Earlier this year, UNICEF reported that British children are the unhappiest in the industrialized world. In response, 270 academics, writers and child-development professionals signed a statement saying that aspects of modern life itself makes it hard for children simply to play. The list includes:
The ready availability of sedentary, sometimes addictive screen-based entertainment; the aggressive marketing of over-elaborate, commercialized toys (which seem to inhibit, rather than stimulate, creative play); parental anxiety about "stranger danger," meaning children are increasingly kept indoors; a test-driven school and preschool curriculum in which formal learning has substantially replaced free, unstructured play; and a more pervasive cultural anxiety which ... contaminates the space needed for authentic play to flourish.
Well, we don't watch much TV at our house. We forbid video games and don't let the kids spend much time on the computer. Relatives agreed not to give our young children expensive electronic toys for birthday or Christmas gifts. We have our school-age son in a school that doesn't put students at the mercy of constant assessment testing.
But parental and cultural anxiety? Oh, man, where to begin?
My wife and I live in a decent East Dallas neighborhood, and there's a playground right around the corner. But the day will never come when we let our kids go play there alone. In fact, the day will never come when we give them permission to play unsupervised on our front lawn.
Why not? For one thing, there are halfway houses for sex offenders in the general area, unsavory relics from our gentrified neighborhood's slum past. For another, stray dogs run loose. Sometimes we'll see dodgy older teenagers from someplace else walking the streets. And most of the people in our neighborhood are strangers to us.
And if we lived in a gated community in a well-off suburb, I would feel no different. A friend tells me about letting her young son go to a playmate's home. My friend discovered when her little boy came home that he'd seen an R-rated movie there, thanks to the playmate's older brother. "You just never know where it's going to come from nowadays," she said with a sigh.
This is not how I grew up in my small southern Louisiana town in the 1970s. It was far from paradise, but people knew each other, and they knew the rules. That is, community standards were broadly shared and enforced. My mom could be sure that other moms in town would be her proxy and we kids knew that, too. There was safety and comfort in that. It was a good way to grow up.
That same sense of close-knit social relations felt suffocating to me as a teenager, though. I couldn't wait to leave town and follow my dreams. And so I did, going farther than my parents ever allowed themselves to imagine. Since I left home at 16, the longest I've lived at the same address was four years. Freedom and opportunity have made me a happy man.
Now, they have made me an anxious dad. The same cultural revolution that made my escape from the perceived confines of my small town possible and enabled me to pursue my career and personal interests around the country has helped make it impossible to let my children go unsupervised to the neighborhood playground.
What's the connection? Alan Ehrenhalt explains it in his 1995 book, The Lost City. It's about growing up in Chicago in the 1950s and the world of strong, safe neighborhoods that we've lost in the last four or five decades. Mr. Ehrenhalt, certainly no nostalgist, points out that all the good things people miss about the era most of all, a sense of community cannot be separated from the cultural conformity, lack of mobility and dearth of individual choice that contemporary Americans would find unacceptable.
Since the 1960s, American culture has been organized in an unprecedented way around the sovereign individual and expanding choices to meet his desires. Liberals and conservatives buy into this model. Though they would draw lines in different places liberals tend to exalt choice in sexual and familial relations; conservatives are keener on choice in economic matters most Americans today have a basic philosophical stance that Mr. Ehrenhalt calls "the belief in individual choice and suspicion of any authority that might interfere with it."
When looking out for No. 1 becomes the basic social value for individuals, as well as corporations, traditional community becomes far more difficult to sustain. A community in the older understanding is far more than a group of people who happen to live in the same neighborhood. In traditional community, the shared moral sense of its members is embodied, enforced and passed on through institutions, customs and personal loyalties. This is unquestionably hard on rebels, outsiders and other individualists and post-'60s American popular culture privileges the dissenters' stories.
Without that social authority, though, the everyday communal trust taken for granted two generations ago collapses. We are today living in the ruins and don't know how to get back what we've lost. Mr. Ehrenhalt's inconvenient truth: "There is no easy way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved. Every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a dream in the end."
A culture that exalts the individual and his tastes and renounces any binding authority undoes itself. We contemporary Americans all want to get to the heaven of a safe, wholesome and orderly world for our children to grow up in, but none of us want to die to ourselves to achieve it.
Given the economic structures and social habits of modernity, it's difficult to know if even those willing and eager to make personal sacrifices to gain real community could find a realistic opportunity to do so.
My friend Tom Kelly has lived in Washington all of his long life. During his Depression-era boyhood, families would escape the heat by sleeping under the stars in the public parks, everyone together, happy as clams. Can you imagine?
And here we are, wealthy and free beyond anything our grandparents could have conceived, but afraid to let our children go to the park on their own. How rich we have become, and how very poor.