Sometimes I walk along the canal by our home and greet our elderly neighbours, and maybe stop for a cup of tea. As I’ve mentioned, most of them grew up without electricity or cars, in a time when life revolved around the family and the church, so they provide a window to a culture and world-view that all our forebears knew well but few of us can imagine. While more and more of Ireland now looks like suburban London or Chicago -- traffic jams, office complexes and internet pop culture -- some of my neighbours still walk along the country road to their garden plots, tend horses or cows in the nearby field, or ride their bicycles to church, an image of a bygone age. And when I ask them what has changed most in the area, I get a common answer: the absence of children.
They don’t mean that no one has children anymore – of course there are many families in the area, and they love the occasional visits from their relatives. They mean that when they dig their potatoes or walk their horse down the lane, no neighbourhood children tag along behind them, as they followed their elder neighbours. They rarely are pestered by six-year-olds with questions, nor do they see local urchins in the branches of trees or bicycling down the country road. All through the modern world, the story is much the same – when I listen to elderly people in Missouri or London talk about their childhoods, they too played along the road and followed relatives and neighbours. Now, they look out their window and see empty streets.
Such an absence severs a cord of learning and lore that might have stretched back as far as there were people. The old man down the road still grows his own vegetables and fixes his own tools, and I suspect he feels, and is, freer and more self-reliant at 86 than most modern people, confined to desks, feel at 16 or 26 or 36. He knows how to do these things because he grew up with such habits, watching his elders.
At an age when we soak up the world before we understand it, their routines – sowing on St. Patrick’s, harvesting at Halloween, pruning in winter or gathering in autumn – became as familiar as breathing. Sometimes elders put children to work clearing cabbages of caterpillars or shooing the chickens away from the herbs. Sometimes, as the elders pushed a barrow of vegetables at harvest, small children waddled behind carrying a turnip or rutabaga in their arms, proud of their work. Other times, I suspect, they were just in the way, and the adults wearied of answering all their questions, but the children watched and learned.
Often, of course, children around here had their own agenda, ambling across fields and mountains, bogs and woodlands. They searched through the underbrush for snails and millipedes, found hibernating hedgehogs, or tramped paths through the countryside in pursuit of pirates or dragons.
That was also time well spent. Classic children’s games – whether hunting tribes in the Amazon or 1950s children playing pickup in the sandlot – force children to get along, stand up for themselves, negotiate the rules, compromise, take turns and accommodate everyone. Keeping track of such complex relationships seems to be the main reason we have larger brains than other primates; the larger the social group, the larger the brain, and we have the biggest of both.
As Neil Postman notes three decades ago, “Like distinctive forms of dress, children’s games, once so visible on the streets of our towns and cities, are also disappearing. Even the idea of a children’s game seems to be slipping from our grasp … Who has seen anyone over the age of nine playing Jacks, Johnny on the Pony, Blindman’s Bluff, or ball-bouncing rhymes? Peter and Iona Opie, the great English historians of children’s games, have identified hundreds of traditional children’s games, almost none of which are presently played with any regularity by American children. Even Hide-and-Seek, which was played in Periclean Athens more than two thousand years ago, has now almost completely disappeared from the repertoire of self-organized children’s amusements. Children’s games, in a phrase, are an endangered species.” And he wrote this before the internet.
Of course, some children inevitably got into mischief; I have on my shelf a 19th-century garden book that lists among the many garden pests, between boll weevils and butterflies, “boys.” If your garden has an infestation of boys, it notes drily, some aggressive dogs might be just the thing.
At the end of the day, my neighbours tell me, they often had friends over to play music or tell stories to the children, the same stories they had heard generations before.
Today, though, they see few children in the fields or on the roads, climbing their apple trees or straddling their fences. They see their grandchildren on holidays, they tell me, but the children are often staring at electronic devices, spending their formative years learning to treat electrons on a screen as reality. My old neighbours, who learned to be self-reliant adults by being children, are among the last of their kind; no children follow or imitate them, nor do many hear the stories they pass on.
Instead, most children these days grow up staring at portals to the worst humanity has to offer, often seeing at young ages images that few adults ever saw in their lives. Of course, children have always been curious – remember the scene in Tom Sawyer when Becky was peeking at a nude picture in the teacher’s medical book. That was a single image, however, seen with difficulty, and far cruder images are a few clicks away for children today.
Growing up with the internet has other ramifications. It means that they grow up with pop culture rather than local culture, the same as children in Texas or Ukraine. It means they grow up unmonitored by parents but their curiosities and weaknesses tracked by corporations as they grow to adulthood.
Over the same decades that children’s play declined, family time declined, television use skyrocketed and internet use went from zero to frightening, childhood mental disorders have also increased. “It’s not just that we’re seeing disorders that we overlooked before. Clinical questionnaires aimed at assessing anxiety and depression, for example, have been given in unchanged form to normative groups of schoolchildren in the US ever since the 1950s.” In that time depression increased five to eight times, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has doubled, and that for children under 15 has quadrupled.
Empathy in children has declined and narcissism has increased, “exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially,” wrote Peter Gray in Aeon magazine a few years ago. “Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.”
I wish I could say that my own daughter stands entirely apart from this trend, that I completely avoid the trends I bemoan. I don’t entirely, and for that reason I can sympathize with any parent standing against the world yelling stop. Her friends and relatives give her electronic devices and video games, her mates play them at their houses, girls at the local village school talk about slasher movies and Hollywood celebrities.
In many indicators of community – the kind Robert Putnam made famous in Bowling Alone – Ireland does better than my native USA, but it’s changing quickly, and I don’t know how much it will change in the years ahead. Moving out here doesn’t mean entering a Brigadoon outside of time, where pop culture doesn’t happen. I try to raise an old-fashioned kid, but it’s like organising a carpool or a bridge game, or any other ritual of generations past – it doesn’t work if you’re the only one doing it.
So I have to compromise, set limits and pick battles, the same as any parent of an adolescent. She’s not allowed to see Youtube, but she can watch certain television programmes; she has no social media accounts, but plays an occasional video game – and then I tell her to read a book, or ride your bike, or go exploring in the bog.
Over our home-schooling lessons we talk about the things I write about; she agrees with some and respectfully argues with me on the rest, and I’m grateful for all those outcomes. I accept that her tastes will radically differ from mine, and told her I will only forbid things based on substance, not style. While she loves certain bands with a teenager’s passion, she also goes with me to the opera; she saw the Star Wars film tonight, but also sees Shakespeare and Hitchcock with me. She rides her bike a few miles to school, mows the lawn and can ride a horse, shoot a bow and skin an animal, but is also normal enough to communicate with her peers, and I can be content with that.
Occasionally, she stops on her bike and talks to one of our elderly neighbours, wheeling soil to his garden. A teenaged girl and an elderly farmer aren’t natural confidantes, but she listens to his stories and tells me about it later.
“He said he was really happy to see a child,” she said once.
I bet he was, I said.