Tuesday, July 24, 2018

To Savor What It Means To Be Free

A few days ago, I was waiting for a crosswalk light near the new Amazon headquarters in downtown Seattle. It was a Sunday so traffic was light even as the sidewalks were crowded. Waiting with me was a boy and girl, probably brother and sister. They looked to be about eight and six years old respectively. They were walking a dog. We stood together a few seconds before they bolted across the street against the red light. I expected to hear a panicky adult voice calling out after them, but there was none. I watched them cross safely, then begin to cut and dodge across the new, artful landscaping, ignoring the sidewalks, their little dog racing along with them. I thought that certainly they were running to their parents, but when I caught up with them, they were in the small off-leash area that serves as the bullseye of the building's public area, with no supervising adults to be seen.

As a boy, even as a very young boy, we spent our summer days roaming the neighborhood in the company of other children. If we did have interactions with adults other than around meal times, they were brief. It's not that we avoided grown-ups exactly, but there was a general understanding that if we got one of them involved in what we were doing, they would correct our grammar or otherwise scold us, maybe not ending the fun, but certainly putting a damper on it. As for the adults, I can't know for sure, but I imagine they felt more or less the same way, except that from their end, they preferred not being distracted from their important grown-up activities by these little people who forever needed their grammar corrected or to be otherwise scolded.

It was both shocking and refreshing to have witnessed this competent brother and sister out in the world on their own, doing what would have been considered normal in my own childhood, but what now sadly stands out as a rarity.

We spent our days outdoors, in the company of other children, with lots of time, and, perhaps most importantly, unsupervised. Sadly, this generation of children is growing up under almost constant supervision. Whereas our mothers had the luxury of saying to us, "You're driving me crazy: go outside," today's parents are more likely to replace the outdoors with screens because we've come to view children playing unsupervised outdoors as harrowing, even illegal. I doubt our world is more dangerous now that it was back then, indeed the crime statistics indicate the world is actually safer now, but our perceptions of pedophiles, kidnappers, or murders behind every tree has caused us to hold our children so close that we're preventing them from experiencing the freedom that belongs to childhood.

As important adults in the lives of children, it's incumbent upon us to find ways to allow our kids to experience the kind of independence that characterized childhood for most of human history. There is deep and important learning that takes places within the culture created by children out in the world on their own, free from the corrections and scolding. Even our school yards and playgrounds have been designed to prevent this from happening: they are all flat and open with scant opportunities to even temporarily hide from the prying eyes and ears of the grown-ups. It's as if we have not only lost our trust in our fellow adults, but also our own children, as if they unduly risk corruption or injury merely by ducking into a dark nook to tell secrets with their friends.

Sadly, we may never be able to return to the "golden age of childhood" where kids roamed unsupervised, but we can at least work on training ourselves to stand down from our posture as adult, to bite our tongues against the urge to correct or scold or guide or instruct at every moment, trusting that the children, in the company of others, are doing exactly what they ought to be doing, which is, to learn to savor what it means to be free.

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