Childhood has moved indoors.
What a shame.
Children are meant to be running free in open spaces, climbing trees, finding frogs and turtles, biking to the playground, and being hard to find at dinnertime.
Today’s child is most likely to be found sitting in front of a screen — TV, video games, computers. 8-10 year olds reportedly spend an average of 6 hours a day staring at a screen. Given an additional 6 hours spent in school plus eating, sleeping, homework and we have taken our children’s worlds and turned them into tiny, structured spaces with little physical activity and almost no free play time.
Organized sports have become the play of many children but actually only about a quarter of all children are playing an organized sport during any season of the year. So the vast majority are just sitting around, growing obese at an alarming rate and missing out on important socializing.
How did we come to such a place where the lives of our children are so restricted and isolated? Well, we can start with the lives of their parents. American adults, as chronicled in Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” have become isolated from their community. Participation in all aspects of community life has dropped dramatically over the past 30 years.
One of the interesting points in Putnam’s book is that bowling remains very popular, but bowling leagues have virtually disappeared. Adults no longer feel they have time to make commitments to be with others on a regular basis. A colleague of mine just remarked about how she wanted to start playing bridge again, found some friends with a similar desire, found a teacher, and then discovered her friends were unable to commit to a regular time for lessons.
What has happened to American adults? Changes in family structure are a major factor. With so many divorces, we have a much higher percentage of single heads of households and blended families, resulting in much more complex life schedules for parents and children. Further, dual career parents have become the norm and work has increasingly encroached on the privacy of home life with the advent of cell phones and computers. Americans work longer hours than any other industrialized nation.
In this context of reduced hands on parenting and overwhelming schedules, the current generation of parents has evolved into an anxious group who are overly concerned about the safety and the academic/intellectual development of their children. Too bad – for the parents and the children. We end up with smarter fat children who are more stressed and growing up too fast. Higher rates of anxiety and depression are no accident.
So where have all the bicycles gone? Getting that first 2-wheeler used to be one of childhood’s most exciting moments. It meant an expansion of the child’s world. The opportunity to travel beyond one’s street and meet friends at the playground, ball field, or just go to someone’s house on your own was an exciting new stage of independence. It also meant lots of exercise. But bicycle sales are plummeting — over a 20% decline in just the past 5 years. Now less than half of children ages 7-11 regularly ride a bike. This is a serious change in the culture of our children’s lives.
But it is not just the crazy schedule of parents or the increased temptation of “screens” to play with. A major role in the narrowing world of children is parental fear. Surveys indicate parents have a distorted expectation of the risk that if they allow their children to roam freely about the town, those children may be abducted by child molesters. School playgrounds are no longer deemed safe places to hang out. The woods are no longer a great place to explore. Biking across town has come to mean an increased possibility of being abducted.
Parents couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, there are only 100-130 stranger abductions a year in the U.S. This is a minuscule number. I’m not being insensitive to the pain of those parents who have had a child abducted and molested or killed but please, let’s keep some perspective here. You and your child are 3 times more likely to be hit by lightning at a soccer game than your child is likely to experience a stranger abduction!
Notice I keep emphasizing “stranger abduction.” 75% of all abductions are carried out by people the child knows, most of which are done by divorced parents who are upset about custody arrangements. Children running free – meeting at the playground or in someone’s yard – are very safe. Not only safe, but these children are learning to make creative use of their time, being physically active, and improving their social skills. And it’s free!! Now what more could you ask for.
So please, restrict access to screens, send your children out of the house, encourage them to go places on their own, and don’t just smile when your child opts to use instant messaging to talk to her friend next door. Turn off the computer and send her next door! Consider it a pleasure to yell down the street or call a friend to find your child at dinnertime instead of simply having to pry him away from his Xbox. Let’s make bicycles something special for children once again.