Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Be Home By Dinner, Kids."

Reader Warning: Today’s post is not really so much about France. Oh, and it digs around in a can of worms that will probably make just about everybody feel uncomfortable, judgmental, judged and cranky about other people's parenting and their own. So enjoy!

I was eight years old, and running with a dime in my hand to the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man….

I'd sit on his lap in the big old Buick and steer as we drove through town. He’d tousle my hair, say, “Son, take a good look around.

This is your hometown.”

-- Bruce Springsteen, "My Hometown."

Abigail's second-favorite album, just after the mix CD Grace and Bill made for her eighth birthday, is our collection of Bruce Springsteen's greatest hits. She has started to listen closely to the lyrics, asking why the man in "The River" sounds so sad, or commenting that sometimes her heart feels hungry, too. But mostly she likes rolling down the car window and belting out the chorus of "Born in the U.S.A." She misses home and everything American so much more than the rest of us, who have started thinking of the Var as home instead.

It's hard to imagine how ridiculous it might look or sound from outside our car, to see a small blond child with a very serious face singing angrily about ending up “like a dog that’s been beat too much.” It’s probably a good thing that usually we walk through our new (home?) town, rather than drive. So when she really gets into singing this ironically patriotic anthem, we’re likely in a town where nobody knows us.

Of course, when we do drive through Aups, she does not sit on my lap and steer a big old Buick. Despite how cool it sounds in Bruce’s song, kids don’t steer their parents’ cars so much anymore, in France or in America.

We all know what happened to Britney Spears when she let the baby drive. So why is it that when another B.S. (Springsteen) sings about being wedged between his parent and the steering wheel, we all think wistfully and sweetly about how much we love our Dads?

When I was eight years old, there was no bus stop nearby from which I could purchase a paper for my old man; the nearest one was probably in Schenectady, twenty miles or more away. But Dad did let me steer his big red pickup through the hayfields or on the back roads. It made me feel powerful and strong, that vantage point of being the driver rather than the strapped-in passenger.

We also got to ride in the open back of the pickup. One of my favorite childhood memories is the feeling of the cold wind whipping around my head as Gaela and I sat in the back of the truck staring at the stars. We could yell through the little sliding window and ask Mom and Dad to take us for ice cream. And sometimes they would. It was awesome.

Gaela and I also spent all kinds of time outdoors by ourselves. We would go out to the barn, climb things and play with machinery; or get into the sheep pen and chase the lambs around, trying to catch one. We would wander around by the garden, careful not to touch the electric fence, and we certainly knew enough to leave the big nasty ram alone.

Mom was always somewhere nearby, either mowing the lawn or folding laundry or canning tomatoes or talking on the phone. We would play outdoors in the snow for hours, digging tunnels, and one time even skating on a particularly thick coating of ice that had fallen during an ice-storm. I’m quite sure that after that storm I skated, totally unsupervised, on ice that only partially covered a stream in the woods at my grandparents’ house. I know I was unsupervised because I remember pretending I was Dorothy Hamill, and created an elaborate skating routine up and down the streambed, carefully jumping over the part where the ice was rushing water. This is one of my very favorite memories of being a kid.

I know I was unsupervised, because I never would have done something that dorky if my parents had been watching.

And Mom, before you get too nervous about what I’m going to say, let me be awfully clear: that was a very, very good thing.

Back in the 70’s, my parents’ level of involvement and attention provided just about an ideal version of what the psychologist D.W. Winnicott called the “holding environment.” By being nearby, yet allowing us to be alone, they allowed us to be independent and to learn things on our own. We always knew where they were, but they weren’t all up in our grilles. We could make mistakes, but still feel safe, even ominpotent.

Like this other time, when my parents had hired somebody to dig a new well on the farm, and an enormous puddle of half-frozen black sludge seeped up out of the ground and spread itself into a deep and mucky puddle of chocolate-pudding consistency. I found this puddle when was out playing by myself, and I must have wandered around in it, spellbound by the consistency and the texture of the sludge, for at least an hour before I realized that my feet were cold and wet. My teeth were chattering uncontrollably, and my snowmobile suit was completely trashed. When I went inside, Mom was furious, and yelled at me, which was exactly what was supposed to happen.

It only occurs to me now, now that I am the parent of kids that age, how weird it is that I could get myself into that much trouble in the first place. How strange, and different from the way things are now, that I spent that much time alone and far-ish from the house, walking around in sludge for an hour or skating on top of nearly-frozen water.

