Art & Exploration

Having grown up on the Swiss country side and being allowed and taught to be adventurous and self-sufficient at a very early age, the below excerpt from Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs makes me sad about living in a city with kids.

“What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children’s imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible. Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride her bicycle. Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it—nowhere that I was willing to let her go. Should I send my children out to play?

There is a small grocery store around the corner, not over two hundred yards from our front door. Can I let her ride there alone to experience the singular pleasure of buying herself an ice cream on a hot summer day and eating it on the sidewalk, alone with her thoughts? Soon after she learned to ride, we went out together after dinner, she on her bike, with me following along at a safe distance behind. What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of our lovely residential neighborhood at that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn’t encounter a single other child.

Even if I do send them out, will there be anyone to play with?
Art is form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted–not taught–to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?”

(via Raul)

8 Comments leave a comment below

  1. yes! that passage killed me… such a wonderful book. thanks for bringing it back to the forefront of my mind.

  2. I think it is good that your kids are growing up in a city. If you yourself enjoy the city and want to take full advantage of it, of course. I have a two year old and will do anything possible to live in the city so that he will be able to take the subway on his own and go to a neighborhood store on his own. When one lives in a suburban neighborhood or a small town, many activities are likely to require driving and the kids truly don’t have much opportunity to be independent.

    If there were more parents who were interested in encouraging their children’s independence, it would be more likely that the little girl from the story you shared could find someone to play with.

    With the insistence of play dates (I positively object to the term and practice of scheduling kids) and obsession with safety, we create kids who feel less safe. And this is not just opinion, there is very good research showing that kids are getting more anxious with time. Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and wrote several book and many scientific articles on how the children of today are different from children of several decades ago. In one article she concludes: “The average American child in the 1980s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s.”

    I would ask parents to think about consequences of what they do in the name of safety in the longer run, beyond the immediate situation of making themselves feel less worried. We are good at telling kids they are great and capable, but we have also to show them that we mean it. Are they really great and capable if they are not trusted to go to a corner store? And do we really want to tell them that even if they are capable of doing it, the world is such a dangerous place they should not do it? That is not the message I want to give my son.

  3. Like.

    Especially interesting with all the 7,000,000,000 humans and rural vs. urban population statistics these days…

    …also, it makes me wonder about how general immune system (and allergy) trends have/are/will change with populations moving from rural to urban environments…

    –S

  4. I think about this all of the time. I grew up in a small rural community in Nova Scotia, Canada and would be roaming the neighbourhood for hours at a time. Now I cannot believe I am raising city kids in Vancouver, BC Canada. We are very fortunate with our current neighbourhood we have an awesome park complete with wooded trails we explore constantly and the kids are loving hiking which is very popular here. BUT I was still kind of sad when this summer was the first time my sons caught a frog “in the wild” – something I took for granted as a kid. And I do keep the kids close at ages 7 and 4 I am not ready for them to be off on their own like I was at their ages.

  5. I spent the first 10 years of my life in Singapore, where my parents had to drive me to see my friends and where friends would often stay for the night when they came to visit me. The space we had to roam around in was limited to our large yard and the cul-de-sac street we lived on. We later moved to Switzerland, where on one of our very first days there, my grandmother sent me down to the local grocery for a loaf of bread and a head of lettuce. I still remember vividly that first unaccompanied walk and the exhilarating feeling of freedom I felt.

    I now live in Los Angeles and am a mother of two. History is repeating itself. This summer we visited Switzerland. I made a point of sending my kids to buy bread and milk all on their own several times. They are 7 and 5. They walked hand in hand and had to cross the road three times to get to the store. How disappointing it was to have to feel so nervous while they were gone, but how satisfying to see their proud and happy faces when they returned.

  6. I grew up on a farm in Iowa, and it was the loneliest place you could imagine. I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until I was 12 years old, because there was simply nowhere to ride my bike to. I certainly wasn’t going to be riding my bike 7 miles down the highway and gravel roads to my friends.

    Be glad you are raising your children in the city. Every day here in Seattle I am so thankful to be surrounded by life, not crickets.

  7. It’s true, kids of this generation don’t have nearly as much independence as the past few generations. But that doesn’t mean they will be less imaginative, only that their imagination will be nurtured and discovered in different ways. Which will lead to different ideas and expressions. That, actually, is a good thing. Anytime people look at the experience of one or several generations, we’re looking at a miniscule slice of human history. Time was, kids had to work and weren’t running around on bikes chasing butterflies and buying ice-cream cones. Things constantly change, but imagination doesn’t disappear.

  8. Really this is a comment on the change in our times. The predators that prowl for children were not discussed when I was a child, not more than the warning, “Never take candy from a stranger,” which was as cryptic as it was frightening.

    I remember reckless hours spent wandering, walking a half mile to a friend’s house alone, walking to kindergarten class one block away. My mother was thrilled to be free of me and I was thrilled to be on my own, even if I was bored.

    Our society today is so frightening, I wouldn’t dare let a child run free in America, rural or city. I don’t know that there are many safe places left for this sort of play…

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