Author, journalist and perplexed parent Carl Honoré recently returned to his old Edmonton neighbourhood, the scene of his formative years and boyhood adventures. He found the streets — still echoing in his memory with the whoops of street hockey battles — were now disconcertingly devoid of play. There were children, it's just that most were indoors, presumably safe from pedophiles and marauding automobiles. Maybe they were watching TV, or cruising the Internet. Maybe they were huddled with tutors, being mathematically enriched. He found it sad, but hardly surprising, that aimless amusements like bouncing balls, riding bikes or climbing trees are considered unworthy, non-productive and potentially fatal pastimes for the offspring of the ambitious middle class. Misplaced paranoia and hyper-parenting have kidnapped childhood, he laments.
Honoré, 40, now lives in an affluent London neighbourhood, with his wife, author and journalist Miranda France, their nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. Their English neighbours are just as protective and drive their kids, literally and figuratively, to the clubs and the courses that define success — in their eyes. Madness, thought Honoré, who saw the same tendencies in himself. So did his son, at age 7, after Honoré pounced on his gift for drawing and wanted to dispatch him to art classes. "I just want to draw," he said. "Why do grown-ups have to take over everything?"
Honoré believes that modern parents know, at some level, they've overstepped their mandate. "There is so much sound and fury surrounding childhood," he says in an interview. "We lose sense of that little inner voice we should be listening to." Parents feel compelled to ignore the stuff that gave their own childhood joy because, well, things are different today. Aren't they? Like every aspect of parenting, the answer hides in a thicket of paradox and contradiction. The inner voice is drowned out by the protective pressures of other parents. "Good God, you let your children walk to school?" The 24/7 news cycle wipes out all proportion in a global tsunami of abduction, seduction, accident and disaster. Expert advice abounds. "We can end up being advice junkies," he says. "It ends up eroding your confidence as a parent, not least because the advice is often conflicting."
With later marriages and fewer children came the phenomenon of "the child king," she says, the heir, frequently without a spare. Parents invest everything — well, frequently more paranoia than time — into grooming the successor. She has special sympathy for the expectations heaped on daughters. "They have to be virtuoso pianists or violinists, athletes, and good-looking. They have to have big breasts, they have to have a Ph.D. in neuroscience and they have to be married with three kids." Simple, really.
There never has been a golden age of childhood, as Honoré stresses in the book. Still, he encapsulates beautifully what has been lost, in an introductory quote by Virginia Woolf: "That great Cathedral space which was childhood." Was is the keyword.
Space is exactly what Honoré recalls, and time for road hockey, shooting hoops and running battles with homemade weapons. "I wasn't cooped inside like a battery chicken," he says. For Franklin of Colleges Ontario it was the simple joy of Hallowe'en night. "We roamed about the streets for all hours in neighbourhoods we didn't recognize," she says. "I don't think I've seen more than a handful of kids in my neighbourhood in the 20 years we've lived here who haven't had a parent at the end of the driveway." Pacom describes to disbelieving students the luxury of vegging. "It was my responsibility to manage my boredom and my free time, " she says. "I was creating my own toys, inventing stories." The common thread is freedom. What memories will today's students draw on? Mandarin class? The joys of slipping parental controls on the computer and roaming the Internet? Happy hours with the tutor? Ah, good times . . . good times.
Still, there are healthy signs of a backlash. In England, Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler magazine, has a subversive new column in the Telegraph newspaper on the joys of Idle Parenting. "An unhealthy dose of the work ethic is threatening to wreck childhood," he laments. Parents are driving kids to distraction, and overworking themselves in the process. This explains the column's guiding mantra, "leave them alone," and its subtext: a lazy parent is a good parent. "My idea of child-care is a large field," Hodgkinson writes. "At one side is a marquee serving local ales. This is where the parents gather. On the other side, somewhere in the distance, the children play. I don't bother them and they don't bother me." Sloth has its advantages.
Honoré's research brought him back to Vernon Barford, his old junior high in Edmonton. Homework wasn't much of a factor when Honoré attended, but by 2006, levels had escalated to the point where even straight-A students were regularly in the principal's office for failing to complete the latest crush of assignments. The staff rethought priorities. They cut the homework load to a maximum 45 minutes a day for senior, Grade 9 students. The results: happier students and, paradoxically, a four per cent jump in grades.
One of Honoré's favourite finds was Secret Garden, an outdoor nursery school in Scotland. The preschool children spend all day, every day, outdoors, chill winds and rain notwithstanding, splashing through puddles, checking out chicken coops and livestock pens, building campfires, peeing in the woods. Honoré tagged along for a day and realized, as a protective parent, he was well out of his comfort zone. Germs and danger abounded — from the handling of a dead bird to the gathering of mushrooms. Yet, this school and others like it in Norway report fewer illnesses, not to mention more-worldly children. He contrasts this to his daughter's ex-nursery school, where her lax pencil control was an issue. "Pencil control? She was three!"
Discomfort, he's learned, is a parent's lot. It shouldn't be a child's burden. "It's a constant dance," he says of the search for balance. "It seems to me feeling uneasy and feeling unsure of what you're doing is a natural part of being a mother or father. It just is."
It's a part of growing up. Parents should try it sometime, and leave the kids be.