Friday 17 August 2007

The feral children of summer

It’s reached that horrible tipping point in the holidays when children are turning feral. Well, at least mine is. The summer is stretching out for too long… There is grumbling and whining and whinging and where once he would eat most things, now anything other than chips or pizza is met with a moue of distaste or out and out retching. Any suggestion of drawing a picture or playing guitar or, heaven forfend, playing in his room is met with total horror. If there are no friends on offer to play with, James would quite happily spend chunks of his life shunting between TV, PC, Gameboy and PS2, eyes glazed, thumbs frantically beating out some arcane beat. He needs entertaining. The dread word 'bored' rears its ugly head at all available opportunities.

When did it change? When did children stop being self-sufficient and suddenly need shepherding every step of the way. When did they stop knowing instinctively how to amuse themselves and instead need lessons in play?
I suppose if I’m fair, he doesn’t have good examples in front of him – Adrian and I spend large chunks of the day glued to the computer screen. But it distresses me, this cyber-childhood. I can’t help but think back to when I was eight (oh gawd, says Adrian, here we go again – living in a cardboard box, on tuppen’th a week). But really I didn’t have much in the way of toys yet I don’t ever remember being bored. I would head off on my trusty old bicycle, sandwiches stowed in the basket, and spend the day with a friend or two, poking around in the woods, or fishing for tiddlers, or borrowing ‘Sandy’ the most disreputable mutt in the neighbourhood, which for some odd reason made him infinitely desirable. Mandy Cotton and I would fight for the honour of holding his lead as he made his royal progression, cocking his leg at regular intervals and hopping on three legs for long periods (why?).

A visit to the cinema was An Event. We would queue for hours and The 101 Dalmations still makes me wince as I remember queuing three times and not getting in. One screen cinemas eh?
Swimming was special. We’d queue again, listening with eager anticipation to the wall of sound within. Waiting for our half-hour in the hot sticky little pool that was probably more wee than water. There was barely room to move, let alone swim…and every five minutes numbers would be yelled out and one batch of children would reluctantly clamber out while a fresh batch would sidle their way in.
Then again I could spend hours sitting up in an apple tree just thinking or reading. Or I’d devise secret societies and enrol my friends, giving them badges and certificates and making them undergo endurance trials and other tests of proficiency, loyalty and girl power. I was always trying to make money and would come up with a project for each summer. One year it was an art gallery – and parents, friends and relations would have little choice but to purchase one of my ‘works of art’. The next it was a craft fair (match boxes painted and decorated with shells and sequins; knitted pot holders; felt egg cosies; dried flower bookmarks). I tried a museum which really was totally lame. Most successful (and certainly most lucrative) was the haunted house tour in which I would vanish at one point to flush the lav, racing down to ask if they’d heard the ghost knocking in the pipework. Like all good entrepreneurs I had the marketing down to an art – not only where they charged to enter but I also fleeced them for ‘badges’, ‘postcards’ and instructions on how to remove ghosts (which involved, if I recall, liberal amounts of lemon juice and a lot of shouting).

James however knows all about bored. We haul him off on walks but he gets grumpy after a mile. I suggested hut building in the spinney but he wanted me to make the hut for him (which surely defeats the object?). He’ll play football and cricket endlessly but needs another child to play with (whereas I can clearly remember spending literally hours throwing a ball against a wall – to the point where the woman who lived next-door finally complained that the repetitious noise was bringing on her migraines).
Am I being unfair? Maybe I was just a more introverted child, happy to be left alone with my imagination? My imagination conjured up an entire stable yard of horses and ponies in my suburban garden. There were the thoroughbreds Atlendor and Aragorn (guess my childhood reading); the naughty Dartmoors Whisky, Rum and Brandy; and my favourite Arab mare Misty plus others whose names and manes I have forgotten in the mists of time. Their stable was the shed and I would set up jumps on the lawn (broom handles and rakes on buckets) and, slapping my bottom with a crop, jump perfect clear rounds to the applause of the ecstatic crowd. When it rained I would sit on a special chair, over which I put a particularly fluffy bathroom mat and pretend I was riding, hour after hour, lost in the hills and moorland of my mind. Or, when my mother finally confiscated the mat (she ‘needed’ it for the bathroom) I’d sit and watch rain drops dribbling down the window, laying bets with myself as to which would win. But if I suggested this kind of pastime to James he’d think I’d gone totally mad. I don’t know, maybe it’s a girl thing.

