The great lies of childhood
Should we really care about whether children spend enough time climbing trees?
Australian children are not nearly as outdoorsy as we like to imagine, apparently. At least not anymore. Studies keep finding that kids in Western countries no longer climb trees. They increasingly play indoors, with computers, like their parents. Outdoor play is essential for children's development but getting dirty, dragging rubbish about to build cubby houses with, riding bikes, playing in the rain, and cooking mud pies in the garden - are all activities disappearing from our parenting repertoire.
We have replaced these simpler activities with carefully structured, stimulating, educational opportunities, which we buy for our children. The intensification of parenting has come about in a wave of global anxiety that manifests itself in competitiveness and over-compensating. We have fewer children and less time, we live further away from extended family, and we are crowded together in urbanised environments where public space is increasingly 'adult space'.
You can also add fretting about our sedentary children to the list of characteristics describing today's parents. Maybe it was all that job casualisation, market adaptability, and user-pay individualism in this new century that triggered the generalised state of panic, but now we are like rodents in stress experiments, responding to everything with fear, even the banal tedium and love of parenting. Many of our fears are irrational - children are not really likely to be abducted, and those who never learn to play the violin or speak a second language will still have successful lives, but it does not feel like that when you are talking to other parents. And really, who among us is completely immune to the seduction of hyper-parenting?
There is a tendency to see these fierce parenting expectations as some kind of neurosis of parents with too much money. But I live in a gentrifying suburb situated next to one with a thriving community of long-standing Housing Commission families, and I can vouch for the prevalence of these conversations across all income groups. Mothers who cannot afford new shoes for themselves make sure they buy computer games for their children; they say you cannot get anywhere in this world without computer literacy. And then, instead, they worry about affording bicycles because they think their children are not active enough. It's a health crisis, they tell me. The mother-blaming, they feel it too, because it is everywhere in this debate.
Simply attributing fault to parents for the decrease in children climbing trees misses the point. There are a myriad of factors contributing to the change in children's play and the mothers in that suburb next to mine could tell you about the interplay of socioeconomics and city planning. In some places their children must cross busy roads and pass through large shopping centres before they finally reach the playground. You can identify poor suburbs in the USA in satellite pictures, such is the visual difference between them and the affluent suburbs where green space abounds. Point fingers all we like about children not learning to climb trees, but even in the wealthy, inner-city suburbs parents are living in apartments on streets lined with coffee shops and manicured parks, and they can show you exactly why this activity is in decline. And the disabled mother will tell you about all the streets that lack a footpath for her wheelchair to travel safely when she tries to take her children outside.
When we mourn the decline in tree-climbing by children we invariably feel nostalgia for how we think parenting used to be. But really, we are being sentimental about our own childhoods, not our parents' lives. Too easily this discussion can ignore our generation's advantages - the increased involvement of fathers in child-rearing and the ability of mothers to pursue careers. And frankly, technology is fun. Our kids might not be riding horses to school and fishing in the local creek but they are exposed to a huge variety of cultural events in their cities, have broad palettes reared on international foods, and enrol in classes ranging from indoor rock-climbing to hip hop dancing. When I was a child and wanted to find new information my parents had to organise a trip to the library, now my children walk two steps to our computer and jump on the Internet.
Longing for the simplicity of the past leads some of us to pursue a more traditional parenting approach, but even then you can fall prey to hyper-parenting. Throw away the flash cards and turn off the educational iPad games and find yourself just buying a different brand of unattainable idealism. Because now the kids can climb trees, but only while wearing the organic cotton clothing you sewed yourself. Grow vegetables, make your own bread and try to summon the energy to teach the children knitting. This revisioned domesticity can be just as reliant on an intensive and unsustainable kind of mothering as that of the hothousing Tiger Mum.
So, here is why I want to reclaim more outdoor play and free time for my kids - because I am tired and stressed out. I limit my children's extra-curricula activities; it is less about fears of over-scheduling and more about limited money and patience. When my children get bored I tell them that feeling is good for creativity, because, I want a break. I am increasingly driven towards 'slow parenting' and I will admit that this is partly because, like the rest of my generation, the idea of continually improving my parenting is irresistible and I, too, am gripped by the benefits of tree climbing. But as much as anything it is also about finding a convenient solution to all my weariness with juggling work and family.
My children climb trees and hike down creeks but unlike my childhood it takes a planned excursion to achieve it. The beginning of the trip is always rough, there are complaints and false starts from the kids and I am irritated by the preparation, but being outside eventually finds a peace all of its own. The great secret about outdoor play and free time for kids is that they love it, but so can you. The risk with the conversation about tree-climbing is that we make it one more thing to be worrying about. This is what the tree-climbing surveys are missing - there should also be a question in there asking about the play your children do spontaneously instead while you are doing the washing, because when we were children that is when tree-climbing used to happen. Re-capturing freedom and independence in childhood requires the opposite of the task-making thinking encouraged by these surveys. That the remedy for both our parenting anxiety and our children's unmet development needs may lie in learning to let go, accept the limitations and not care so much about getting it right is a kind of zen for our time.
Andie Fox blogs at bluemilk.wordpress.com