Urban Man: The Survival Of Childhood
by Marc Porter Zasada
As I work in my backyard office on long weekday afternoons, I sometimes creep to the window and part the blinds to spy on Neverland. It turns out that neither fairy dust nor cloying Hollywood songs are required – and the home of Peter Pan is no misty cartoon island, nor bright picture book, but a small circle of grass, just outside my door. It’s surrounded by neatly trimmed landscaping, and set smack in the middle of a major metropolitan area. Sure enough, again today and along about 2:00 p.m., I hear the sweet, unmistakable shouts of small boys. And lo, from the north side of the house, a handful of six to nine-year-olds, motley with tinfoil helmets and doughty with wooden swords and cardboard shields, troops into view. My own nine-year-old, serious today with red cape and belted dagger, leads the charge: Urging the others forward with his pike, whether they will or no, and complaining when they fall behind or mistakenly introduce inappropriate elements – such as ray guns or dinosaurs – to the battlefield.
Today, they have taken a fell oath to attack the forbidding South Side of the House, held fearsomely by fighting men of unknown origin: I hope, perhaps, even by pirates.
“Two o’clock and all’s well,” I say to myself, and turn back to my work contentedly. I know that Neverland is well guarded, not just by the iron gates that keep it safe from the street, but by the ceaseless, daily diligence of my wife and teenaged children, who protects its lost boys from what I call the “great and unmitigated world” beyond.
Many of us, you see, homeschool not so much to ensure the proper education of our small children, but to ensure the survival of childhood itself. We do this because whether you have noticed it or not, childhood is rapidly falling out of fashion.
Most children now dress in identical clothing, wear identical hairstyles, listen to identical music, watch identical programming, and play identical games as adults (do). Child entertainers slink sexily onto our stages. On situation comedies, children speak precociously in the same brash and insulting manner as their goggle-eyed parents. We read of groups that advocate advanced legal rights for children, and others that advocate the dissolution of childhood sexual taboos. Criminal protections for minors are being dismantled before our very eyes: Once again, as in the Middle Ages, teenaged boys are rotting in prisons next to men. And in spite of their great proliferation, children’s books and movies have become rife with adult humor and adult drama. In the recent Hollywood rendition of “Peter Pan,” for example, Wendy has the hots for a Peter straight out of Seventeen Magazine.
With such ideas abroad, I don’t think of our backyard as the place where children never grow up, but the place where they can have a fighting chance to grow up, well . . . slowly enough to make childhood count.
In his landmark book, The Disappearance of Childhood, last updated in 1994, social critic Neil Postman presented a welter of evidence for the accelerating loss of innocence among the young, but said we should not be surprised. Indeed, claimed Postman, the very notion of “childhood” represents a recent and short-lived interlude in world history. Up until about 400 years ago, the idea of a “protected time” lasting beyond say, age seven, simply did not exist. He quoted pre-Renaissance historical sources: “Everything was permitted in [the presence of children]: coarse language, scabrous actions and situations; they heard everything and saw everything.” Other accounts from Greek and Roman and Medieval times make this clear: Read Plato if you want to know how Athenian men thought about the local youth. Read Catullus for a look at Rome. Then glance at some pre-Renaissance European paintings, where children generally appear as miniature adults for a reason: No one thought that people between 7 and 17 had any special status, any special rights, or deserved any special breaks. “Indeed it was common enough in the Middle Ages for adults to take liberties with [the privates] of children. To the medieval mind, such practices were merely ribald amusements,” noted Postman.
Boys, well, rotted in prisons alongside men. This walled garden, this nurtured time of mental freedom, this childhood that we homeschoolers hold so dear, may indeed prove merely a brief and radical social experiment. In Europe, the experiment was conceived by thinkers in the 16th Century, developed philosophically by folks like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and fully refined in the late 19th and early 20th century by authors like Charles Dickens, J.M. Barrie, Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Consider Dickens alone. More than half his books concern the proper separation of adults and children, and argue that children must be protected from the gritty logic of modern life in order to develop into full human beings. Consider the lessons of Pip and David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. Dickens believed, as I think most parents would still agree, that adults without childhoods grow into stunted and incomplete adults.
