As some of you might know, I spent most of the last ten years working in mall stores. The last place I worked in New York state had a view onto the main drag of one of the biggest malls in America. The nature of the job I had gave me a lot of time to people-watch, which I enjoy, so that was good. I found myself watching kids a lot of time.
Now, I’m not a huge kid person (for which I offer my deepest apologies to my now-grown son), but I found the kids the most interesting to watch. In my store, we often had people bring their kids with them, so you would experience the range of behavior from good to insane. (Why people will not properly supervise their children is beyond me. If I though a kid was going to get hurt, or was going to cause damage to the store, I would butt in. Some parents got irked. They should have had their parenting licenses revoked.) But mostly, I would watch kids in front of the store, either as they passed by or as they played or hung out with their guardians in the open area just outside our storefront.
It started to bother me how often children were bodily restrained. I saw so many kids in strollers long past the age that–in my opinion– they should have been perfectly capable of walking around on their own. (Full disclosure: I never owned a stroller when my kid was small. Once or twice we rented one for long, touristy day trips. Other than that, I held him, he road in the shopping cart, or he walked.) Now, before you jump all over me, yes, I can see the advantage of a stroller. For wee babes, it’s obvious: you don’t have to carry them. For older kids, you don’t have to carry them when they’re tired. You also know where the kid is, and it’s harder for the kid to get into trouble.
That last sentence is where it gets fuzzy. The stroller becomes an instrument of control. The kids I saw were rarely sitting in stroller, they were restrained in it. For safety, of course. But the number of times I saw kids of an age that rendered them perfectly capable of walking, in fact fighting to get out of the stroller to do just that, but were left strapped in, apparently for the parents’ convenience, well, it was staggering. These kids wanted to move. They wanted to use their bodies. Instead, they were strapped into a car seat, then perhaps allowed to walk all the way to the back end of the car where they were strapped into a stroller, then pushed around sometimes for hours before they were strapped back into the car; heck, I’d be screaming, too.
I began to watch for the kids who were allowed to play. They were the ones running around in the big carpeted area in front of the store, chasing each other, climbing on the benches, doing cartwheels, and generally acting like kids at play. None of them got hurt or caused a bit of trouble for the merchants that I ever saw. And well, darn it, they looked happy, out there playing.
I have to wonder how much of our current problems with hyperactivity and ADHD could have restraint of children as a contributing factor. Kids develop their nervous systems through using their muscles. Movement is necessary for proper neuron development. In the name of keeping our kids safe–strap ‘em in the high chair, strap ‘em in the car seat, strap ‘em in the stroller–are we stunting their growth?
But that’s a long aside to what I really wanted to talk about today.
On Wednesday, the New York Times published an article about an new trend in parenting: letting children play. Yep, play, the same thing I did every darn day when I was a kid. Of course, now it has to be legitimatized with fancy names like “free play” or “unstructured play” or “imaginative play,” in the same sort of way that messing around with a hose or a sprinkler became “water play” (I don’t know when that happened, but every time I hear it, it annoys the heck out of me). Some parents speak proudly of the adjustment they made to the idea of of children making messes! Imagine that! But smug snark aside, am I the only one who finds it it just plain creepy that parents need to be “given a 75-page ‘Playbook’ outlining research on play and offering children ideas for playful pursuits”? When did normal mammalian behavior (all young animals play) become something we have to teach our kids? When did our kids’ lives become so structured that they did not teach the culture of play to one another?
I wonder, too, what effect this has on the aspiring magical practitioner. If we grow up without sufficient development of our play and imagination circuitry, how can we fully respond to ritual, or effectively use skills that have been called active imagination or creative visualization?
Or what about the kids who never explore the outside world? One mom in the article mentions how she is afraid to let her kids play outside without her right there supervising them. That’s another modern twist that amazes and frightens me. It was encapsulated in a TV commercial I saw for a planned community in Arkansas not so long ago, where a mom rhapsodizes about how beautiful and natural the surroundings are, and how safe it felt–so safe, she even let her kids play in the front yard! If the development is as lovely as the commercial wants us to believe, those kids should be out climbing hills and catching frogs, not staying demurely in front of their house. Heck, even if it’s not that nice, those kids should be outside running around. (Hey, you kids! Get off that lawn! Go climb a tree or sumthin’!)
There is a cost to this estrangement from the natural world (and it is well explored in Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder). What I wonder, also, is as practitioners of a nature religion, how can we relate to a generation of children who were not allowed or not inclined to play outside? How will they develop a love of nature, which was the call of the heart that brought so many of us to Neopagansim to begin with?
Interesting questions. I’d love to hear your thoughts. D