Rosin devotes a lot of space to research done in 1972 by Roger Hart, who followed children around a New England town to document how they steadily expanded the range of their explorations. He found little towns of shacks and forts in the woods where children as young as four played for hours without any parent in sight. These descriptions feel, as Rosin says, like accounts of a lost civilization.
In 2004, Hart returned to the same town to do a follow-up study. His aim was to reconnect with any kids he had written about who still lived within 100 miles of the town and see how they were raising their own children, and also to track some of the kids who now lived in the town. But from the first day he arrived, he knew he would never be able to do the research in the same way. . . .
At one point Hart tracked down Sylvia, one of the girls he’d filmed at the river house. “Roger Hart! Oh my God, my childhood existed,” she screamed into the phone. “It’s just that I’m always telling people what we used to do, and they don’t believe me!” Sylvia was now a suburban mom of two kids (ages 5 and 4), and she and her husband had moved into a new house 30 miles away. When Hart went to visit Sylvia, he filmed the exchange. Standing outside in her backyard, Sylvia tells him she bought this house because she wanted to give her own children the kinds of childhood experiences she’d had, and when she saw the little wooded area out back, her “heart leapt.” But “there’s no way they’d be out in the woods,” she adds. “My hometown is now so diverse, with people coming in and out and lots of transients.” Hart reminds her how she used to spend most of her time across the river, playing. “There’s no river here,” she tells him, then whispers, “and I’m really glad about that.” There will soon be a fence around the yard—she mentions the fence several times—“so they’ll be contained,” and she’ll always be able to see her kids from the kitchen window. . . .
Of all the people Hart caught up with, they seem to have tried the hardest to create some of the same recreational opportunities for their own children that they’d had. Jenny bought a house, with a barn, near a large patch of woods; she doesn’t let her sons watch TV or play video games all that much, instead encouraging them to go to the barn and play in the hay, or tend the garden. She says she wouldn’t really mind if they strayed into the woods, but “they don’t want to go out of sight.” Anyway, they get their exercise from the various sports teams they play on. Jenny gets some of her girlish self back when she talks about how she and the boys pile up rocks in the backyard to build a ski jump or use sticks to make a fort. But Jenny initiates these activities; the boys usually don’t discover them on their own.I can explain this “loss of trust”: it happens because people no longer know their neighbors and rely on the news for their notion of what is happening around them rather than talking to people. The news tends to turn very rare events into commonplaces, so that people end up worrying about things like stranger abduction that are rarer than lightning strikes.
Among this new set of kids, the free range is fairly limited. They don’t roam all that far from home, and they don’t seem to want to. Hart talked with a law-enforcement officer in the area, who said that there weren’t all that many transients and that over the years, crime has stayed pretty steady—steadily low. “There’s a fear” among the parents, Hart told me, “an exaggeration of the dangers, a loss of trust that isn’t totally clearly explainable.”
The puzzling thing about all this is that most of the parents I know feel as ambivalent about attempts to make children safe as Rosin does, and quite a few of them are adamantly opposed. I once mentioned to the men I play basketball with that I didn't think my kids knew how to organize a pick-up game, and this produced a passionate response from two of them who really worry about what children have lost in our age of organized activities. Rosin tosses out the standard line about over-scheduling:
Ask any of my parenting peers to chronicle a typical week in their child’s life and they will likely mention school, homework, after-school classes, organized playdates, sports teams coached by a fellow parent, and very little free, unsupervised time.But this absolutely does not apply to my children and I don't think it applies to most of their friends, either. My kids have oceans of free, unsupervised time. The thing is, they spend it in front of the television or the computer screen. My 12-year-old is perfectly happy to spend ten hours a day watching videos of other people playing video games. Rosin mentions that one of the contemporary parents studied by Roger Hart builds forts with her children because they won't do it on their own, and this is my experience as well.
What is this about? Is it mainly because with cable TV and video games it is just more fun to stay inside now? Is it because the declining density of children in the average neighborhood means fewer potential playmates? Is it because some kids are crazily overprotected and over-scheduled and this leaves the rest lonely and bored? Are safe playgrounds just a lot less fun? Has the sick fearfulness of so many American adults spread to children? And is it true, as some fear, that the anxiety issues of today's young adults stem from their overly safe, excessively supervised childhoods?
There has to be a better way. We shouldn't let a minority of worryworts ruin childhood for everyone, and maybe we need better ways to encourage children to get out in the world and build, explore, and discover for themselves.