How strange, in the context of the way kids and parents are now, that I could steer the truck. Or ride my bike alone along Route 67, where the cars zipped by so fast they made a whoosh of wind that sometimes unsettled my already unstable balance. When you think about it now, it’s even odd that little Brucie Springsteen could run with a dime in his hand and go get the paper.

When was the last time you saw an eight year old running outside alone to get much of anything for anybody?

For here is what has happened to children, since parents gave up being all chilled out and 1970’s style about things: kids don’t ever go anywhere on their own, much less steer cars or skate alone on thin ice. Not in America, and certainly not here.

And I swear, it’s not just my kids, although I fully admit that my sheepdog tendencies are way more intractable than most sane people’s.

I used to think that this was a stupid Brooklyn thing, this supervising the kids all the time. I assumed that outside of the dangerous city, kids still rode their bikes alone and played in the woods and ran around in crazy little packs after school. But then the signs started cropping up even on rural playgrounds: “Children Must Be Supervised At All Times.” Bill and I used to think these signs were funny, and would take ironic pictures of our kids hanging upside down or pretending to beat each other up next to them. Then we realized that the fact we were taking pictures of our kids at the playground felt weird too – does anybody have a snapshot from the 1970’s that a parent took of a kid on the playground?

But since there weren’t any other kids playing there unsupervised, it always felt wrong to let our kids do it, either. If you did send your kid to the playground unsupervised, she would almost certainly be the only one. Both you and your kid would stand out as wrong, and you would be exposed as deviantly uncaring.

I don’t always follow the posted guidelines, but I am pretty strongly attuned to what other people seem to be doing.

And when I realized that nobody ever really lets their kids alone, I became one of those parents as well.

But then, I reasoned, this was probably just a crazy United States thing. Surely in a small town in rural France, children still played outside unsupervised. They would romp in the lavender fields, and play tag in and around the grape vines. They would climb olive trees and ride their funny little European bicycles everywhere. I mean, the French love cycling and give their cyclists huge respect and a wide berth on the roads. Of course kids would ride their bikes everyplace. Right?

In fact, this fantasy was one of the things we looked forward to most about our year away, living in a small French town. We thought that at least in Europe, our kids could develop some greater independence. They could walk to school and back on their own, certainly. They might not go pick up a paper, but at least they could go get us a few croissants in the morning while we lazed around drinking espressos. And this wouldn’t be parental laziness; we would be encouraging them to do something really fun.

We also assumed that kids would run around in Europe more freely because of Bill’s endless England stories. When Bill was in 2nd grade, during his family’s storied sabbatical year in England, he rode his bike to school each day, a mile each way, alone. (His older sister wouldn’t have been caught dead riding with him.) He played outdoors from the end of school until his mother called him home, just before dinner each evening. And he only got in trouble if he stayed to eat dinner at a friend’s house and forgot to call.

He lost his bike with startling frequency, once set a fire in an open field. He got yelled at for being rude to Mr. Hobday and also to the lady at the store. Weirdos talked to him more than once, but nothing particularly awful ever happened to him, and to hear him talk about it, it was tons of fun. Back in the 70's, farms were fun. Towns were fun. England was fun. Being a kid alone in a pack of other kids (or even in a pair) was fun, and helped us develop judgment and independence.

So we posited that this year in Europe would be different. In France, we wouldn’t need to watch our kids all the time. They would start to watch themselves.

Abigail finally learned to ride a bike this year, once we had the time and the space in which to teach her. She’s gotten pretty good at it, too, although her steering tends to be pretty jerky, and she wobbles from side to side rather more than you would think it would be possible to do and still remain upright. She rides her bike a lot like she does everything else – without a lot of subtlety, and balanced on her knife’s edge of enormous confidence and equally enormous fear.

Had she been eight thirty-three years ago, or twenty years ago, or perhaps even ten years ago, she would have grabbed her bike and headed out the door without a second thought. Perhaps without even telling us where she was going. She might have worn a helmet, but then again, probably not.

Now, the bicycle riding for some reason always requires an attendant grownup. We walk down the driveway, shouting at her to slow down, to use both brakes. We follow her along the road, reminding her to stay to the right hand side of the road. She asks if she can go further this time, and we say yes or no, depending on how bored we are and what we have to do back at the house.