It doesn’t help that children can no longer run free. Adrian and I endlessly wonder if we’re cotton-wooling James. Other children of his age seem to run free around town – but I fear that James is still not street-wise enough. Then, inevitably, there’s the horrible fear of What Might Happen. It’s a small town, he would be in screaming distance of at least four people he knows at any time but still……. At what age do you let children enjoy the freedom we took for granted?

So then you have to wonder, are we creating these stay-at-home cyber-children? We dislike the electronic babysitters but – in our hearts – maybe we feel they are safer than allowing children to be children. I read back this blog and hate the sound of my own voice….so righteous, so nagging, so ‘in the good old days’ pious. I guess all children are different. It would be a boring world if we turned out children who were perfect mini-me’s. I love it that James doesn’t support Arsenal, like his father. That he doesn’t ‘do’ spooky, unlike his supernaturally-obsessed mother. He’s his own boy and that is great. But…oh but….I do wish that just once in a while I would see him, silent in a tree, gazing off into the mid-distance, off with the fairies…..


Pondside said...

No doubt, Jane, the world is a different place for children now. Your blog says it very well - our children are losing the ability to entertain/think for/rely on themselves. We parents have bought the idea that the world is much less safe than in the past (tell that to someone who spent a childhood in a war zone) when in reality, the things of which we are afraid have always existed, just weren't reported in such detail - a child is abducted in Portugal and the world knows every detail. In the past this would have been news to the people of the particular city and to the family and friends of the parent. Now our world is so small that Portugal might as be the next village.
Anyway - great blog, lovely photo!

snailbeachshepherdess said...

I can soooo remember getting clear rounds on an imaginary pony round the garden...I had to clear a low privet hedge which at times was my undoing! When the dreaded boredom struck my mum sank holes in the lawn with an iron bar...put paper cups in ..and with a couple of upturned walking sticks and one golf ball we ran 'The Open' minute kids were coming for miles!!!Certainly passed many hours in this way!

Exmoorjane said...

Oh Pondside, I couldn't agree more. Statistics actually bear you out - the world is NOT more dangerous now; we just perceive it that way because of the media and the way it reports everything. Have to keep perspective but the fear factor is huge.
SBS - glad I wasn't the only one whipping my bum! Your mum sounds brilliant though - reading your blog I loved her drawing the people from the cafes!

Unknown said...

Your blog echoes so many of my own thoughts about children growing up now and how much more innocent the world was ... or appeared to be ... when I was a child. I don't think you sound pious or self-righteous ... just nostalgic ... and there's nothing wrong with that!

Ska, not a good mother but working on it said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ska, not a good mother but working on it said...

interesting stuff - how closely you mirror my own experiences! I believe that the stas don't prove any increase in 'bad things happening' but that they are merely reported more widely. I remember stories about a little girl being found up a tree near wher we lived 'with no knickers on'. We were told never to go near the trees again but never understood why.

For us the hard thing is the place we live - not in the main village and a mile walk down with unpaved roads and insane drivers. I think its the increase of cars that is the danger not any increased likelihood of 'bad things' happening.

So my little one and her siblings when they are with us are dependent on us ferrying them places. Rosie doesn't get bored (well, rarely anyway) being content to make up shows, compose on the piano and read. Had to devise a punishment for her the other day as she was found reading her book at 2.30 in the morning!

oh yes and i think it's a boy thing as our 11 year old MJ is endlessly bored and totally unable ot amuse himself. He is the one glued to the playstation too....
and finally my fond memories are of devising a show to go with 'greensleeves' invloving bridesmaid dresses and very bored parents!


Yes, yes - however did we all manage with an hour and a half of children's TV (Jackanory, Blue Peter and newsround if you were lucky) on weekdays only, no videos, electronic games or computers... My Boy doesn't quite believe it when I tell him about my childhood in what he calls the Olden Days.

I was a bum-whipper, too, and later on I was lucky enough to have a spacehopper, which was excellent for jumping bamboo poles balanced on buckets. I guess it's just a different world today.

toady said...

