Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: Wild Island Child

Posted:  Wednesday, April 8, 2015 - 10:45am

April vacation is coming up, and with that, a very special and much-beloved gaggle of part-time island children will be around, weather permitting of course.

These are not "summer kids" in the classic, and vaguely insulting, sense used around certain New England communities. This is not that kind of island and these are not that kind of summer kids. No; these are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the folks who built this place, in a sense. Even though their families have various reasons for living on the mainland, at least through the cold weather, the older generations hold out profound hope that the younger folks will feel enough connection to this rather demanding little microcontinent to keep coming back, year after year.

Hearing children playing outside, thundering around on their bicycles (assuming the mud dries up enough!) and even the older ones on their – aarrgh! – four-wheelers, means a lot to us who were here through this long ‘Winter of the Nineteen Neighbors.’ More than that, it means a lot to these kids — or it will when they get a little older, and can look back.

Here, they have freedom.

What the kids don't know yet is that their island childhood, with its relative freedom, may turn a lot of them into firefighters and such wherever they may eventually settle. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In a recent guest column in the New York Times, a European parent new to this country spoke for many as he observed America's discussion with itself about just how much supervision, micro-management, hyper-parenting and real protection our children require:

"What had been the norm a generation ago, that kids would enjoy a measure of autonomy after school, is now seen as almost a crime. Today's parents enjoyed a completely different American childhood. Recently, researchers at the University of Virginia conducted interviews with 100 parents. 'Nearly all respondents remember childhoods of nearly unlimited freedom, when they could ride bicycles and wander through woods, streets, parks, unmonitored by their parents,” wrote Jeffrey Dill, one of the researchers. But when it comes to their own children, the same respondents were terrified by the idea of giving them only a fraction of the freedom they once enjoyed.

By now most everybody with kids has heard about the Silver Spring, Md., parents who were accused of child neglect for allowing two children, aged 10 and 6, to walk a few blocks alone in their relatively safe suburban neighborhood. However, it does seem there is finally a small bit of backlash in this country to the anxious reasoning of the "helicopter parent." I, for one, mean to help encourage that backlash.

"I'm just parenting the way I was parented and the way that almost every adult I know was parented," the Silver Spring mom told an interviewer. The whole experience must have been perfectly awful. Not being any sort of a lowlife, and she and her husband by all accounts a couple who made thoughtful, deliberate decisions about how to raise their children rather than just letting the years go by, the accusation must have been humiliating, nerve-wracking and demeaning.

That story made me doubly grateful to have been able to raise my family on this island.

A parenting style of vigilance, uninterrupted supervision and a hovering concern over every detail is not excessive at all — for toddlers. It is exactly what toddlers need. A 10-year old is not a toddler, though, despite how in most of our society there is no point of delineation between being a "little kid" and a "big kid." It is difficult for many parents to stand back and allow their kids to take risks as they grow up, and maybe even suffer a few consequences, but it is important. Allowing that "learning by doing" is made almost impossible in some communities, now — and I suggest that these are mainly affluent communities — because instead of keeping an eye on each others' kids, as we often do on this island, people keep an eye open to judge each others' parenting.

While not serious like an accusation of criminal neglect, once in a while each island parent will have to endure a judgmental comment or a criticism for "daring" to raise children outside of the civilized nest of pediatricians, soccer coaches and certified preschools. Those busy-body expressions of "concern" always made me wonder: do those same critics inquire of moms in desperately poor inner city neighborhoods how they "dare raise their children" without that same list of support services, experts and comforts? I doubt it. One wonders if the whole "hyper-parenting" thing is an artifact of economics.

We aren't talking about the children who live in genuinely dangerous places, where stray gunfire is a routine occurrence and exposure to violent crime is as common as a gum wrapper in the street. If a parent says, "I don't want my kid walking to the park because people get shot all the time around here," they're only making sense. If a parent in a much safer community says, "I don't want my kid walking to the park because he's only 10 — gosh, still a baby!" — something seems wrong.

The big fear isn't that their child will get hit on the head with a two-by-four and have his bicycle stolen, which was a legitimate concern when I was 10. No, a proper, conscientious parent these days is supposed to be worried about abduction by a stranger.

I'm not completely naïve, and I do understand that there could be a predator out there. There is a well-documented aspect of human psychology in play here, though: people like to think more about the very rare, high-drama danger than they do the common, ordinary, boring but much more likely danger, and that's not always sensible. For example, people fret more about rumors of great white sharks in the waters off the coast of Maine than about the usual hypothermia, lack of safety gear and boating while intoxicated, all far more likely to put a mariner in real danger than the odd shark. The fear of completely random abduction of their child by a stranger weighs heavily on the American parent's mind. This is not helped by sensationalist journalism and a fearmongering media. Perhaps we ought to work as hard protecting kids from driving while texting, opiate addiction, frat parties and concussions — not to mention dealing with those neighborhoods where it really is too dangerous to walk to the park!

Forget the beach-read fantasy of idyllic island life; it simply is not true that offshore kids grow up with no risk, no exposure to danger or high-risk temptations or bad-acting adults. If anything — and I believe Eric and Emily and Tyler and Dave and Josh and the others will support me here — they grow up right in the thick of everything, surrounded by more opportunity for drowning, drunkenness and disorderly conduct than just about anywhere you can imagine. I do not romanticize that edgy stuff, but I offer it in response to anybody who suggests that we may not understand "the dangers kids face these days." Baloney. However, our young people also grow up knowing that before they get very much older they may have to plow the snow. They may have to take a sick person to the mainland in their boat at 3 a.m. They may have to fight the fire, rescue the mariner in distress or deliver the groceries to the shut-in elderly. For years they've watched their parents and neighbors do these things, and if there's an emergency, they will come running. They grew up that way. Unlike the over-protected, these children have not been shielded from the real world, the real needs of their neighbors and the real work of being a useful community member.

It is largely — but not universally — true that islanders do watch each others' kids. I remember encouraging the other adults to speak sharply to my kids if they needed it. We are a neighborhood, albeit a rough one, and while we might hear some version of "Mind your own business," with or without accompanying swear words, we won't hear, "How dare you speak to my child! I should call the police! Madison, dearest, come along now and remember, don't ever let strangers talk to you."

That, and nobody ever stops a 10-year-old from walking home alone.

If you are interested may I recommend a few books:

First, Free Range Kids, by Lenore Skenazy, a quick and encouraging read for the parent who is not sure that life is really that much more dangerous than it was a generation ago (and by the way, it isn't).

If you still want more:
Bringing up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman
The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D
Simplicity Parenting, by Payne and Ross
Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv
Home Grown, by Ben Hewitt
• And not quite in the same category but possibly of interest, Island Schoolhouse, by Eva Murray

EvaEva Murray lives on Matinicus

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