatar of the hovering mom, and her daughter is a heroin addict today despite all the contact imaginable.

If I may be permitted an example of childhood exploration from the world of fiction, consider We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea (1937), arguably the best novel by Britain’s Arthur Ransome. Owing to a series of perfectly plausible misfortunes, four children, the oldest perhaps 14, are on board a small sailing vessel when it parts company with its anchor in the harbor and drifts out to sea in a fog. From that point on, the children, who have some experience sailing small boats, have to figure out how to stay alive while blowing across the North Sea under poor conditions. They can’t call for help, they just have to figure it out.

Gary Paulsen’s excellent Voyage of the Frog has a somewhat similar scenario involving one boy and one small boat. Paulsen thinks that young people today can rise to the occasion when necessary—indeed he specializes in this kind of literature—but Frog was published in 1989, when cell phones were less ubiquitous. I wonder how he would deal with today’s always-in-touch modes of living? I suspect through the simple expedient of dropping the cell phone overboard; the ocean is a good venue for stories that require something to disappear beyond recovery. Of course, figuring out how to break a hypothetical 2007 Frog’s built-in GPS and homing signal would take more ingenuity.

What we really have today is a change in expectations of young people’s growth and independence of thought and judgment. As a society, we don’t have any broadly-pursued expectations that make sense; what we have instead is a strange mixture and no norms. We have foie-gras parents whose idea of child-raising is to force-feed their child year after year on an oppressive diet of parent-supervised Good Activities, while never really knowing what their child’s interests are and never allowing the child much room or time for spontaneous exploring in new directions.

We have car-key parents who think a car for the kid solves everything. What it does is change the parents’ worries from time-pressure based on constantly lugging little Jane all over town to phone-pressure: “Jane, where are you right now? Are you ok?” We have indetectable parents, of the kind who didn’t know that their drunken sixteen-year-old was trying to kick in my door at 2:15 one Sunday morning. We of course have some parents who truly raise their children and pay attention to their need for growth in experience and judgment.

Judgment is the key. How is a teenager supposed to learn judgment without ever being allowed to exercise any? We have to allow children to make mistakes. How are teenagers who never have wine with dinner at home going to develop an understanding of what alcohol actually does (until they are off somewhere with their new car keys)?

I have a nineteen-year-old friend who has been rock climbing and going into serious wilderness with his peers for many years, and they have developed their judgment through experience. Last year they wisely aborted a plan to summit Mt. Rainier (having climbed most of the way up) because they could tell from experience that conditions were going to get worse.

This experience of how life really works and how the world really is needs to start before children suddenly go halfway across the country to college, or join the army, or sign up for the summer on an Alaskan trawler. Children need to be encouraged to explore the world in all its glory and strangeness early in life, bumping into objects and falling over experiences, so that their judgment is already a sturdy sapling when they suddenly face the winds of independent adulthood.

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