Ah, summer. The weather has finally gotten nice all over the country. School is out or almost done for most, and our kids are looking forward to having a couple months off from the daily grind of classes, homework, projects, term papers and study sessions.
If you’re of a certain age, your summers were probably made up of long days where you’d set out in the morning with friends to go nowhere in particular, roam the neighborhood or town, play in the yard or relax in the woods or by a nearby pond, only coming home for lunch, dinner or bedtime.
But if yours is a typical “modern family” your kids can probably look forward to days being driven to day care, math, sports or church camps, organized “play dates” or other activities that have replaced the freedom to roam that we enjoyed as youth.
Today’s society is partly responsible. We no longer feel safe letting our kids roam without limits; there are too many stranger dangers out there. We feel more comfortable keeping close tabs on our kids – we even give them cellphones at early ages – and so we enroll them in activities that keep them safely accounted for. We’re all too happy to drive them from place to place to accomplish this, and are hesitant to let them walk or ride their bikes even a short distance outside our own neighborhoods.
One of the results of all this being chauffeured around is that our kids are less physically active than just a generation ago. Childhood obesity rates are rising and exposure to fresh air is diminishing. We’ve lost some of the essential elements of childhood and of physical development and it’s hurting the ability of kids to face the future.
In the article “Why Johnny Can’t Ride” in the June 2012 issue of Bicycling Magazine, David Darlington chronicles the case of a New York State middle-schooler from an avid cycling family who faced incredible resistance to being allowed to ride his bike to school. The pushback came not from his parents or peers but from the school administration, which went so far as to make a rule prohibiting children from riding their bicycles – or even walking – to school, forcing them instead into buses or parents’ cars. (It’s a great story and I won’t spoil the ending or any of the details of their struggle; I recommend you read it for yourself.)
Darlington makes a great point in his article about the de-evolution of our kids and their freedom to play. He quotes Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry):
“Walking the dog, playing kickball in the park, drawing on the sidewalk, organizing a carnival – anything kids do on their own rather than being driven to places where things are being done for them – are in the same box as bicycling,” Skenazy says. “It’s called childhood. I rode my bike to the library all the time when I was growing up, but now bikes don’t seem to be anywhere near the part of childhood they used to be. Electronic gadgets are part of [the problem], but so are organized activities. After school, kids don’t have a few hours to do what they want before dinner. Along with kidnapping, parents’ most horrifying fear is for a child to fall behind – so they always have some kind of supervised activity, like soccer practice or Mandarin class. We do these things out of love. But when parents help or supervise you, it’s a very different feeling from doing something on your own. (Emphasis added.) Kids end up getting the message: ‘We don’t believe in you. You can’t do it yourself. You’ll only be successful if I’m by your side.'”
Darlington also quotes Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists:
“Getting to school is just the most identifiable part of the issue, like the journey to work that we focus on for adults,” he says. “The bigger story is not purposeful – it’s the joy of just riding a bike, learning how gears and brakes work, kicking around the neighborhood, and having new stuff happen. The loss of ability to do that is critical, because it means we’ve forgotten all the other things in the public realm that contribute to it.”
Boy Scouting holds a unique position in promoting the freedom of kids to be kids. True, we are an organization with a framework and rules, but our purpose is for that organization to come from the boys, not from the adults. We as adults do not prepare a program of activities and deliver them to the boys, like just about every other “youth group” does. Instead, when done properly, Scouting gives this power to the boys themselves – to plan their meetings, outings, campouts and activities, and to conduct them themselves, asking adults only for the resources and supervision they need that they can’t provide. It’s up to adults to make sure the boys have the freedom to be free, if only for a few hours per week, and to be a safe haven from the threat of being overstructured.
Go back and re-read the sentence I emphasized in Lenore Skenazy’s quote above. Can you see how it pertains to Scouting? When parents or other adults get directly involved in the boys’ activities, the dynamic changes. It no longer feels like the boys are in control, no matter how much lip service we pay it. It takes a concerted effort on the part of all adults – not just the Scoutmasters, or the committee – to keep from stealing that feeling of independence, of self-determination, from the boys who joined Scouting to experience it.
Think back to when you were a kid and what it was like to hang out with your friends and do what you wanted to do for once, not what your parents or some adults arranged for you. Then, think about where our sons are today, and resolve to help them experience that feeling of freedom once more. That freedom that comes from owning your activity, with your circle of friends (the patrol), and give them the space to do it.
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