Of course, as I follow her, I feel quite necessary, telling her to slow down and stay right and don’t wobble and all that. I notice that she rarely looks when she turns onto the road, of course, and she also doesn’t use her hand brakes properly, usually squeezing just one rather than both of them. She could flip over the handlebars that way, like Matt Murphy did so spectacularly back when we were in the sixth grade. I remember that we all marvelled about how long he laid unconscious in the road before somebody came to find him.

So there I am, supervising once again. Children Must Be Supervised At All Times, even in rural France. Perhaps especially in rural France, where sightings of actual children outside of a house and not going to or from school seem quite shockingly rare. I know that the kids exist, as I see them being dropped off and picked up by their parents at the portail. So where do they go the rest of the time?

And here’s the other kicker: as I supervise, I take it another step further. I berate myself: am I really paying attention to her? Shouldn’t I be more interested? I disgust myself with how quickly I get bored and want to come back to the house to do something else, like make a pot of soup or fold the laundry or grab my camera, or write a blog about how cute she is on her bicycle.

Infrequently, I can get all zen and centered and present, for about two minutes, particularly when I’m practicing my new slow sabbatical amble. Perhaps I “help” her with her biking technique, or remind her to look both ways. Or I try to engage her in some sort of conversation. But my interest in her biking wanes after the first super-adorable five minutes.

And, to be perfectly frank, I can get pretty bored.

So here I am, totally unemployed, with hours of time on my hands, and I can’t spare the time to stand outside and watch while she bikes to her heart’s content. What a crummy mother I must be, I tell myself. Why can’t I just “be” with her, be present and engaged and loving and warm and available in that way “really” wonderful mothers are? Why can’t I cook with them more patiently, rather than trying to get the meal done “on time?” Or slow down and draw with them, or paint with them, or play a nice long game of Crazy 8’s until they are the ones to lose interest first?

Something has happened to the kids, now that we supervise them all the time. Kids feel more tentative than I remember: less free and more privileged. They are more like the over-tended Mary at the beginning of The Secret Garden, less like the sturdy and capable girls in Little House on the Prairie.

In the books our kids read, the young characters are not only unsupervised, but often halfway orphaned. The Boxcar Children, living so happy and resourceful in an abandoned railway car. Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin, flying halfway across the Universe in A Wrinkle In Time, barely overseen by three not-particularly-attentive or necessarily even corporeal witches. Digory, The Magician's Nephew, doesn't bring his Dad a paper from the bus stop; he brings his mother the elixer of life from the dawn of time in Narnia. Even Abigail’s American Girl series book Felicity stars a girl in colonial America who sneaks out of the house every night for a month to tame and then ride a wild horse, bareback and without reins.

All this when I know from experience that my own kids couldn’t possibly find the bus stop on their own. Instead, they ask us for everything. For permission and treats, and even supervision. When we tell Abigail that we think she’s ready to walk to school on her own, she will have none of it.

This is my fault, of course, and our faults, but also somehow feels bigger than any of us can really control. Because if I were to forcibly buck the trend, I would be the only one sending her off to school on her own. Where is the gang of kids for her to join? Would we have to apply?

It can’t be good for kids, all this supervision. But something has also happened to the mothers. Because we have come to believe that we must supervise them all the time (and most of us actually do.) If we turn our heads for just a minute, we’re risking the fate of the mother in A Map of The World, who lets her friend’s 2 year old drown in the first few pages of the novel (I couldn’t even read past this, so I have no idea what else happens in the rest of the book.) Our parents didn’t worry like this. It would have been seen as insane, abnormal, over-the-top. Just as weird as it would be for us to suddenly start sending them places alone. What kind of parents would watch their kids all the time? What kind of parents wouldn't?

Here's Bruce again in the same song, plus twenty-seven years:

I'm thirty-five, we've got a boy of our own now.

Last night I sat him up behind the wheel, and said, "Son, take a good look around... This is your hometown."

If we were to follow the adult Bruce's example, we would be giving our kid a rare glimpse from the perspective of an adult, letting them see the world they are to inherit. And then we would be promptly arrested for having a child under the age of twelve not strapped in to the back of the car. Of course Bruce is cagey on this one, perhaps to avoid the long arm of the law; he doesn't imply that the car in which they were sitting was actually moving.

