Friday, May 30, 2008

Killing Special

Do you remember special things from childhood? I remember the excitement of a birthday cake, the rare treat of a trip to Champaign to see a movie, or the ice cream treats in the shape of snowmen and reindeer that my grandmother could buy only at Christmastime. I loved visits with a certain friend because her mother served us white bread bologna and processed cheese sandwiches smothered in Miracle Whip, cherry Kool-Aid to drink and Twinkies. Haute cuisine for 7 year olds. All of those delicious food items were strictly forbidden in my “whole wheat bread and water is good for you” home.

I remember the anticipation of Saturday morning cartoons- kid shows that in no way resembled the psychedelic frenzy of action and insanity that are many modern cartoons. I think of the weekend ritual that included rising at dawn on Saturday, watching the blank set until the station finally came on, and savoring every moment until they ended promptly at 12:00 on Saturday- never to return until next weekend.

Some friends and I were talking this week about special things from our own childhoods and we realized that most of what we really loved and remembered was not toys, or possessions, but experiences. I enjoyed trick or treating, but I loved when my mom painted the giant pumpkin on our huge round window each Halloween. I enjoyed Christmas and my favorite present of all time was my Big Wheel (with handbrake), but what was really exciting, what was special, was the playing with so many children and listening to family stories. One friend remembered that some of the best memories she had involved taking family hikes.

We tend to idealize our childhoods, but I think most adults would agree that events and special times seemed to resonate more in our past in part, because of the regular, steady amount of calm and uneventful space that surrounded our lives as children. We existed in what felt like a slower, more cohesive world and our indulgences were only occasional.

I wonder about modern children and what they will remember as special. Is special fading? Are the emotions of joy, wonder, anticipation all dying under the crushing weight of our “have everything instantly” culture?

Amy Dacyczyn, a wonderful writer told the story of taking her five young children to the ice cream store- a very rare occurrence for a family on a tight budget. Her children quietly debated their flavor choice and then sat in wide-eyed silence-blissfully savoring their junior-sized cones. Other parents, seeing the same enjoyment level from a junior cone and wishing to create more happiness would opt to visit the ice cream shop more. But with frequency specialness begins to die, and sooner or later the parent finds themselves buying the triple scoop, brownie deluxe sundae with flakes of candied gold leaf in order to elicit the same oohs and ahhs from the child. Eventually, with regular trips to get ice cream, even the most deluxe treat become blasé and you wind up with an ice cream jaded 8 year old. To keep specialness, some time and space are necessary between cones.

This principle applies not only to ice cream. We are all familiar with over-indulged children. They seem to be everywhere-including my own home. Remember the television ad for a credit card that told parents, “You want to give them everything…” not so subtly conveying you must give your children any item they desire to be a good parent, and that they had just the card to help you succeed? One of the ads even showed a misty eyed dad handing an elephant off to his small daughter. The image isn’t as far fetched as it may seem. Granted, we aren’t legally allowed to dole out elephants, but we are extravagant in so many equally exorbitant ways: we provide limo service for children’s’ birthday parties where children are entertained by acts worthy of Las Vegas. We hand out stuffed goodie bags filled not with the trinkets and piece of candy from our own childhoods- but more reminiscent of the Christmas stockings of our childhoods. We have only to watch television to see the popular reality show where witless parents spend tens of thousands on Sweet 16 parties where their children, all in dire need of immediate Oompa-Loompa intervention, arrive in Cinderella carriages and aim to inspire envy among their peers. We hand teens credit cards to use carte blanche. Instead of allowing children to build a playhouse made of chairs and sheets we kill their imaginations by giving them $5,000 custom built playhouses.

A recent CNN/TIME poll showed that 68% of parents indicated that their children were “very spoiled”. Yet, we parents behave as if we had no choice or control.

Parenting is certainly a difficult job- perhaps more difficult now than ever before. Our children are bombarded with advertising and images urging them to buy and spend. At our house we have long struggled with basketball shoe addictions. Often, the answer has to be “no” because at $125.00 or more per pair, we simply can’t afford them, but also because in our culture teens have become driven consumers with a combined purchasing power of $150 billion per year. I would like my boys to develop some skills to fight affluenza. I don’t want to raise spoiled brats.

I often feel that the culture is a huge, fast moving vehicle and we are being swept along within. We are bombarded with images and shaped by messages over which we feel we have little control. As we are carried along together, we can at least discuss the scenery.

What happens to children who are over-indulged? Over-indulged children grow into over-indulged young people and later into adults who are difficult to deal with. They believe rules only apply to others because they are privileged. Over-indulged young people exhibit obnoxious behaviors with superior attitudes, are often unmotivated and appear jaded. What is left when you have seen it all, done it all, and had it all by 16? Not many things will be special for Generation G. G for gimme.

As adults these kids probably won’t be able to tell the difference between needs and wants, will need constant stimulation and entertainment from others, might be deficient in basic life skills, be unable to take responsibility for their own actions, and lack empathy for others.

Education specialist Ada Alden, who helps teachers learn to handle over-indulged students, recently noted, “If you water a plant too much it dies. Even if you are watering it out of too much love, it still dies.” Did you miss that? Nationally, teachers are being trained how to handle overindulged children (and parents).

