Thursday, June 25, 2009

Doing nothing

Rita Kramer wonders whether the carefree childhood many of us remember ever really existed in "Whatever Happened to Childhood?" I think it did, and if it doesn't now, more's the pity. Of course alongside the over supervised and planned lives of middle-class kids there are also those without any supervision at all. Kramer:
....Along with the planning of children’s lives today – the testing and the over-scheduling of extracurricular activities, all designed to make sure they are properly prepared for entrance to Harvard – there seems to be a kind of conspiracy to rob them of any free time or free thought. What used to be called play. Child labor has been vanquished in the developed world, but it sometimes seems, ironically enough, as though a different kind of work has been imposed in children’s lives.

Children as a special group, requiring different kinds of living arrangements, considerations, clothing and privileges, is a relatively new concept in the history of mankind. Until well into the 19th century, attitudes toward children were determined by socioeconomic conditions. In the pre-industrial world sons were important as workers on the family-owned land or providers working for others. Daughters were helpers in the household and, in higher circles, instruments of forming marital alliances of benefit to the family or the clan. Sons and daughters were expected to care for their aged parents in later life.

It was only with the burgeoning Romantic Movement and the growth of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century that children began to take on a sentimental significance. More of them lived longer, thanks to advances in obstetrical care and understanding of childhood diseases. And there was less need for their labor within or outside the home. ....

In 1957 Robert Paul Smith published a little book titled “Where did you go?” “Out.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.” In it, he evokes memories of his own untrammeled youth (he was born in 1915) in a landscape dotted with vacant lots that could become pirate ships or Western corrals; the games with rules unknown to grownups (“What we learned we learned from another kid”); the freedom to roam the neighborhood without adult direction; even the uses of boredom – what we would call downtime today and fill up with something useful.

So already in the 1950s Americans were bemoaning the over-supervised life of the child – in this case, typical of the time, the suburban child. Smith, who was a novelist and playwright as well as a father, thought his sons (no girls in his story) were missing out not having time “to sit on the front steps and watch some grass growing.” He says, “It never occurred to us that there was nothing wrong in doing nothing, so long as we kept out of the way of grownups.” ....

In those unenlighted times kids made things up – boys ran around challenging each other to feats of one sort or another, girls acted out their fantasies playing house and dressing their dolls. Of course we know now there is something very wrong with this picture, and we take care that our boys are introduced to gentler pastimes and our girls learn to throw a fast ball. And we worry if the little boy who isn’t allowed to play with guns shoots enemies with his pointed index finger and the little girl still prefers the dollhouse to the dump truck.

The private quiet life of childhood days that Smith and I remember is no more. Whether children are better or worse off being prepared “to take their place in a global economy,” as the educators put it, is hard to say. All we can be sure of is that every generation looks with dismay on “kids today” and looks back on a childhood Eden that may or may not have existed the way we remember it. [more]
Family Security Matters » Publications » Exclusive: Whatever Happened to Childhood?

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