Children—Born Connected, Yet Everywhere Enclosed.

Leo Reynolds Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England, UK

Leo Reynolds Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England, UK

Rousseau’s oft-quoted line from his political treatise, The Social Contract, reads, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.” I am drawn to this after having  just finished reading a blog post about the work of anthropologists and social scientists (notably Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren) to chronicle children’s street culture. The post by Birguslatro compares the lives of children before and after their worlds had been circumscribed by adult fears. And circumscribed seems to me to be the only way to describe it.

My childhood was one of freedom. My mother’s constant litany to my brothers and me was, “Go outside and play.  I don’t want to see you until supper.”  The current state of children’s freedom is not even remotely recognizable as free. And don’t even begin to equate mouse clicks to biking anywhere I wanted. Don’t even. Here is the paragraph in the post that summarizes the difference.

Outside of pockets of extreme deprivation, children’s society is severely restricted by our practice of placing children under the equivalent of house arrest. In only three generations, children in the British Isles as well as the United States have lost their freedom to roam, their independently explorable territories shrinking from hundreds of acres to the dimensions of each child’s own back yard. This is not an accusation toward parents; their decisions reflect their judgments about their children’s safety in the world. Specifically, parents judge that there is no community beyond their doors that they can rely on to keep their children safe.

We are entering a brave new world of circumscription that really has me worried about what has been lost and what gained.  I am not the bitter old man on the porch. I champion freedoms of all kinds, virtual and actual. Like the post argues, I don’t think the Internet caused the problem.  In fact, the Internet is the last bastion of childhood freedom.  It is the last of the childhood commons. And, as the post argues, this has some  negative affordances.

The failure of adult culture, both its physical architecture and its social institutions, has impoverished children’s culture. And in return, children no longer avidly train, in their play, to take over the burden of preserving and remaking adult culture.

If that future doesn’t leave you chilled, I don’t know what will.  Once this connection dies who knows what will take its place.  Something will take its place, it is just an unknown and unknowable something.

The post ends with a sad and diminished expectation that leaves me despising myself for the world of connections we have left to our generations, reduced and enclosed.

Somewhere a child alone in his room, wearing headphones, is fighting ‘Jenny wi the airn teeth’, a computer-controlled enemy in a video game. But perhaps at least it is a multiplayer game, and he has his fellows with him.

baba yaga’s forest abode by Liddell on deviantART

Birguslatro. “The Last of the Monsters with Iron Teeth.” Carcinisation. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.

13 thoughts on “Children—Born Connected, Yet Everywhere Enclosed.

  1. Terry Terry Terry. I was fortunate to have a childhood that, while fraught with some really terrible things, was also filed with many days of freedom – building tree forts, finding frogs’ eggs, smoking in cornfields, and endlessly riding bikes. These times did help us kids figure things out for ourselves without adult interpretation of norms and expectations. Because we were not given structure or rules, we had to think for ourselves and make decisions on our own. No one watched us smoke in the dry cornfield, so we knew we had to be careful. (My little brother did almost set the woods on fire once, but that is now fodder for stories and laughter and was probably not nearly as big a deal as it has become as a family myth.) I remember the pain of blatantly honest peer feedback, which I gave and received and learned from, often the hard way and sometimes not until years later. As a teacher, even at an alternative school (and sometimes especially at an alternative school) I constantly experience parents who enable their kids’ “fragility” and “weakness” ni a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. When I was a kid, no one “parented,” or read books about supporting fragile egos and boosting self-esteem. Life managed to teach us these things or not, but either way we faced reality. I am not a grumpy ogre on the porch either. And there are pockets of freedom here and there. But as you said, the real horrors are generations of kids who have not been allowed to “avidly train, in their play, to take over the burden of preserving and remaking adult culture.” Passive receptors. Non-generative. Fear-filled. Reactive.