So what can we, as parents and people who care about families and children do to cope with the prevailing gimme culture? First, we can give of ourselves and our time. The prevailing notion of quality time has not benefited children and families. Children need quantity time. Simply sitting with your child while he or she draws or builds with blocks is so meaningful to children.

We can make family rituals- celebrations of events and holidays that don’t involve the giving of things, but sharing of experiences and family stories. We can work together to form a stronger community, building ties with neighbors and friends. We can help our children most by slowing down and finding more quiet time, without rushing, television, or electronics in our hectic lives. We need to allow time and space for special. Simply by slowing down and talking with one another we can change our culture.

Christina Sanantonio can be reached at

Friday, May 23, 2008

Additional Information About Children and Nature

Helpful Links for Parents and families who want to learn more about nature.

Auubon's Invitation to a Healthy yard-

Creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat

Entire page of Useful Links

Links to Articles Advocating Sending Children Outside

Where the WIld Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are

By Chris Sanantonio

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. ~Henry David Thoreau

As a child, I had a creek in my backyard. My younger brother and I lived at the creek. The minute perfection of a baby crawdad held in my palm elicited one of my earliest moments of wonder.

My creek was an ever changing constant. It could dry to a mere trickle in a dry summer or burst from its bank after a heavy spring rain with a current that begged attempts at rafting. It was a refuge, my chief source of entertainment, an interactive zoological exhibit, a place to play with like-minded adventurous friends, and a great source of snakes.

Long after my friends began wrinkling their noses when I suggested creek play, I could still be found ankle deep in silty water, net in hand.

The creek was what anthropologists call a “magic circle of play”. A place both real and imagined; it was a world away from adults. Adults were rarely needed or wanted - unless we made an exceptionally interesting find. I remember once, after a time of heavy rain, a huge dogfish had been washed from the Sangamon into our little creek through mysterious channels and my brother and I caught it in a butterfly net. The fish had barreled in an aggressive manner straight for my legs, electrifying the crowd of kids watching. As the large fish flopped in the fragile net, we raced up to find a grown up to show. My grandfather admired the fish and said it was a type of shark. A shark in our creek! The imagined danger was delicious.

With surprising wisdom, the adults of my childhood left children to their own devices. They knew that children need the space, solitude and most importantly, unrushed time in nature to be healthy people. I knew that kind neighbors were nearby if true need arose.

In the many years of creek play, I can recall only one time that an adult intruded, and injected unwanted interference into my wild world. When I was 4 years old, a neighbor glanced out her window and saw me. I was completely nude, wielding a shiny new hatchet, and making a valiant attempt to chop down a large tree. The startled woman made a hurried call to my grandfather. A child was collected and re-attired (despite my protest that clothing impeded my hatcheting ability). A few admonishments later, I was back at the creek sans hatchet. If the same scenario were to transpire today, I am certain the scanners would be ablaze with calls indicating a naked toddler carrying an ax, running amok and bent on murder and mayhem. Various social service agencies would be notified, schools would be put on lock-down, and well-intentioned interventionists would swoop in and various psychotropic drugs would be recommended.

Luckily for me, my neighbors were familiar with children and childhood. The creek was child territory. A communal green space. At twilight, children crouched and flitted along its banks like moths.

After my brother died at age 12, the creek was one of the first places I sought comfort in my haze of grief. Nick had written his name on the bridge with a writing rock. It became one of the few tangible traces of him left to me.

When my own sons were small, I looked forward to sharing the creek world with them and they were also thrilled with the creek’s offerings. We soon discovered, however, that the climate had changed.

The fish and animals were thriving, but the banks had been groomed and planted up to waters edge. New neighbors worried about damage children might cause to the plantings and to themselves. One expressed real fear that an injury in the creek might result in a lawsuit. The sidewalk that had connected the creek to several subdivisions was claimed as private property and made forbidden to walkers and children. These actions and speak not only to Americans’ growing litigiousness, but also of the pervasive paranoia, creeping isolationism, and culture of fear that is killing American neighborhoods and keeping our children indoors. Rather than quarrel with neighbors, we sadly departed the creek and mourned the loss.

Children have always been drawn to wild, natural spaces. Toddlers allowed to explore will seek out mud under a bush or explore the most unkempt area of a backyard. Children come equipped with a natural curiosity toward the wild. The author Valerie Andrews says in her book, A Passion for this Earth, "As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth; to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unselfconsciously to the soughing of the trees." In much of America, however, children have disappeared from the landscape.

Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods-Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, asserts that a lack of exposure to nature leads to not only a decrease in a child’s sense of wonder, but also an actual loss of senses.

Nature is restorative environment. A recent study from the University of Illinois shows what parents have long known anecdotally: that children suffering from ADHD who are exposed to green spaces show marked improvement. Nature therapy is becoming a popular recommendation among child psychologists. Yet fewer and fewer American children are playing outdoors.

It is my sincere hope that we can reawaken within ourselves and in our children the love of green places. I hope we can remember that aesthetics should not take precedence over sharing the natural world with children.

We should care less about trampled hostas and more about allowing children to experience wonder. We need to reclaim the creeks and other magic circles for our children. If we fail in reconnecting with nature, we will have millions of children with the constitutions of hot house flowers. We will have yet another generation of children who collectively echo the fourth grader in Louv’s book who announced, “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are”; a message truly worthy of our fear.