Are there any play schemes running locally? I'm sure there's another family in the town with the same problem. Or what about asking one of his school chums to stay for a couple of nights. BTW that garden is gorgeous - how about a camp out one night? I remember having 8 kids camping in our small suburban garden one summer ranging from 8 to 11. They had the dog for a guard dog and we took it in turns to check them through the night. They had a great time going by the number of sweet and biscuit wrappers I picked up the next morning. We also rigged up the old baby alarm but a mobile would do these days. Roll on September.

Milla said...

I think some rose coloured glasses might be at play here Jane! I did lots of money-making "plays" with our neighbours which must have been excruciating for our parents but maybe we'd have been weirdly stabbing at keyboards if they'd existed Back In The Olden Days. Fins does lots of playing on his own and looks, frankly, mad. Staggering around literally talking non=stop to himself and clearly not all there and almost embarrassing (although very dear, says hurriedly so as not to appear horrid!) My 2 also have each other to play with, which helps and tend to play laboriously complicated games for hours with endless rules, often vaguely unpleasant and requiring information from us regarding most efficient police cars / stun guns etc. James reads a lot, too, doesn't he and none of us parents can take away the double-headed monsters of pain/pleasure, usefulness/irritation, of pixels and flashing lights which we once wrapped up and called a birthday present! Having said that, mine have been at the park for about 3 hours and there are mothers out there who would tut at my negligence.

Faith said...

Things have changed very fast in my opinion. My girls, aged 28 and nearly 19, both did the sort of thing you mention - made up shows to which I had to pay to see etc! My eldest and her friend also did the 'museum' idea in the friends garden shed. Reading your blog did make me laugh though - my sister and her friend devised a secret society and the documents were signed in blood - mine! I never remember running to my mother to complain though.

I was lucky - my sister was 3 and a half years older, and I was brought up with my niece and nephew, younger than me. There was always someone to play with.

Times just have changed. I mean look at us - online community, instead of chatting over the garden fence. I've over got a river over my garden fence so its lucky for me!

I know exactly what you mean, but James will be ok. You just have to try to strike a balance I suppose.

bradan said...

We are lucky here on the island in that it is still safe for children to go off to the shore or walking in the fields with the dogs. O. has friends fairly close that he can cycle round to.
My sister and I used to play many of the games you mentioned and did the 'pay to watch' things, too. I remember doing a 'ballet' in the garden, makes me cringe now!!

P.S. Yes,I did take arnica and am also taking ruta. Thanks for your good wishes. xx

Suffolkmum said...

I used to endlessly chuck a ball at a wall too - literally for hours - I think I would probably find it weird if my kids started doing that! I also had imaginary stables full of palaminos. I do wonder if it's more of a boy thing - I have noticed that my youngest lives in her head totally, takes the most bizarre flights of fancy - whilst my boy is not in any way a whimsical child, although he does read a lot. But then again my girl sounds like Milla's F so who knows. Our problem is that we live in a small village with very few children about for him to go out on his bike with etc.

Bluestocking Mum said...

As always you strike such a chord.

Whatever happened to the days when children were content to collect the old rose petals from the ground and crush them and add water to make them into rose petals like I did...And using my books and teddies to play libraries or schools...

We have spent most of the holidays either away or inviting the boys friends over. I find that I don't see my two when they have a friend over and it is so preferable to playing referee between the pair of them!

I admit Jane that I am wishing away until September...these holidays are too long...for all of us...

Great blog as always...

warmest wishes

Elizabeth Musgrave said...

always found that my two just functioned better with other kids around, even having each other to play with was just a way of saying they had each other to argue with. with non-family kids around too they were fine. i was an imaginary horse rider too and also spent hours with friends out on the moors. i am a fierce believer in kids going away and falling out of trees and making not quite fatal mistakes (sorry, sounds awful, not wishing any child any actual harm). sounds like james needs a couple of likeminded friends to disappear with.

Frances said...

Hello Jane,

Your family is making a transition, and it is still in its earliest days. I read about the kitchen, the cool water, and now about James at home on holiday.

Surely, little by little new connections will be formed. How is James at the weeding game? Maybe he and his dad can have a competition to see who can unroot the most roses?

When I look about me on my walks around my city neighborhood and in the area of the shop, (not to mention what I see in the subway system) I sometimes just cringe at the family groups and their behavior. I always think how lucky I was to grow up in a gentle environment. It was great until I entered my teenaged years, and then it was horrible.

How I wish that I could have had some children, and not having had any makes me not up to giving you any advice.

