Perhaps it's because I'm just finishing off reading Huckleberry Finn, or maybe it's because my own son, Mac Thomaltaigh, at two, is beginning to develop his own little appetite for exploration (he seems to be particularly interested in the little area behind the wooden shed where I have put old pipes and bricks out of sight), or it could be none of these things, but I have been thinking quite a lot about childhood lately.
Maybe it's part of that nostaligia thing that I'm going through, these vivid imaginings of episodes and relationships from my childhood that I'm denying has anything to do with the concept of a mid life crisis! (In coversations with self I convince myself that my life isn't in crisis - this cannot be a crisis, for if it is then I can imagine that it will throw me into pure calamity when more nasty things happen, as they surely will. So not happy to concede on the term crisis, I tend to settle for the softer 'defining period'.)
One way or another childhood has been on my mind lately, which is probably what drew me towards Huck Finn (I had never read it). It's a beautiful and amazing work and I am enjoying its every line. But in this frame of mind a personal essay about Childhood by Michael Chabon in the NY review of books caught my attention.
In a beautiful piece Chabon talks about one essential component of childhood - the freedom to head off, through streets or woods, with others or alone, every or most days, and just conduct a little adventure. This aspect of childhood, according to Chabon, and I tend to agree, is, sadly, almost a thing of the past.
Chabon talks about his pursuits in Woodlands near his early home, and then antics round a more urban environment later on. The sense of adventure wasn't just spontaneous, but inspired by stories - from legend to history to childhood myths about other adventurers. He described this experience as being his "Wilderness of Childhood" and is now struck by the incredible degree of freedom his parents gave him to roam there. But ... "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.".
Now it's all about control ...
Nowadays, "we schedule their encounters for them, driving them to and from one another's houses so they never get a chance to discover the unexplored lands between. If they are lucky, we send them out to play in the backyard, where they can be safely fenced in and even, in extreme cases, monitored with security cameras."
And it's all about irrational fear, especially the that seems to have taken over these days, fear of abduction...
Yet "in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of abductions by strangers in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was."
The freedom Chabon enjoyed was "a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible."
He then mentions taking his daughter for a trial on her new bicycle in their leafy neighbourhood on a beautiful afternoon. What stunned him most was the absence of other children. There were none in sight. The streets were empty.
It would be easy for us to lament the lack of community in the states and how different it is here. Thankfully, it is different, but the trend, in urban areas at least, is towards something approximating Chabon's descriptions of childhood taken over by adults and under continual surveillance.
Mac Thomaltaigh isn't old enough yet to be on the street, so I have no idea of the pressures involved or how real fears are of calamity or just malign influence. But from friends and neighbours who have kids I know that there seems to be a huge level of parental intrusion into 'child time'. In some cases it is security related - text me when you leave the concert, text again when you're on the bus, and I'll pick you up at the bus stop. And so on.
But some of it is pure ambition to create the best possible future for one's children. Here in South Dublin you are either careless or broke if you don't bother to send your kid to a good fee paying school. And bring them to piano lessons. And do three soccer runs a week, and two karate, or whatever. The kids must enjoy all of this. Surely there'd would be feedback from them if they didn't? And surely it would be heeded if it were given?
But in some instances I sense a parent who is living vicariously, seeing their own child as a vehicle for fulfilling the dreams they, the parent, had for themselves but which, life in all its vagaries, frustrated. A sense of pushing them - not in the direction they necessarily would like to go (as if they should have any choice!), but where oneself wanted to go once upon a time.
This is probably a real temptation - and isn't nessarily always negative. But looking at it as I just head for that territory, I feel myself wondering if childhood has been over colonised by adults. And if, by falling prey to hyped fears, and our own weaknesses for status and advancement, we aren't robbing our children of something that is precious;
Aparrently in Japanese they refer to childhood as 'little boy time' or 'little girl time'. It is precious territory and we would do well not to conquer it fully. After all, it is not 'little adult time'.