Leave Those Kids Alone

Childhood is more than merely a springboard to adulthood.

Robert Paul Smith’s Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing., a best seller in 1957 and now reissued, crystallizes an idyllic childhood. Lyrical and wry, as organic and rambling in its structure as a kid’s conversation, Smith’s memoir charms with its dead-on descriptions of universal kids’ preoccupations—finding a stone that “they could believe was an axe-head, or a fossil”—and of vanished, yesteryear games like mumblety-peg and immies. Smith remembers—and cherishes—the true, deeply unsentimental kid point of view, full of idiosyncratic and inflexible rules (“Girls could carry their books in both arms across their bellies, but boys had to carry them in one hand against their sides”), and relishes children’s skill at sustaining paradoxical truths. Children can believe wholeheartedly, for instance, that they’ve built a boat, while simultaneously knowing that in fact they’ve just hauled “an orange crate ten blocks and stuck it in a muddy brook and gotten wet up to [their] armpits.” He recognizes that children want facts, but that their facts are not the same as the ones adults insist on. Adults, with their mundane concerns and all-too-real capabilities, with their organizing and explaining, are “the natural enemy of the child.” A child craves magic, Smith maintains, and magic depends on having space where adults will not “butt in.” This includes literal space of the kind long gone from nearly every urban part of this country, like vacant lots and construction sites (not like playgrounds, which reek of adult intentionality), and also metaphorical space.

The Nothing of Smith’s title represents both a child’s evasiveness (when communicating with the enemy) and a perfectly accurate description of a child’s activities. A kid needs time to lie on his back, opportunity “to find out whether he breathes differently when he’s thinking about it than when he’s just breathing” and to wonder who she’d be if her parents hadn’t gotten together. A kid needs enough downtime to be bored, yes—bored enough to stare at the sky and study the imperfections in his own eyeball. That’s what makes for a childhood worth remembering for the whole of one’s life.

Smith braces his whimsical reverie with a recurring disgust, railing against the likes of summer camp, tree houses built by parents, edifying music featuring “Serpentine the Slide Trombone,” and Little League, in which kids have “a covey of overseeing grownups hanging around and bothering them and putting catcher’s masks on them and making it so bloody important.”

A proper childhood, in other words, is a Tom Sawyer childhood. In Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Twain (whom the young Smith discovered on his own and read exhaustively without prompting—natch) disposed of pesky parents. In the classic literary evocations of enviable childhoods in the 20th century (those of Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins and Ramona and Beezus Quimby, for instance, or Jean Shepherd’s Ralph), children are entirely responsible not only for making their own fun—sitting on the front steps peeling the rubber strings from the core of a golf ball or pounding bricks into rubble with a rock—but also for building their own clubhouses, taking care of their own dogs, figuring out how to make their own spending money, and solving their own problems. They may sometimes be bored, but boredom impels them to find something to do—and from this comes the drama and the fun. Adults in these accounts know their place. They’re loving, they dispense occasional assistance or advice and exercise veto power, but mostly they mind their own business and leave their children alone. They do not check homework, chauffeur to lessons, or organize games.

Smith, deriding in 1957 the idea that a game like marbles might attract enough attention from adults that the rules would be written down in a book, declares that rules for such activities should be “written down in kids.” But today, apparently, kids have for so long been deprived of time and space to play that they no longer know how. They’re like those eyeless fish in caves. Now, not only do parents need to teach their little Gradgrinds how to play, but the parents themselves require instruction books. One such book, The Art of Roughhousing, by Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen, actually provides detailed directions for games like “Lumpy Cushions”: when your child is sitting on the couch, sit lightly on him and express surprise over the lumpiness of the cushions, etc.

Today’s parents might be surprised by how long children have felt boxed in by adult-imposed structure.

I cant keep track of all the days so maybe I shouldn’t right everyday because I have home work and music lessons and guitar lessons and Brownies and many other things.

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So goes a 1945 diary entry written by a 7-year-old girl in Children at Play, in which Howard P. Chudacoff has assembled historical, sociological, and psychological research to trace the changes in play in America since the colonial period. Owing to a wide variety of cultural reasons, the landscape of children’s play began to change dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, and those changes have intensified and accelerated up to the present. Interfering adults are everywhere. Pre-war dolls and trucks needed children to impose meaning on them, but toys now come fully loaded with elaborate personalities and histories created for them by their grown-up purveyors. Playtime has been replaced by lessons with professionals. And, while parents have always constrained children’s activities out of fear for their safety—“kite flying … could frighten horses and cause accidents,” cautions a catalog of games from 1802—the effort to protect children from every possible hazard has intensified so much that kids during recess are no longer allowed to chase, climb high, or hide (and that’s if they’re even lucky enough to get recess at all). These factors have made unstructured play nearly impossible. Even if an individual kid has a moment of free time and is allowed out of the house on his own, his friends are trapped in after-school care, reporting to soccer practice, or feverishly learning Mandarin, portrait painting, or trapeze artistry. Of course, everyone knows this story, which has now reached the chapter about childhood obesity and video games.

Can it be true that children no longer know how to play? Chudacoff argues otherwise. Although adults have perennially felt compelled to protect children and guide their play—encouraging board games, for instance, in the 1800s—to play is, intrinsically, to not do exactly what the grown-ups say. A 1981 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission study of playground use scolded that children were “walking up and down a slide, climbing onto any aspect of playground apparatus that allowed a grip or foothold, and roughhousing.” That’s play. Children have always taken risks and will continue to do so (which is why some experts argue that restricting them in every way imaginable only pushes them to go farther to find hazards that adults have not yet anticipated); children will always play with objects not intended to be toys; children will always use toys in ways the manufacturers—or the parents—do not recommend. They are driven to experiment and create; that is what developing human beings do.

Why make it so hard for them? We seem to have returned to the 18th-century notion that play for its own sake is a waste of time, that children can be allowed to pursue their natural inclinations only if those can be channeled into activities that will prepare them to be orderly and productive (and now, God help us, “creative”) adults—even today’s play movement stresses the uplifting “educational value” of play. But childhood is not just preparation for “real life,” it’s a good portion of life itself. If the golden years of childhood are from age 3 to 12, they encompass more than twice the time people spend in what is generally regarded as a focal point of life: the college years. As Smith’s memoir demonstrates, childhood—those first, fresh experiences of the world, unclouded by reason and practicality, when you are the center of existence and anything might happen—should be regarded less as a springboard to striving adulthood than as a well of rich individual perception and experience to which you can return for sustenance throughout life, whether you rise in the world or not. Children have a knack for simply living that adults can never regain. If they’re allowed to exercise it a bit, perhaps they’ll have childhoods, like Smith’s, worth remembering.

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