We've done it for cattle and for chickens--it's time we unleashed this generation of kids, argues Carl Honoré
KEN MACQUEEN | April 2, 2008 |
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The Macleans.ca Interview: Carl Honoré
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Author, journalist and perplexed parent Carl Honoré recently returned to his old Edmonton neighbourhood, the scene of his formative years and boyhood adventures. He found the streets — still echoing in his memory with the whoops of street hockey battles — were now disconcertingly devoid of play. There were children, it's just that most were indoors, presumably safe from pedophiles and marauding automobiles. Maybe they were watching TV, or cruising the Internet. Maybe they were huddled with tutors, being mathematically enriched. He found it sad, but hardly surprising, that aimless amusements like bouncing balls, riding bikes or climbing trees are considered unworthy, non-productive and potentially fatal pastimes for the offspring of the ambitious middle class. Misplaced paranoia and hyper-parenting have kidnapped childhood, he laments.
Honoré, 40, now lives in an affluent London neighbourhood, with his wife, author and journalist Miranda France, their nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. Their English neighbours are just as protective and drive their kids, literally and figuratively, to the clubs and the courses that define success — in their eyes. Madness, thought Honoré, who saw the same tendencies in himself. So did his son, at age 7, after Honoré pounced on his gift for drawing and wanted to dispatch him to art classes. "I just want to draw," he said. "Why do grown-ups have to take over everything?"
Good question, that. Two years and a world tour later, the issue is canvassed in his latest book, Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting (Knopf Canada). "Wherever you look these days, the message is the same," Honoré writes in the introduction, "childhood is too precious to be left to children and children are too precious to be left alone." It's an engaging and alarming exploration of children as vanity projects. It may plant, in impressionable young minds, subversive notions of slipping their velvet-lined shackles. True, post-boomer babies get better toys and boundless opportunity. They also get parents with the paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover, the ambition of Svengali and the sense that freedom's just another word for avoiding homework. All is not lost. Honoré detects faint signs of a return to organic common sense. We've done it for cattle and for chickens — it's time for a generation of free-range kids.
Honoré enumerates the sad lot of today's "managed child": pregnant women serenading their bumps with WombSong to stimulate neural growth. Shanghai's "early M.B.A" program for team building and assertiveness — "early" defined as just out of diapers. It's estimated American children lost 12 hours of free time a week between the late 1970s and 1997. In Britain (and no doubt Canada), the average distance kids are allowed to stray unaccompanied from home decreased almost 90 per cent since the 1970s. Even then, they are umbilically leashed by cellphone. A Canadian Council on Learning survey last year found more than one million Canadian students now have tutors, even though 73 per cent of parents who hire tutors said their kids were already earning A or B level marks.
Over time a kind of Stockholm syndrome sets in, where leaving the parental orbit, even in adulthood, is a frightening prospect. University of Ottawa sociologist Diane Pacom, who has made a career studying youth culture, calls it "codependency." She sees it increasingly in her research, and on campus in the incessant email and cellphone traffic between child and parent. "I don't see the young people complaining about this too much," she says over the phone from Ottawa, although she is disturbed by high levels of student stress. "These parents we're talking about, they don't really see themselves as parents. They see themselves as friends."
Virtually since boomers started reproducing (and assumed they invented child-rearing as they assume they invented sex), children, at least those born to the middle classes of the developed world, have been reared on all the essential vitamins, and megadoses of irony. Parents want to raise risk-takers (without exposing them to risk), to give them the freedom (to follow parental dreams), to be spontaneous and imaginative (pencil that in between judo and piano, if the homework is done). "I feel like a project that my parents are always working on," 14-year-old Susan Wong of Vancouver complained to Honoré. "When adults hijack childhood, children miss out on the things that give texture and meaning to a human life," he writes, "the small adventures, the secret journeys, the setbacks and mishaps, the glorious anarchy, the moments of solitude and even of boredom."