The Weedy Garden of Familyhood

Before the blog went haywire last week, I meant to comment on Michael Chabon’s essay “The Wilderness of Childhood” in the New York Review of Books.

The basic thrust of Chabon’s commentary is spot-on. It’s certainly one of the most complicated, mysterious transformations of the way childhood and family life feel that I’m aware of in my own life. My childhood was like his childhood in the sense of his essay. In fourth grade, living in southern California, friends and I would ride our bicycles around a fairly extensive area on our own. We had a racket where we collected golf balls in a ravine near a course and sell them back to golfers: the ravine was rocky and on a few occasions, we saw rattlesnakes coiled under rocks there. We moved when I was in fifth and sixth grade, near a creek that ran through a quiet suburban neighborhood that was surrounded by less-quiet areas. I routinely used to tell my mother that I was going to go hike up the creek, and then off I went for hours at a time. Once I went almost all the way to the beach, probably a four or five-mile round trip, and similarly far up the creek. There was a municipal park nearby, and I’d go there and meet friends on my own.

I knew the backyards and byways of my neighborhoods in a way that I think my daughter and her friends will never know. A bit of that is a difference between the roads around my current house and some of the places I grew up: there’s a couple of busy, badly designed roads that bisect some of the likely walks she might take. Mostly, it’s a comprehensive shift in how children, parents and space relate.

Chabon settles on the common default explanation for this change, namely, the extent to which fears about children being molested by predatory strangers has led American parents to hold their children closer to them. I think he’s right that this is a big part of the change, and he’s not the first to point out that the fear is wildly out of step with the reality. It’s also not a new danger. As an adult thinking back, I can think of at least two times when there was a probable pedophile somewhere near to my own childhood travels: an older brother of a neighborhood kid at one point, and the sketchy young adult “friend” of a kid I knew when I was in sixth grade. If you follow Chabon’s metaphor (and a memorable Matt Groening cartoon that he cites as well), every wilderness has, by necessity, its ogres and perils. In sixth grade, I knew where the house with the dangerous dogs was, I knew about the kid who was supposed to be a dealer, I knew (along with all my friends) about the old sycamore tree in the park where some unknown person had stashed some mildewed porn. I knew where the neighborhood with the tough kids was and how to skirt around it. I knew where there was a pool with tadpoles in the creek, that you could eat the watercress growing on the banks, and I knew where going any further down meant you’d have a hell of a climb back up a concrete and rock tumble.

Like Chabon, I think it’s too bad that we’ve swung away from that kind of childhood experience. On the other hand, I think he’s missing something new about contemporary middle-class childhood. Sometimes, yes, it’s about ferrying the kids between contained, safe experiences. But also, I think that a lot of middle-class family life is now about the simultaneous adventures of children and adults, that children and adults are sharing far more of their experiences.

I recently watched the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life”, based on the Jerome Bixby short story. For those who haven’t seen it, the basic premise is that there’s a rural Ohio town that has been removed from the world by the god-like mental powers of a six-year old boy who then terrorizes the population of the town. One of the subtler aspects of the story, alongside the overtly horrific consequences of the boy’s powers, is the way that the adults are forced to anxiously guess at what a child prefers while suppressing their own adult cultural habits in his presence. The two worlds were alien to one another, and now they’re drawn together under the worst of cirucmstances.

The wilderness of childhood that Chabon describes in the 1960s and 1970s was maintained in large part by the strong separation of adult leisure and children’s leisure. Saturday Morning TV was partly defined by that sense of isolation, kids off watching cartoons by themselves, cartoons which the adults knew little about, like the rest of the things their kids did or said. Adults had their own places and activities within which children were only occasional, peripheral presences. All the stories we saw reflected this distance: adults were Charlie Brown voices, they didn’t come into Narnia, they were left behind in Kansas.

It seems to me now that in many families, children and adults have far more shared cultural moments and touchstones. A lot of children’s media is cross-over entertainment that adults also watch and enjoy, or in the case of video games, play alongside their children. I feel like I’m far more likely to see parents and kids hiking together or exploring around the landscape. Last weekend, I took my daughter to see an odd ruin in the woods near here, and there was a mother and her two sons coming out of the woods as we went down the overgrown path to it.

We haven’t really figured out yet how to tell stories that reflect this shared world, which is why a lot of children’s media still banish adults at the outset of the action, so that the kids in the story have to make their own decisions. But I could easily see that we could have a new wave of stories where adults and children deal with adventure together without the grown-ups making all the choices.

I think rather than lamenting the lost past, Chabon might be better off looking for where adventure and exploration take on new and distinctive forms in the present.

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One Response to The Weedy Garden of Familyhood

  1. Valerie says:

    It’s true, there’s a lot more shared time between kids and parents these days, but the very presence of parents reduces the adventure factor on the kid side pretty significantly. If Dad is there to pick you up when you fall, it can be a fun time, but it’s just really not the same. The fact that he’s there at all relegates the activity to “parentally approved” in a way which starts making a big difference by the time one is 9 or 10.

    Not that I would trade those joint “adventures” for anything, mind you — my 20 year old wrote me a sweet note for my birthday this year about how he attributes much of his optimism to having had a mom who was up for going along with his idea to follow the creekbed to see where it went.

    But having been free to do kid-only exploration in my own childhood, I’m pretty clear on the difference, and feel fortunate to have been able to give my kids the latitude to have REAL adventures, the kind that happened without me in tow.

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