Where have all the children gone?

Longtime passing

Where have all the children gone?

Long time ago

What has happened to childhood and youth as we used to know it? What have we done to screw it up so badly? It seems like every day we hear about another tragic loss – another kid who couldn't cope. My youth was so different – so much easier and more forgiving than what most kids face today. It breaks my heart.

When I was a kid, on Saturdays, I would head out early in the morning and my mother would not see or hear from me again until dinner time. We had no contact all day long. I played army and hide-and-seek. I fished. I hiked. I explored along the rocky (coquina) banks of the Indian River looking for treasures and sometimes slicing my feet wide open on the razor sharp oyster shells and barnacles that grew on the rocks. But the bleeding always stopped. I remember we used to wade into the salt water with gigs in hand and hunt stingrays and blow fish until the sun started to set or we got hungry. It never got old and time seemed to slow to a crawl.

We used to play tackle football in the shadow of a wall of towering Australian pine trees in a field behind my friend’s house. Her parents kept it mowed and in hindsight, I now see that that field didn't just happen to be there; it was very deliberate and played a central role in the lives of the entire neighborhood for many years. The pine trees stick in my mind because I remember the day we were building forts high in the pines when one of my friends fell and split his head wide open. He missed landing on a piece of steel by inches. My mother, who happened to be a nurse, packed us all into her old station wagon and drove him to the clinic where my father proceeded to stop the bleeding and close up the split in his skull with I believe close to a hundred stitches. Back then, the same doctor delivered babies, operated and also made house calls.

The football games we played in that field were intense and played with few rules or organization. We played with wild abandon – no pads, no time outs, no age or gender limits – and no holds barred; and everyone played. I remember blocking one of the big kid’s punts with my face one time and being so surprised that I couldn’t feel the pain. Scrapes, friction burns, contusions and occasional bloody noses were the rule. We seldom kept score and just played until we got too tired to move. Then afterward, we’d often go swimming in my friend’s pool or retire inside to make floats with abundant scoops of vanilla ice cream and Coca-Cola poured from green 8-ounce bottles.

Growing up I ran track, played football and baseball and swam on the swim team year round. If you wanted to play, you just went out for the team. Everyone got to bat. Everyone swam in the meets. Everyone participated because participating was a bigger priority than winning. Engagement was more important than achievement. Being part of a team – being part of something bigger than you – helped keep us grounded and have empathy for the world around us. Back then, being a kid was not a contest; it was a right and it was a precious rite of passage. And simply, our “age” was our admission ticket. Being a kid was not for sale.

Growing up, I had a father who (at least I thought) was home every night and a mother whose day job was raising us. Almost everyone back then had two parents and life was simple. In general, good behavior was rewarded and bad was punished. If you tried hard, you usually succeeded and if you were a good friend, you usually had good friends. And “good friends were loyal friends.” Life was fairly predictable, consistent and orderly most of the time.

So what has changed? Today, if a kid wants to play sports they have to have a hitting coach – or a conditioning coach – or a fill-in-the-blank coach... by the time they are, what, 6? Feeder teams and travel teams starting before middle school are the prerequisites to even make the junior varsity team, which is usually the prerequisite to be considered for the high school team – where only the best get to play.

Feeder teams when I was growing up consisted of a pack of rug rats – my friends and I descending on someone’s house at lunch and devouring a dozen PB&Js. And I never ever recall my parents having to fork over hundreds of dollars in the name of the almighty feeder teams or any other team. Did they invest their time and energy? Yes, but the central focus was not the checkbook.

Today, I would never be admitted to a decent college. My grades and my test scores would have routed me to junior college if I was lucky. And the only “AP” that I was aware of growing up was the name of a grocery store (A&P) – not advanced-level courses that are now unofficially required by the dozen to get into “any decent college.”

Today, not only do kids have to attempt to navigate a sea of relentless sports and academic pressure, but on top of that they have to deal with the Internet and social media. Unfettered access to information and unrestricted communication will always be a burden, and the weight of peer pressure amplified, magnified and multiplied by social media is often an overwhelming and unsustainable burden. And is there anyone out there who questions why and how so many of our kids and young adults become self-medicating or self-destructive? Anyone? Who sees the port in the storm out there? Let me know what it looks like if you do.

A friend of mine who lives on a farm recently commented to me that “any parent that has taught their children to stay connected to their siblings or family friends or taught them the ability to find another human being and say ‘we need to herd up’ has done their job. I watch the barnyard daily and I see that the key to survival and a sense of well-being is the ability to ‘group up’ when necessary.” “Belonging” and being allowed to live and grow up in a way that allows your heart and soul to flourish is missing. By being so connected we are disconnected. By being so educated we have not learned more important skills that help us be true to our own nature. And for what? At the end of the day, what have we accomplished and at what terrible cost?

We need to back off and let our kids have more of a chance to just be kids. We need to listen better and we need to engage more. And finally, we need to seriously question our priorities.

I found an old journal the other day in which my then 16-year-old daughter had made a few notes. I know she was processing in her mind her dad’s unspoken and heavy handed push to “achieve” – on my terms – not hers. Reading what she wrote was very hard for me. She wrote that she would “never be a doctor, scientist or biologist ... for while all those benefit the world, they do little for what is important to me...I want to leave (this world) not by having made others live longer, but by helping them live at all... I want to help them engage in the beauty of the earth and in each other...I want to make people think and feel alive...I want (to help) people be inspired.” In a world of cutthroat competition, overbearing parents and a culture obsessed with achievement at the expense of almost everything else including happiness, what place do thoughts and ideas such as these have today? Is there one at all?

From the mouth of a child, amen. Where have all the children gone?

This article was published in the Revue & News April 25, 2013 edition

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