Doing Time: Growing Up in the 21st Century

Lea Stublarec, MSW, PCI Certified Parent Coach®

As a baby boomer, I find I'm starting to reminisce about different stages of my life and some of my favorite memories, it seems, are those from my childhood, playing with the neighborhood "gang." In fact, as sleep becomes a more challenging pursuit with age, a pleasant way to lull myself back to slumber land is to recount the different activities we enjoyed, just hanging out on the block—a hilly street in a 50's track home development in suburban Maryland. Some highlights from this list include: climbing trees, playing hide and seek, red light/green light, kickball, and freeze tag—plus building snow forts, making perfume from flowers then selling it door to door, hiking the cliffs behind our houses, riding bikes, sledding, camping in the backyard, searching for four-leaf clovers, making clover necklaces, jumping in leaf piles, roller-skating, running through sprinklers, water balloon fights…just to name a few! I've also started to conduct an informal survey of fellow-boomers about their favorite childhood pastimes and typically they'll get a serene, somewhat wistful look on their faces as they venture back to their favorite times, playing outdoors with the neighborhood kids, completely free, living both in the moment and in nature.

It seems like a common theme for these memories is that they were outdoors and involved children of all ages and both sexes who were totally free to do whatever they wanted. The various games and activities we devised to while away the hours were, for the most part, entirely child-initiated and directed, and required moving, thinking, creating, cooperating, making rules/following rules, and intimately connecting both with nature and each other. It was amazing how creative, focused, and alive we were when left to fend for ourselves. And we had to be because, for the most part, "indoors" was pretty much off limits—and there wasn't anything to do inside anyway.

But, today, driving around my "family-friendly" suburban neighborhood in Palo Alto, California, I'm struck by the fact that you never actually see a kid. Statistics and our "excellent school system" prove that they, in fact, must live in our town but they're rarely ever sighted—and certainly never out on their own without adult supervision! Despite the reality that crimes against children haven't increased significantly since our baby boomer childhood days, parents' fear of stranger danger, street crime, drugs, gangs, drunk drivers, and child predators are depriving our children of the best part of growing up. Instead of experiencing all the joys and wonder of relating to nature and each other, our children are instead locked inside their houses, often behind gates and barred windows, protected by security systems. Sadly, with the prevalence of single- or two-working parent families, these kids are frequently alone for long hours resorting to screens (TV, DVDs, video games, the Internet, electronic games, and cell phones) to ward off boredom and serve as a means of escape. In some cases, a child may be involved in "after school" activities but these typically are structured and supervised by adults, and often involve performing, producing, or competing on some level—they're not just for "fun."

These conditions also prevail in our schools, where the kids are locked in to keep them safe and, in many cases, have to pass through metal detectors to ward off potential dangers that may lurk inside the school walls as well. Once inside these hallowed walls, the students are increasingly exposed to frequent testing and rigid teaching methods, minimizing freedom of expression and student-directed learning. This situation is exacerbated by the elimination of art, music, drama, and PE programs. For the most part, the focus on educating our kids is now based on a "lock-step" approach, applying quantifiable standards across the board (no matter what the child's unique needs or abilities) that leaves little time for unstructured playtime or, again, "fun."

A sad example of the "criminalization" of play is the inner-city school in northern California where my daughter teaches. The classrooms are on different floors in a secured office building, so for lunchtime, the teachers take the students across the street to sit on the grassy hill in front of a municipal building. This is the only time the students have to be outside and are free to run around and play. Unfortunately, after a few weeks, the security guards informed them that "no playing was allowed," so now the children are expected to eat their lunch and just sit quietly.

It makes me wonder what this generation's best childhood memories will be. It seems to me that compared with what it was like to grow up in the 50's, growing up in the 21st century is a lot like "doing time." When my friend's 40-year-old son was asked about his best childhood memory, he responded: "Freedom from the chains of adulthood." I think children in the 21st century will have just the opposite reaction— they will view coming of age as an opportunity to throw off their chains, to finally be free. Perhaps this explains the creation of a new life phase described by David Brooks in his New York Times article, "The Odyssey Years." This transition phase falls between adolescence and adulthood and is now stretching from a year to seven and beyond, with young people delaying marriage, children, and permanent employment. But who can blame them? They just need time to play!

Leah Stublarec, MSW and PCI Certified Parent Coach®, is the mother of two grown daughters who specializes in supporting parents of gifted children.

Copyright © 2008 Leah Stublarec, all rights reserved. Used with permission.