He also believed, perhaps less popularly, that childhood had a value all its own, regardless of its “educational” and “formative” purposes.
I, for one, believe that only in the protected time of childhood can one learn to separate the important and eternal from the mundane and gossipy. And as a result, I think parents have a grave duty to keep the gate shut on the mundane and gossipy as long as possible – otherwise, the important and the eternal won’t have much of a chance. In that respect, I think parents who allow their children to watch unsupervised television or surf the internet at will or to obsess about schoolyard cliques, Hollywood stars and pre-pubescent dating are violating a fundamental principle of the grand experiment.
Genuine responsibility: Yes. Sexual knowledge and awareness of the grim difficulties of the world: For goodness sake, give them a chance to grow up first.
But this quaint, Dickensian idea, apparently like childhood itself, has begun to evaporate like a sweet morning fog. Now I see parents standing by proudly as their young girls dress like sirens at age 10. I see them cheerfully shepherding 11-year-olds into R-rated movies, and bragging about their boys’ dates at 13. In modern America, thanks mostly to what Postman calls “the total exposure medium of television,” not to mention the “total exposure medium of the schools” we are rapidly returning to a more primitive model of society: Knowing all, children do all. Need I go on to mention defrocked priests or . . . Michael Jackson?
Once again, I peek through the shades at that very different Neverland in my backyard.
From the south side of the house, lo again, my sixteen-year-old appears. Although he is too old for such things, his six-year-old brother has persuaded him join in the defense of the southern fortress, just this one more time, please. I watch him with fatherly pride, for lately he has grown handsome and straight-backed, and after nine years of homeschooling on that little circle of grass, he stands on the cusp of adulthood. He takes on works of responsibility and trust, goes to classes at the community college, acts in grown-up plays, writes articles, and stays up late nights to author the novel we expect to pay for our retirement. And yet, for short sweet hours, to please his younger brothers, my eldest can still pretend to be a child.
Now he stops barefoot on the tiny lawn outside my window, where he raises a long sword in a gesture of grim defiance. He and his little brother loose their own blood-curdling cry, and they push into battle.
And me? I have tears in my eyes. Instead of helping his siblings enjoy their Neverland, I know that my eldest might already be appearing handsome and straight-backed on a real battlefield, in the smoke and dust of real conflict, crying a real battle cry and dealing real death from his strong right hand.
In the Middle Ages, he might have been apprenticed at seven, and might have spent his youth if not in warfare, then hammering horseshoes or digging rows for turnips.
In many nations, he might be married already and sweating to feed his young. In a modern American high school, he might be getting tattooed.
Over the years that we have homeschooled, well-meaning friends have often criticized us for overprotecting our four children. Yes, these friends listen politely as I explain that my kids have responsibilities and ambitions aplenty. They smile when I list the grown-up books they read and plays they attend. And although these friends admit that our kids apparently continue to mature, they continue to fear that somehow these small people will become soft in Neverland. That somehow each will not know, when the time comes, how to escape childhood and bear the burdens which all must bear.
I am well aware of these arguments; but again today, looking out my office window, I prove myself sadly out of step with the unmitigated world. I say, “Please G-d, just give my kids another couple of years.”
In his book, Neil Postman saw little hope for the preservation of childhood in the new century, and none in the century after that – but he wrote before the phenomenal rise of homeschooling. And certainly, he never visited the backyards of readers of The Link. Surely, the launch of the homeschool movement can be compared to the floating of an ark to preserve a magnificent human idea, no matter how recent and naive that idea may be. I, for one, believe that many homeschooled children are destined to be adults who will continue to love childhood themselves, and protect it for their own children, and perhaps their children’s children as well: Right into the twenty-second century.
Of this much I am certain: I love to look out my window into Neverland, and I intend to do so as long as I can.
Marc Porter Zasada and his wife, Martine, have homeschooled their four children since 1994. Both will be speaking at the upcoming Link conference in June. Marc’s essays are collected at www.theurbanman.com and he can be reached at email@example.com