Friday, May 20, 2011

Losing Childhood

In the April 2011 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, there were three review articles devoted to books about parenting and childhood. The first two covered various angles of Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother book. The third, written by Christina Schwarz and entitled “Leave Those Kids Alone,” posed a related but broader question: What happened to just letting kids play?

Schwarz took as her jumping off point a memoir of childhood originally published in 1957 and recently reissued called “Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing.” This book, written by a man named Robert Paul Smith, simultaneously reminisces about childhood play in the early 20th century and disparages adult-organized activities of the 1950s like summer camps and Little League. It invokes a nostalgic world where a child had the space – both physical and metaphorical – to engage in kinds of play that seem foreign today, to, in Smith’s words, take the opportunity to “find out whether he breathes differently when he’s thinking about it than when he’s just breathing,” or to, in Schwarz’s words, “stare at the sky and study the imperfections in his own eyeball.” To put it simply, Smith describes a world where play was, frankly, to do nothing in particular.

In contrast to Smith’s vision of a “Tom Sawyer childhood,” Schwarz half-heartedly jokes that contemporary kids, “boxed-in by adult-imposed structure[s]” in the form of professional music lessons, high-intensity soccer leagues, and foreign-language tutoring, “apparently…have for so long been deprived of time and space to play that they no longer know how. They’re like those eyeless fish in caves.” She then argues, more seriously, that in the process of all this developmental work something of true value is being lost. “Childhood,” she concludes, “those first, fresh experiences of the world, unclouded by reason and practicality, when you are the center of existence and anything might happen – should be regarded less as a springboard to striving adulthood than as a well of rich individual perception and experience to which you can return for sustenance throughout life.”

While I might quibble with Schwarz that there is some balance to be struck between living in the now and working towards the future in all stages of life, I am in full agreement with the main thrust of her argument. Young kids get sucked into a lot of organized stuff these days, and I’m dubious that all this commotion will help them live happier lives. I say this, in part, because my own best memories from being 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 years old reflect the kind of play Smith describes: heading out with one of my friends to explore the creeks and wooded areas around my house, hopping on my bike and repeatedly riding up and down hills with other kids from the neighborhood, grabbing my sled on a snowy day and walking off in search of the best place to slide or jump or fall, playing pick-up games first of spotlight tag and later of basketball, football, and wiffleball. There were days during the summer when the only times my sister and I saw my parents were during meals and at bedtime.

Now, thirty years later, it’s difficult for me to imagine my own kids playing this way. The kind of creative play and unsupervised freedom that I enjoyed - at what now seems like an incredibly young age - was enabled and supported by a set of conditions that I believe are less and less easy to find in our present child-raising environment.

For one thing, they don’t physically build neighborhoods the same way anymore. The two neighborhoods I grew up in were both built one house at a time. Empty lots were left intact with all their trees and rocks and dips and swells. The drainage areas where the creeks ran were wooded and undeveloped. Backyards were rarely fenced in. These were the spaces in which we traveled. These were the spaces of adventure and exploration, the ones where we built forts and climbed trees, the spots where we imagined entirely new worlds for ourselves. Now, it is common practice in developing a new middle-class neighborhood to bulldoze every living thing, grade out each lot, build a whole bunch of houses at once, and fence in every backyard. The only open spaces available for play are the sidewalks, the roads, and the specifically designated playgrounds. It’s a limited and limiting terrain.

Even more important than the physical changes in neighborhood construction over the last thirty years is that the social structure that existed in my old neighborhoods is now more difficult to find. For starters, one of the things that gave my mother the confidence to let my sister and me roam was her reasonable assumption that were we to get into real trouble someone would be around to help us out. I don’t have that same confidence with my current middle-class neighborhood. So many of the households contain two working parents that people are just not around as much. The parents are occupied every day at least until dinner. The kids are in after-school programs or the assorted variety of other organized activities that fill the time until the parents’ workdays are through. This gives the space around us an emptiness that I don’t remember my old neighborhoods having. (though I can’t blame many parents for going ahead and tracking kids into focused training in music or language or sports or whatever. If you are going to have to pay someone to take care of the kids anyway, they might as well gain something from the investment.)

Another reason for this feeling of emptiness may be the labor mobility that is now so highly prized in the middle and upper reaches of our economy. The nature of the contemporary geography of employment is such that moving up often means moving out, and the constant shuffling involved undercuts the network of relations that enable us to trust our neighbors with our kids. For example, we moved into our current neighborhood last July. This in and of itself is not that big a deal. In the neighborhoods of my youth there were always a few people moving in and moving out. However, as more and more people become movers, it leaves fewer people to anchor the social community of the neighborhood. There is a tipping point where this web begins to break apart and each new family that moves in has to build a network instead being able to merge into an established one. I feel like this is the situation we are in right now.

All of these dynamics also have ramifications for our kids’ development. One of the more significant social structures among the kids in both neighborhoods of my childhood was a generational chain through which the commonly known games, stories, secret places and such of the neighborhood was passed down from older kids to younger kids. There was nothing official or ceremonial about this. It just happened as a consequence of the mixing of ages involved in our play.

If it appears that children now no longer know how to play, I would argue that this is in part because this generational chain has been ruptured. As kids have become more engaged in activities outside the neighborhood - and in the process are more and more segregated into distinct age groups – the cross-fertilization that occurs among a group of heterogeneous ages is being lost. This leaves parents like me in the awkward position of trying to fill this absence, of trying to generate games and start up adventures that stimulate and push my kids the way I was by my efforts to keep up with the older kids in the neighborhood.

Ultimately, Schwarz would see my efforts in this regard as another example of an “interfering adult” whose structures are sapping childhood of its magic. She might even see me as being just as implicated in the atrophy of childhood as the Tiger Mothers or Tennis Fathers who so adamantly drive their children toward adult achievements. In either case, her article ends with a final plea directed at people like me that we back off our kids just a bit and allow them the freedom to live as children instead of as adults-in-the-making. It is a sentiment I want to wholeheartedly embrace. Unfortunately, I think it will take more than just stepping back to give our kids the childhood Schwarz imagines they should have.

Interested in stories about our family or just some thoughts about being a parent in this day and age?

Take a look at my blog at

There's a new post every Thursday.


  1. I'm reading a good book right now that touches on this subject--Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau. Someone recommended it to me on my blog:

    Schwartz is correct in saying that play has disappeared, but only among the middle class and upper class. Play still very much exists among the working class and poor. Lareau argues that both have advantages and disadvantages--kids who free-play become creative and happy, while kids who load up on soccer camps and baseball league learn how to operate in an organized adult world.

  2. Thanks for the book suggestion. The class differences present in childhood play seem intriguing though I wonder if with TV, video games, and the internet the very idea of "nothing" or boredom that Schwarz was eulogizing is possible for anyone any more.