    1. Yes, fortune smiled on us in so many ways. It may very well be that sometime in the future we will be able to virtually recreate the unpredictability of jumping on a bike on a Saturday morning to go to the library via every available sidestreet and alley possible. Jeez, I used to bring my cello to and from home on my front bicycle rack in junior high school. I used to stop underneath the yellow light of a street lamp and read the newspaper after I delivered it in the morning. And these and a thousand more memories flood the tide of my memory as it ebbs and flows. Don’t know how that will be simulated. But I do think the Web gives us a differently rich and chaotic world. How could I have met all of you otherwise? My point is that we are at a critical juncture with a critical question: what will happen if we continue down this path? It is also a ridiculous question since no one can predict with any certitude what will happen in such a complex system. I do know this: once you have broken an existing system you have the Humpty-Dumpty problem. I live in a community where agri-culture has been broken. Our governments (state and local) thought that the problem of tobacco could be solved by compensating with subsidies those who would be losing their tobacco bases.

      Simple technocratic solutions to cultural solutions are inevitably stupid. In the case of tobacco, people could no longer farm in a way that fit the climate and soil profile and a thousand other connections built over two hundred years of agri-culture.

      And I see the same problem here. It is not that the games of our childhood are intrinsically better than those of kids today just better connected (although mumblypeg was pretty good). And by that I mean they had the benefit of time and history to fit and forge them together. What happens in the meantime when you drop that for an utterly revolutionary new culture? I don’t know. It is the unknown unknown, the Black Swan, that troubles me. As usual, your mileage might vary. Prediction is fun, but pointless. Tobacco work songs are dead, long live the work song. Hopscotch is dead, long live hopscotch. Nintendo is dead, long live….well, it just doesn’t have the same ring does it.

      I guess I really am the curmudgeon on the porch. Long live the curmudgeon.

  2. This is such an important topic, and wow, the Baba Yaga image is a great one. Our childhoods are made up of so many different elements, and when you look back over it and start teasing apart the different threads, it’s like a mystery we will never figure out. I had the freedom to roam, but what I mostly did was to pack up my books into a pink plastic make-up box that my mother had thrown away and which I had rescued (the packing up of the books was a very solemn ritual), and tote my books into my secret place, wherever that happened to be (in some bushes when we lived in Oregon, in a drainage pipe out in the desert when we lived in Tucson). And what I remember most is all those books… but it’s also hard to imagine not having been allowed to go to my secret place. Did my parents know where I went? I should ask them! I certainly thought it was a great secret.

  3. Thanks Terry for sharing these reflections. I think you raise important points about the importance of play, caring community, and above all freedom.

    My perspective on this is of course nuanced by my own childhood experiences, the communities within which I have lived, I live.

    I wouldn’t share your sadness, or a feeling that I or you represent a ‘generation’ which is responsible for enclosure or for reduced connections for our children.

    I have confidence in kids. Even in pervasive morosity of apparent retraction of freedom.

    Whilst developments u depict are evident, there are others which are more hopeful.

    I choose to focus on glimpses of light in the pervading darkness.

    That maybe absurd. I suppose that I embrace a positive version of punk nihilism. No future, no future for you…


    1. One of my favorite expressions is YMMV,your mileage may vary. Every story I tell and experience I relate is YMMV, a sample of one, local truth. I also published a zeega today to counter the yin of my post’s yang. Reflecting on your latest post, I think I am struggling with the anger of impotence in the face of the status quo–and that Latin papers over a world of difficulty with my own practice and discipline. ‘Tis, I hope, the energy and not the despair of anger.

