State of Maine: Disappearance of free-range childhood

We’ve reached Labor Day, the end of our all-too-brief summer. It may come with a sigh of relief for the maxed-out hospitality industry, but those of us who favor flip flops and morning dips, days on the lake or evenings on the porch are not all that keen on the arrival of fall.

At one time it also meant an end to the joys of summer for feral children who spent their time at pond or beach or pool, up a tree in the backyard or bicycling around the neighborhood to round up friends for sandlot baseball. No more.

Life for kids now is just as regimented in the summer as it is in winter. There’s camp and summer classes and SAT prep, play dates and music lessons, club sports and the competitive sport of birthday parties. There is no time for kids to be bored, faced with the challenge of amusing themselves, building a treehouse or sprawling on the lawn with a book. Note to parents: Boredom is not terminal. You don’t have to cure it.

The camps of yore were mostly sleepaways, usually in two-week stints, giving parents a welcome break but also, for kids, a chance to go it alone — under careful supervision, of course. Swimming lessons, crafts, hiking and campfires with songs and s’mores were the order of the day. Now even camp is structured for maximum gain, with hockey camp, dance camp, lacrosse camp, art camp and fellow campers more like-minded than the ragtag jumble of kids who once shared a cabin.

Experiences for kids today are created by adults, not happened upon by the young themselves. Clubhouses are not built in the woods. Tents are not made under the dining room table. Frogs are not brought home (alas, poor frogs). Bugs are not collected. Refrigerator boxes are not converted into hideouts or storefronts.

Research on the disappearance of free-range childhood is ringing alarm bells. All this structure has a constraining influence on growing minds and bodies, and though it is meant to give our kids educational, creative and physical advantages it may be doing just the opposite.

Google “kids, anxiety” and then step back; you will receive 435 million results. How to recognize it. How to treat it. How to survive it.

And in Maine, specifically? According to the Kids Count Data Book released last March, Maine kids have the highest rate of anxiety diagnoses in the United States and the third highest rate of depression. That’s right, in Maine, with our clean air and water, low crime rate, vast outdoor recreational opportunity and an ethic of close communities and neighborliness. What the heck is going on?

In addition to an education, schools are struggling to find the resources to offer services for kids who are anxious, depressed, homeless, hungry, neglected, abused or addicted. These are largely one-on-one services for which space and staff must be provided.

And camp, that summer idyll that took our kids into the great outdoors and returned them two weeks later with matted hair, poison ivy, sunburn and duffel bags full of damp, stinky clothing? Camps are also identifying the need for counseling of a whole different kind.

Camp social workers are helping kids “who may not be able to cope very well with the environment of camp.” That environment can be “loud and high-energy,” says a report about one area camp which has taken on a social worker in a pilot program.

By all means, if kids are struggling we should extend whatever help we can, and the best place to do that is where the kids are, places like school and camp. But we should also be asking ourselves how we got to a place where so many of our kids are anxious and depressed, can’t cope with noise and high energy, and sometimes need a break in a “chill room” where they can regain their equilibrium.

Could it have anything to do with the fact that every minute of our kids’ lives are structured, where they are required to give their attention to adults more than to other kids, to learn what the grown-ups define as important and master the skills deemed necessary for their future adult selves, even though the kids themselves are not close to deciding just what those future adult selves will do or be?

This may be old-fogeyness of the highest order, out of touch with current sensibilities. Yes, there were certainly kids back in the day who desperately needed the intervention of skilled professionals and went without, to their detriment and ours. There will always be kids who need help navigating the waterways of life, but if we let our kids think more, do more, decide more and dare more there might be fewer of them.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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