wasn’t looking forward to attending the three-year-old’s birthday party. Though I was friendly with my neighbor’s daughter, I have little in common with modern parents who hover hawk-like, monitoring their child’s every move. City parents and the children they raise bear no resemblance with what I learned about childhood while growing up in rural Ohio.
In Ohio, children are left to crawl outside. They run, tumble and generally engage the world. Scratches and falls get no special attention. Parents usually say, “You’re fine, keep going.” Flailing arms and legs are part of the discovery process — how they work and how the body fits into the spaces around it.
The world, once explored, gives instant feedback: there’s the prickly feel of grass, the jaggedness of hard gravel pebbles, the softness of wet rain on exposed skin. Finding insects is encouraged. They can be placed in jars and observed closely.
But at the birthday party I often heard parents shouting: “Don’t stand there, you’ll fall,” “Don’t touch that, it’s dirty,” “Don’t run so fast, you’ll trip,” “Get out of that puddle.” Ants and centipedes were “icky.” Hand sanitizer was at the ready.
Instead of exploring the world, the children were given plastic princess rings, star stickers, and temporary tattoos. These things were considerd safe while exploring the real world was not. You could climb the plastic castle at the playground, but not a tree.
I used to be jealous of children raised in New York City. Sophisticated and impressive, they seemed street-smart and articulate. Their youth included violin and ballet lessons, with “enrichment” trips to see “Swan Lake” and the symphony. They could spot a Cezanne painting from across the room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Culture was part of their curriculum.
But I feel different now, particularly when I see how disconnected they are from the multi-faceted world of which we’re a part. How does a child learn about its place in the biodiversity of nature when the sight of a bumblebee drives parents to panic? How does it discover that flowers turn to seed, that many of the stars in the sky burned out long ago, that every living thing is not at odds with humans, but striving to survive, like humans, on the same planet?
With no stars to see amid heavy light pollution and no wildflower fields within city limits, I can only hope that the next birthday party will be held in a park, where the then four-year-old — free from urban “don’t touch” admonishments — will see some squirrels and maybe even a stray butterfly.