As a child I was a likeable tomboy blend of Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes and Sam Gribley, the protagonist in My Side of the Mountain, a favorite childhood novel. While many grade school girls were rocking dolls to sleep or planning their wedding dresses and colors (weddings have their own colors?), I was an early American cartographer, exploring and sketching the "uncharted" forests around my house, wondering what types of mysteries had occurred there.
If I happened to find an obsidian arrowhead while surveying, it was like unearthing the Holy Grail. Surely my name would soon land in the same textbooks as Lewis' and Clark's! I always secretly hoped to get lost for a couple of days, too, just so I'd have to fish, eat camas bulbs, and build a lean-to and fire in order to barely survive the harsh elements. Never mind the fact that there wasn't a cloud in the sky, I'd packed a peanut-butter-banana sandwich and it was usually 80-plus degrees during my expeditions.
Those Were the Days, My Friend
Beyond those solitary adventures, like-minded girlfriends and I would sneak outside after sleepovers to (try to) ride grouchy horses that tossed us off like blankets, just as our parents had warned would happen. (I still consider the resulting scars on my legs to be emblems of lessons learned happily, not traumatically.) We also concocted intricate neighborhood-wide games, with the house on the corner being a key point for playing cowboys and Indians, hide and seek, freeze tag, or whatever our make-it-up-as-we-went diversion was on that particular day.
Our clan consisted of boys and girls alike, actually, and we reigned over a vast, largely pastoral kingdom. Oblivious to today's apparent hazards, we walked to school unsupervised along the shoulder of a highway, biked five or six miles into town, raced the horses that would let us stay upright and spent languid summer afternoons in the river catching crawdads, swinging on ropes and pestering one another. We enjoyed being together and just being, not being entertained. And as long as we checked in with adults a few times a day, we were left to our own colorful devices.
After all, everyone in the area knew everyone else through church, school, committees and/or a club. We didn't have—or need—cellphones. Yelling and arm-flailing did the job of communicating over long distances just fine, it seemed. When it didn't, we could always stop at a neighbor's house to use their landline. Sometimes we called these people "Grandma" and "Grandpa," even when they weren't blood relatives.
I'd bet some of you grew up in a similar way, especially if the word rural was a descriptor you didn't really understand until you went away to college.
So with all this nostalgia swirling around in my head—mostly because I became "officially" middle-aged this year—I've been comparing my rather old-fashioned childhood to the newfangled kids and young adults of today—you know, those who are growing up after technology began to govern every single facet of humanity. And while standing in a coffee shop amid heavily tattooed, GPS-toting, perpetually texting students who sported ear gauges and multiple piercings, I recently felt very much like a relic.
Another anachronistic dread hovered when an old high school classmate still living in my hometown told me she couldn't let her kids grow up the same way we had.
She didn't illustrate that thought, leaving me to ponder it.
Adventure Is In Here
Few would realize it by watching news broadcasts nowadays, but key crime rates have dropped since the 1970s, '80s and even '90s. With our 24-hour, breaking-headline coverage, however, we're sure to hear about, read about or see images from every kidnapping, hold-up, shooting, accident, drug deal and fire within a 4,000-mile radius. Since the implication is danger—and our perception of reality is reality—we no longer let kids walk to school alone.
Many playgrounds have padding instead of gravel and are stripped of more intimidating equipment such as those high monkey bars I used to fall off of. We enroll kids in structured, supervised playtimes to both instruct and shelter them—karate, art and dance classes, among the activities. That's all good and even great. But I sometimes wonder if all of this security might be stifling, too. And I wonder whether the authorities would be called by caring neighbors were modern children allowed to emulate their grandparents' early years.
All of that makes me wonder if the rousing and riling adventure of entertainment has such lure for a kid because they just don't get much of it when they're away from a screen. Wii games and a Transformers movie, anyone?
While yesteryear's kids were unfettered by technology, many of today's youths have an umbilical connection to gadgets that they're reluctant to disconnect. These are people who have never known life without the Internet and a constant digital connectivity with friends and information. Can they disconnect from what surrounds them any more than I could have disconnected from the world of woods and streams that flowed around me? Should they (can they) crave exploring with a sketchbook when Google Earth shows them exactly what's both in and beyond their backyard?
What Connects Us Has Changed … a Lot
Science projects, Sea-Monkeys and a foreign letter from England wowed me during my sixth-grade year. Now such enchantment can require a lot more hype, money and special effects. And it's the same overkill with music and television. When I was a teen there was Michael Jackson and, maybe, 20 lesser rock stars who weren't Michael Jackson—so in high school we were all pretty much on the same page musically. Today, there are more indie rock bands than even hipsters can count, much less care about. And while many of us grew up with three television stations, kids now have access to hundreds, with enough specialized programming choices to confound even a Comcast executive. While old classmates and I might have had nothing else in common beyond a fondness for a certain show or performer, niche audiences in this new century can seem more isolating than unifying, even if it is easier to be accepted in an anything-goes youth culture.
Your kids can't grow up in the '70s just because you did. But that doesn't mean they have to grow up fully ensconced in the '10s either. My comparatively "risky" childhood certainly wasn't always blissful. There were more rigid social castes during an era when hair and clothing had to look exactly to "code," and a letterman's jacket spoke much louder than a report card. Each generation has its own trials and tribulations, joys and perks. And that's the point I'm trying to make by zigging and zagging between two centuries: We need to pay attention to how things are different. What's different. And why it's different. If we don't, we have no chance at all of helping a new generation move safely through a world that says it cares about little else besides their safety—but doesn't even do a good job of that.
So I just can't help but wonder, What will their memories be?