I do see so many children who do not seem to be allowed to actually act like children for long enough. It is grand that James can be just a boy for as long as possible.

Some friends and I were talking recently about how much we loved just being able to go barefoot during the summer. The mere lack of shoes was a great pleasure.

Who knows what grand boyhood memories James may be accumulating this week!


bodran... said...

I'm just letting loose of nell now at the age of nearly 13,A year in high school as made it inevitable, Most of her School friends are in makeup, and some are smoking, and worse, Shes outside now making an obstickle course..! and making the dogs go over it, we saw a show yesterday so shes copying, it should keep us both amused for weeks,,poor ethan..and poor you, you'll have to get him job, Glass collecting at wood's xo

CAMILLA said...

Dear Jane,
I remember when I was a child, quite happy to have my head in a book, bounce a ball against a wall, cycle with my basket attached stuffed with goodies, and off to Regent's Park London Zoo to feed the Elephants Buns. Your darling James is so like my grandson who's birthday is today, I know when he opens his presents it will be, "oh great, a Star Wars PC Game, a Wee, Ipod, heavens, he's even got a Speedboat to zoom around the Fishing Lakes where his Father is Fisheries Manager. If they do not have all these, they get bored. I would be just like you Jane in worrying about when is the right time to let them go off and do their own thing, to explore, sadly the world is not trusting enough anymore, one cannot take that chance, it was so oh so different in our days.

Brilliant writing from you yet again Jane, and that picture is so wonderful, how did you manage to get such an ariel view, was Adrian standing high above on top of tree.
Beautiful Countryside Jane.

annakarenin said...

Have let the eldest two out on their own to play this year, 9 and 8. They are pretty good at amusing themselves at home though. Eldest reads, no 2 normally dresses up or makes things I think he may be a little mad like Milla's Fin but none the always makes you laugh and of course they make up all sorts of games together.

They do have a tendency to still stay close to home though. I have told them not to go near the busy A road that runs through the village but I did think they would have explored the lanes and the stream a bit more. The weather has been a bit limiting. You have only just moved in to your house so next year will probably be different and I think with one it is harder work for the parents. People ask me how I manage with all four at home but it is actually easier when there are more of them.

Westerwitch/Headmistress said...

Oh yes your blog brings back memories of my own childhood. I honestly don't ever remember being bored - except at school. I was an only child and quite able to entertain myself for hours on end when my friends weren't available.

I can remember the first time Wildchild announced she was bored - i was gobsmacked . . so suggested many of the things that used to entertain me . . . all of which she thought were lame and . . . you guessed it boring.

Different world nowadays with computers and play station and endless electronic games . . even mobile phones . . .and colour TV . . . Is it a better world for all the technological advancement . . . I loved my childhood not sure I would swap for the modern childhood.

@themill said...

Boredom is an essential tool in the development of time management skills!

DJ Kirkby said...

He probably does gaze off into the distance, he just does it from the computer or teley instead of sitting outside.

Cait O'Connor said...

My children and now my grandchildren dare not say the word 'bored'. I instilled into them the (true) fact that I have never been bored in my life and 'only boring people become bored'. I agree with you that so many modern children need to be 'entertained' all the time, I brought mine up to use their imagination.
Sorry I know I sound like an old 'holier than thou' granny.... it comes to us all! But don't you think that daydreaming aids creativity?

Iota said...

Jane, you have just summed up what so many of us feel. You put it so well. Love the photo too.

Weird thing. Only this morning, I was trying to remember what year 101 Dalmatians came out, as I have a clear memory of my mum saying she'd drop me and my siblings off to watch it at the cinema. We nagged her to stay ("you'll love it, Mum") and she fell asleep in the middle, which I couldn't understand at all - it was just so exciting. I was wondering what year that was, as I wanted to pin down how old I was when she considered me old enough to leave alone in a cinema (although I can't remember whether I went with a younger or older sibling, or both, so it won't tell me all that much).

Anonymous said...

What a lovely childhood you had. And I'm sure James will look back on his with wonderful memories. Even if they do consist of cyber-memories. Children are getting RSI these days with all these games and computers. Amazing how times change.

Crystal xx

Anonymous said...

Love this Jane, secret societies? Yep! with you Dad used to get the Readers Digest in a brown cardboard folder, very handy for letter boxes hidden in bushes and tree forks.

Totally agree with you on everything else. Terrific blog. As always.