With the privilege today of accompanying our grandchildren to a neighborhood Easter egg party came the opportunity to observe what I believe to be generational changes in memes, mores and memory building:
– Soccer is now popular enough in white middle suburbia to support an instant pickup game among 7- to 10-year-olds (who demonstrate considerable skill).
– Obsession with hot, male preteen idols is now acceptable and normal for 4-year-old girls.
– A possible side effect of today’s highly structured life for children may be an easy grasp of social organizing principles at the expense of the imagination-developing skills of pure, unorganized play.
– The organizational skills of a professional publisher, statewide professional-group leader and chamber of commerce president pale in comparison with those of a modern mom intent on providing a fantastic party for her young children and friends in the normal course of life in 21st Century Middle America.
I don’t know how far in advance Liz starts planning this annual affair in Lake Stevens, Wash., but her wooded back yard surely provided the perfect venue to hide bright plastic eggs containing candy, money or numbered codes for the prizes arranged on a table for maximum covetability.
Among those prizes glowed at least two baskets filled with fake Easter grass, purple peeps and Justin Bieber paraphernalia, one secretly reserved for my 4-year-old granddaughter.
She isn’t completely obsessed with Bieber, but I find it fascinating that girls her age see the latest teen heartthrob as worthy of their adoration. The fact that Liz chose Bieber prizes as a safe bet signals a widespread phenomenon. Little kids are either seeking the kind of group identity ties previously not sought before teenagerdom, or they are simply mimicking the behaviors so publicized more recently as normal for Tweens and popularized with the flawless marketing of the Disney machine. I’m not sure there is a difference.
In either case, the littlest idolizers may underscore the credibility of the perhaps not-so-outrageous hypothesis detailed in Neil Postman’s “The Disappearance of Childhood“. Postman’s pessimism sees the pervasiveness of modern media as causing a new Middle Ages-type attitude toward children, one that did not cherish innocence, unlike our modern sensibilities with roots that only go back a couple centuries.
Early arrivers at this spring break gig kicked up a game of soccer on an ill-suited hillside front yard. A dozen or so boys and one girl displayed the kind of ball control with their feet they could only gain from years of minivan-delivered practice.
The group included all the types I remember from neighborhood baseball or football games: genuine athletes and hard-line leaders, the moderately acceptable placeholder players, sideline wannabes, and one or two who want desperately to not be the last chosen by the defacto team captains, but relieved if they don’t actually have to play at all.
Other than the choice of sports, I’m not sure how much is new here, but I was struck by the kids’ ability to organize the game, their knowledge of the rules and procedures, and adherence to cultural norms of sportsmanship and other mores.
That same kind of submission to the rules made for some pretty smooth organization of the whole event. Kids knew to stay in their seats while moms delivered pizza to the little tables situated between the house and the three-car garage. It was quite hard for a few to wait to attack the back lawn filled with hidden eggs, but, incredibly, after they had lifted their rations they lined up in an orderly manner before collecting their numbered prizes.
I don’t know if that says more about Liz’s crowd control planning or the culture of the continually queued.
But for all the impressive organization, politeness of the children and their moms (I was the only adult male), and completeness of this thoroughly planned and efficient little celebration, I can’t help wonder about what may be missing — or not.
Fifty years ago, there would have been no such function. The closest we would have come would have been a neighborhood game of tag or hide and seek, which happened pretty much continually anyway.
We functioned under slightly different memes. We’d never heard of soccer, but anything as organized as a team sport was unlikely. For we operated largely outside the purview of adults.
That’s right. No adults were involved in our play. We made up the rules. We decided what to do and when to do it. We decided whom to play with. How hard to play. Where to play. Our world, as far as we knew, was limited only by our ability to imagine it. Adults surely kept track of us, but not to the extent today’s parents control unrelentingly every aspect of their children’s existence, filling their time with planned and paid activities.
The difference reflects the direction the entire culture has taken and can be attributed to the dominance of one aspect of modern American life: fear. Parents’ tight control of their children’s days comes from a belief that the world is just too dangerous a place for the risk of freedom. I had the unrestricted run of the neighborhood and walked myself home six blocks on my very first day of kindergarten. My grandchildren may not play in their own front yard, in view of the street, without an adult present.
I don’t know if today’s parents are right. I do believe it is costing our country, our society, in ways impossible to know for at least a century.
Are we in such greater peril today than when I grew up? Were my parents just blissfully ignorant of the dangers lurking around every corner where we played?
Or has our supreme, constant access to information, the drumbeat of news stories of the horrid from around the world so heightened our sense of foreboding that we are now perpetually curled into a defensive posture, afraid to stand upright and claim the freedoms my grandparents took for granted but we have forgotten?
Or is the world truly a more dangerous place now?
Our answer as a nation, right or wrong, will determine the course of our children’s children’s future, no matter how safe we keep kids today, no matter how deeply we cherish their innocence nestled among plastic eggs.