But here’s the other kicker, which seems to apply more to moms than to dads. We also tend to believe that we can and must “be present” all the time – or at least more than we are ever pull off. However good we are at being present through all this deadly boring supervision time, it’s by definition not good enough.

And thus every time we are doing all the other stuff we need to do (making the soup or doing the laundry or supervising the other kid, who also apparently needs our watching) we imagine that we are doing something less than our kids deserve. And then what do we tell ourselves? That a more talented mother could do it all, while still being present and engaged all day long, providing the kids with more exciting art projects and gingerbread-house construction and even coaching AYSO soccer.

Bill and I could not possibly be more present than we have become for our kids this year. It has been tout la famille, tout les temps since we hired our last babysitter, which was back in August. August!! So if I am berating myself for not being "present enough," here and now, there's something wrong with the way I am measuring things.

I would have to say that this sort of weird new parenting ideal is simply not attainable. (And also know that I'm not the only or first one to say this. See also Free Range Kids, which says it way better.) It is certainly not Winnicott’s healthy holding environment, overseen by the Good Enough Mother. Rather, this mother becomes each child’s own personal life tutor, intervening at every turn. This is the parent who checks in by cell phone after every quiz, and then calls the teacher to complain if the grade isn’t good. It’s a slippery slope between being present and being ever-present, over-present, for making oneself into a decidedly unwelcome present.

And lots of us – particularly the best intentioned ones – are up to our ears in it.

Yes. We are keeping our kids safe. But, as Bill likes to point out with increasing regularity and decreasing patience, all of this supervision stuff has its own consequences: particularly a lack of confidence and competence among the kids themselves, who never get to make enough mistakes to be able to learn much of anything. Instead, they get a steady stream of suggestions and ideas and parental involvement that must eventually make us all sound to kids like we are Charlie Brown’s teacher.

If the kids aren’t with us, they are supervised and fenced in at school, or at some afternoon activity or lesson, or at their friends’ houses, where if they do something wrong, their mother will scold not them, but me, later on the telephone. I’m exaggerating here, but really not that much. We’ve all somehow trapped ourselves in each other’s presences, to the point where we need to find other ways to shut one another out in order to sometimes be alone.

Thus here is what I am beginning to wonder: What if all this watching that we now do really tends to use up the attention points we could use for other things. Like paying attention, when it really matters.

For example, if they left me to my own devices, and I left them to theirs for a nice long, say, two hour stretch of bike riding or tree-fort-making or skating alone or walking around in some sort of weird toxic sludge, I might just feel like a nice long game of crazy 8’s afterwards.

Playing outside, on her own. Is that such a crazy way to be eight?


  1. Nope, it's not. And I agree whole-heartedly with your bemoaning both of the situation and of the attendant guilt/pressure it has put on moms.
    Have your read Michael Chabon's excellent essay about this:

    Excellent eulogy, basically, for the "wildness" of childhood and of the benefits this kind of laxity of supervision creates for people growing up.

    I don't have answers, but am grateful for your wise and thoughtful contribution to the debate.
    Thank you!

  2. What a wonderful post on a generally wonderful blog. (I just found you via your comment on Lindsey's blog; I too am a hardcore HWM fan and just had to follow up with other members of the club.)

    I've been thinking a lot about the over-parenting phenomenon, all the while becoming increasingly nostalgic for my childhood of skinned knees and unfettered roaming. It is fascinating to learn that this is not an exclusively American condition. I find it at once heartening and depressing to learn that the French seem mired in the same type of thinking.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I look forward to learning more about your adventures overseas.

  3. Kids don't have to do all the chores that we had to do in order to earn all that free time we had. If the kids were doing more legitimate work around the house then not only would we be more confident in their skill sets when they are out of sight, but WE would have twice as much time to be unsupervised adults. In Park Slope the kids will likely form a child labor union though - and then write a letter to congress about the injustice of it! Love Grace's blog btw - it is everything I love about that girl.

  4. I think it started, or at least I remember it starting, with the halloween needle in the candy scare. After that, no more kids going out for halloween by themselves. And it's just been a gradual decline since then. But how many kids actually got needles? And what are the odds of a kid getting a needle now? They're probably more likely to get hit by lightning at the same time as getting run over by a bus on the sidewalk while some sketchy guy in a van propositions them with candy.

    I wonder if it's true what you say about the Frenchies though. Is it possible it happens and you just don't see it? I think it's your job the rest of this year to make French friends and research this further.