  4. This post was really, really painful for me to read. And I’m going to admit something here. I don’t think whatever is going on in the US compares to what happens to some kids here in Egypt. And I’m not talking the poor kids. I’m talking the semi-rich ones. The poor kids… their parents will let them roam. The really rich kids, they have a semblance of a backyard or something. But they’re only permitted to roam in limited places, so either a gated community or private house. The rest of us, for the most part, live in apartment buildings with no greenery that is walkable because of all the pollution from the denseness of the area and the cars (and these are affluent neighborhoods still). There are “clubs” (not like country clubs, but membership is expensive enough so only elites go; there are also sporting clubs that are more famous e.g. for their soccer teams, slightly cheaper) – and I’m lucky that I live near one of those, and I can take my daughter and let her roam (almost unconditionally) there. But I’ve lived in the US and UK where there are miles and miles of parks everywhere you turn and raising my daughter in big city Cairo without these opportunities makes me feel guilty. What makes me feel even guiltier is how my husband’s obsessive-compulsive-control-freakish-overprotective parenting might affect my daughter as she grows up. I resist and I try to let her play and make her mistakes, etc., but whenever he’s present he’s overprotective and it sends her back a few steps. e.g. one day I let her learn to climb the stairs up to a higher slide, and slide on her own (scaffolded until she could do it even when I was looking the other way; and then he came one day and insisted he hold on to her as she climbed and came down, and she spent a month afraid to go up that slide on her own. It was painful).

    When my daughter was a baby my husband would be really afraid of me going out with her alone. Granted, it was after the revolution and it could be perceived as scary, but really, broad daylight, with my child in an Ergo carrier – who could steal her from me? Yes, I had to walk a little in traffic (like 10 minutes? 15?) to reach the club where she could breathe clean air and sit on a swing or see the birds and the cats and stuff… I had to fight for every time I took her out while he was at work (I don’t drive in Egypt, though I used to in the US; parking is such a hassle here and people drive so badly, I’d rather just walk or take a cab).
    And letting kids roam of course is not just about the physical, it’s also about their thoughts and ideas and imaginations. It’s about letting them “hack” things and construct their own worlds. And this is where tech can restrict them. We recently discovered an online game of Barbie haircut online. She loves it for some reason. But I’m sure she would love it so much more if she could actually take a real doll and cut her hair… the problem is, the cutting would not be reversible. But that’s why I love play-doh – you can’t “break” it, you can put it back together again (well, once I let go of the notion that each color needs to remain separate… now I embrace the weird but beautiful colors that come out when she mixes them all together).

    But I digress…

    1. I feel very sad to have caused you any pain, Maha. My own experiences are just that–mine, idiosyncratic, selfish. You stand to remind me of what should be obvious to me–all of our experiences are our own. But one universal is that of being a parent. It is so difficult and so permament. We are always parents. My daughter was hit by a car while biking to work last year. She suffered some bruises and her bike was totalled. I felt so powerless to help. The worst was that she has not ridden since. The driver who hit her did not stop. There is so much unresolved. Circumstance and condition and time and place–truth abides in there, somewhere. Let us keep looking together each on or own and sometimes together.

  5. I so agree with you Terry that the Internet is the last bastion of freedom for many kids. But even there we see so many efforts to restrict their autonomy. Maha thanks for sharing your experiences. Even though in LA it is less restrictive, I feel that fear of letting kids roam in public space is pervasive and parents who give their kids “too much” freedom can be looked on with suspicion. I couldn’t wait for my kids to start taking the public bus and for my daughter to get her driver’s license so she had some power over her own schedule. I get the sense that many parents feel we are more “daring” then they are comfortable with. And the reality in the US is that things are so much safer for kids than what earlier generations experienced! This is partially in contrast to what happens in Tokyo where I grew up. Kids are still expected all over Japan in small towns and big cities to get to school on their own once they start the first grade, whether that means taking a public bus or walking city streets. By the time I was in middle school I had free run of the city. So I try to fight for the right of kids to explore on the Internet at least. Though even that can often be a tough sell!

  6. Your “Is this gonna be the best day of your life?” – thank you for introducing me to the song, to zeega.. but mostly for reminding – that we must let our children be free to explore for them to be able to learn from life, early on, and enjoy learning at the same time.

    1. Yes, I think that is the right approach, but sometimes the landing is pretty rocky with terrific crosswinds, other planes, even geese clogging the engines. Childhood is just like adulthood, fraught with complication and humanity. Parents have a tougher row to hoe than ever. And anyone who has ever wielded a hoe can tell you how difficult that is until you get the hang of it. And even then…(sigh for dramatic effect). Thanks for watching the zeega. It was supposed to be a positive counterweight to the potentially negative force of the post. Glad you watched and read. Thanks for dropping by.

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