Sunday, 22 July 2012

Child Imprisonment

I grew up on the street.  Pretty literally.  No, I was not an orphan and my family wasn't homeless.  It was a perfectly normal middle-class family in Eastern Europe, like any other.  Basic necessities were not a concern.  Everything else was pretty close to illegal, immoral or, in the very least, sternly frowned upon.  Unless you had an "in" with the authorities.

Authoritarianism and corruption aside, however, I was a kid like any other you could see growing up in the folds of socialism.  We were pretty playful, somewhat ambitious, somewhat paranoid but mostly care-free.  And we all grew up on the streets.  As much as the weather allowed, we would be out playing with our play pals from the time school finished, lunch was had and homework was done until the sun set and sometimes even later than that.  Small parks and playgrounds, lanes between old houses, back and front yards, anything and everything that was covered with grass, mud, asphalt or cobblestone - those spaces were ours.  They belonged to the children with only a scarce parent around pushing a stroller and, most often, not even that.

Communications with the mother ships consisted of loud hollers from balconies and windows beckoning us for dinner or having our noses wiped.  We were supposed to be within ear shot.  Not always, though.  And, if we could not hear the call, it wasn't such a big deal.  Sooner or later, rumbling tummies would send us back home for a few scorns and some home-cooked food and then it was out again.  Out, where we were happy, free, unconstrained with walls and scant collection of toys.  Where our imagination would build fortresses, mountains and oceans where we'd turn into knights, cowboys, criminals, Mohawks, kings, divers and whatever else we could come up with.

We didn't all like each other.  The world was quartered off between friends, so-so's, bullies and outright strangers.  We were cautious with each other because of that because we all had to somehow get along or the game would be ruined.  And we would sometimes end up insults and bruises, with scratched elbows and knees and there were the occasional broken bones and bloody noses.  And it was still all fine and it was glorious.

And, once in a while - very rarely, though - something serious would happen.  It was part of the course.  It was something we learned to both live with and protect against.  The same lectures you would hear today about not talking to strangers or getting in cars - we had all that.  Because children are naive, in general.  But they also learn faster.  We did learn faster.  And they can be intuitive, if need be.  And we were, by necessity.  We were street-smart.  And it did not destroy our childhood, it did not necessarily make us tougher and rougher.  No one really worried about that.  It did, however, make us a bit more adept to the world of the grown-ups where things have many more dimensions.

Fast-forward to present day and I am a parent myself.  Raising two children in the West.  In Canada.  As a parent, I am the cat's ass.  Here everything is provided; or can be bought.  Order is strictly maintained; or at least so it seems.  Social values are embedded in laws; or at least the ones that make the agenda.  I am a parent proud that I have made it.  My children are healthy and safe.  They have what they need; they are encouraged to grow, to learn, to make something of themselves.  They are always sheltered from the evils of the world.

And yet, something is missing.  Looking at my ten year old son, with all of the joy and love in his eyes, I see something missing.  Not in him or me, but in his life.  It seems in our strife to eliminate all dangers and risks, we have taken something away.  We have taken away adventure and risk, these key ingredients of adolescence and the joy of life.  We have taken away the unpredictable, the unexpected.  We have scrubbed their environment so well from all risk and unpleasantness, no matter how improbable, that we have ripped them away from their own childhood.  It reminds me of a thought someone once proposed that, if children grow up in an environment that is too sterile, they become more susceptible to illness than if there was always at least a bit of dirt for them to roll in.

I know lawmakers and parents are all well-meaning.  That is why we have laws against child abuse, neglect and abandonment.  And there are cases where grown ups and even parents should be held responsible.  But, in the effort to eliminate all risks to children, have we sterilized their childhood too much?  Have we forced parents into a second full-time babysitting job?  Worse yet, have we forced them to be the entertainers, the clowns that children need to distract them from the dull-drums of their pallid existence?  How much resentment have we bred that way, of parents against children and children against parents?  Yes, we all find ways to deal with that but is a childhood that depends on computers and video games to fill in the socialization gaps what all parents want?  Or where play time is rationed in fixed time slots of play dates that depend on matching family schedules and availability of parent chauffeurs?  Where, for convenience sake, playtime is closed off between four walls or outside time is paid for with the last remaining minutes of free time of the parent forced to sacrifice?  Where, for the most part, children are left to their own devices in a home with two tired, grumpy, busy parents.  Isn't it obvious how this makes our society even more alienated?  Who wins out of all this?  Is this what we all wanted?

I am not saying that child molesters and abductors don't exist.  They do and they are a very real danger.  But they have always been around, even when I was growing up as a kid.  I had my own exposure to that when I was forced to touch a man's penis and another where I was felt up on the bus.  Pretty innocent compared to what could have been.  Can I say I enjoyed it?  Of course not - I was violated.  But can I say that it ripped my life apart?  Not at all.  It made me a bit more shrewd about the perversity of humankind, a bit more cautious and alert.  It was a lesson I would have hardly learned as well if it was just hearsay from the grown-up tales.  Was I scarred for life?  Singed a bit, maybe.  But I quickly learned what "hot" means.

I do not wish a single parent to undergo the horror of losing their child.  Neither do I wish a single child to be the subject of violence, however "mild".  But what I keep on questioning is whether, in our diligence to protect our children, we have not ripped apart their childhood altogether and taken away the unpredictability that makes childhood what it is - the learning experience that prepares us for the really messy grown-up life.

I will admit, I am confused.  But of one thing I am certain - there has to be a better way!