Harriet the Spy. Encyclopedia Brown. Meg and brother Charles Wallace, Ramona, Beezus, Pippi and that “My Side of the Mountain” kid (what was his name?). They all shared something other than spunk.
Freedom of movement was a given in midcentury children’s literature. Of course, the kids starring in books did more than most of their human peers.
They solved crimes, befriended beavers, saved parents stuck in other dimensions. But the normal stuff they did—hopping on their bikes, walking into town, playing outside—that has become almost as mythic as the ability to fly or cast spells.
I was just reading an essay by a mom who said it actually felt strange—sad and unnerving—to read the 1960s book “A Pocketful of Cricket” to her son, knowing he would not be growing up in an era affording him anything like the freedom she or the boy in the book had.
And as sad as that is to mull, it is also infuriating. There is no reality-based reason kids today can’t be part of a world that is so interesting—a world that is theirs.
Our culture seems to think nothing of depriving the people we ostensibly love the most—children—of the chance to be fully alive when they are young. Having adventures. Meeting crickets. Making some memories when something goes totally wrong or totally right.
We say we can’t let them have the freedom their parents and grandparents enjoyed because we are trying to keep them safe. But this relentless focus on safety only makes sense if we are talking about Rembrandt paintings or a Ming vase. Might as well keep those safe in a temperature-controlled room. There is no upside to exposing them to anything other than hushed tones and velvet-gloved hands. Kids, though—they’re precious, yes. But they aren’t precious things. They grow when they get a chance to do, see, try, run, fall—and they stall when they don’t.
Think back on your own childhood—the thing you absolutely loved doing. Was there always an adult supervising you?
I can almost see you shaking your head.
A classic article in The Daily Mail several years back titled “How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Four Generations” interviewed four members of the same family. The great-grandad, 88, recalled walking 6 miles at age 8 to play with friends and make forts in the woods. His son-in-law, 63, walked a mile or so to do the same thing at the same age. The daughter, in her 30s, walked half a mile to school.
And she does not let her 8-year-old son off the block.
That is not progress. That is the gradual strangulation of childhood. And yet it has become so accepted that those who resist—who want their kids to roam like Pippi, Harriet or Charles Wallace—find themselves outliers. Just this morning, I spoke with a mom in Virginia visited twice by the cops for letting her young kids play on the front lawn.
Yesterday, it was another mom. She was watching her son and daughter, 4 and 5, play in the backyard, but when she went inside to change the baby, they wandered into the woods. When the mom called the cops to ask for help finding them, they obliged, found the kids—and referred the mom to child protective services.
“What law are you guys using?” she asked. Replied one of them, she says, “To be honest with you, letting your kids play outside alone is considered neglect.”
Paging Encyclopedia Brown! Someone has stolen childhood. Do you think you can get it back?