A few days ago I wrote about my confusion about the days of the week. In Abu Dhabi, Sunday is the start of the work week, which means that Monday feels like Tuesday and today, Tuesday, I’m pretty sure it’s Wednesday. On Sunday, I remembered about Stasha’s Monday listicle, but then I thought, “it’s only Sunday, I’ll do it tomorrow.”
But then yesterday felt like Tuesday; I sort of elided Monday right into non-existence. It’s funny how ingrained these rhythms have become and how hard it is to unlearn. But over there in the other hemisphere, it’s only Tuesday afternoon, so I’m not that late for a listicle link.
Today’s topic–well, yesterday’s topic–is about childhood and how our children’s lives are different from our own.
1. Freedom. Granted, my childhood now exists in a hazy tangle somewhere in the back of my dusty brain, so my recollections are probably not altogether accurate. But what I think I see–and my mom corroborates–is that the deepest difference between my kids’ lives and my own has to do with freedom, which is to say, the relative lack of freedom my kids have, compared to what I had. We lived in a small town growing up, and of a summer morning, my mom pretty much opened up the front door and plopped us outside, with instructions to “go play.” And we did: tag, running bases, sardines, tease-the-little-kids, tease-the-kid-with-glasses (me, alas), light bugs on fire, light leaves on fire (and almost the garage, whoops), hopscotch, sprinklers, various wheeled things: bikes, skates, skateboards, scooters. We roamed our blocks at will, in and out of neighbors’ houses, depending on who had the best snacks. I’m sure that we had lessons–somehow swimming happened, and tennis, and ballet–but my memory is of a childhood relatively free from structured play. If we didn’t amuse ourselves…we were not amused.
2. Screens, screens, screens. I’m going to try to write about screens without sounding like a luddite banshee, but it’s tough. Back in the day (you know, when everything was perfect) my family had a portable black-and-white television. It was about as big as my five-year-old head. It perched on the counter in the kitchen, or on a table in the family room, depending on what we were watching, and that was it. And because I knew nothing else, it didn’t bother me. I read a lot, drew a lot, lived a lot in my imagination, told myself stories. In my mind, my kids are surrounded by screens, although they think they are under-screened, because we only have one television and it’s not as big as the wall. But our house is filled with computers, ipads, iphones, and they both have a DSi thingy. It’s an entirely new way to exist–they’re going to have the most dextrous thumbs in human history, this generation is, from all the flicking and bipping and whacking they do with their various games.
3. Cousins. I grew up spending summers in Northern Michigan with herds of cousins–about 15 of them, give or take–all squeezed into one biggish ramshackle cottage that backed up onto a woods filled with pine and cedar. There was much roaming in the woods, endless games of cards and monpoly, lots of bickering and some fighting, a few serious accidents (okay, so maybe cousin Will, at the age of about 7, shouldn’t have been playing at the edge of a cliff), and, I realize now, an ever-deepening sense of connectedness. We all had to learn to negotiate with the kids younger than we were and the kids older than we were and as aggravating as it may have been at the time to share a bedroom with five, sometimes six, other cousins, looking back, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My kids have three cousins and I think that’s going to be it. I wish for their sake they could know the comfort of a herd.
4. Travel. My kids are seeing the world in a way that I didn’t until I was in college. They’ve traveled in the US (not that they remember much of it), Canada, Europe, and now the Gulf region. We’re going to India in November; Liam’s entire sixth grade is going to Turkey in October. Amazing. They will finish their school year here with the foundations of Arabic and the knowledge that they are citizens of the world.
5. Friends. Yes, I roamed the block with the other kids, and my brother and sister, when we were little, but I never had many friends. Well, I had one. Charlotte. We mostly sat in her room and read books or played with our dollhouses. Then she moved and I was once again the wombat child with glasses and that horrible mid-seventies hairdo: parted in the middle and hanging lank against my face. I preferred the company of books to people (thus blogging: I don’t really have to, you know, talk to anyone). The boys have friends, veritable posses. I love watching them run around together (always safely contained in playgrounds, of course, this being the early twenty-first century) and the pleasure they take in one another’s company. Caleb is still young enough that he and his friends saunter down the block hand-in-hand, utterly unselfconscious about their affection for one another.
6. Diversity. In my elementary school, in the lily-white suburb where I lived, there was one African American student. She came to my house after school one day and it wasn’t until many years later that I understood why my mom spluttered and giggled when I told her that Angela Davis was coming over to play. That was the little girl’s name. When we moved to a bigger city, with a more diverse population, my school remained segregated in an unspoken way: the “smart” kids were mostly white or Asian; the brownish kids were in the “slow” classes. Lovely. Luckily, I had parents who moved in wider circles than the world my school seemed to represent, but by virtue of growing up in New York, and now here, Liam and Caleb live in a world where people come from everywhere. Difference doesn’t seem to threaten my kids but instead engages their curiosity–unless, of course, difference extends to a slightly different kind of bread or peanut butter or orange juice.
7. Food. I wish I could say that their cosmopolitan outlook extended to their eating habits, but alas, no. I learned to cook (sort of) in about 5th grade–simple stuff like grilled cheese sandwiches or tortillas–and I ate pretty much whatever was put in front of me. Other than eggs. Have hated eggs since I was about three and I see no reason to change now. My kids mostly hate eggs too, so we have that in common. We are not a tribe of fried egg sandwich eaters.
8. Outside. I spent more time outside. And that, sadly, is a function of raising kids in big cities. “Outside” becomes a much more complicated concept when you can’t just run into the backyard, the woods, the garden. My fingers are crossed that in this winter-less city, it will be less effort to get outside and walk along the corniche, go swimming, kayaking, snorkeling. I’d like them to learn that a walk doesn’t have to end in an ice cream store or a playground–that sometimes, we’re just outside for the sake of being out. As soon as the air here isn’t searingly hot, our outside expeditions will begin. Of course, I may have to initiate these expeditions with Baskin-Robbins bribes.
Was my childhood “better” than theirs is? I don’t know. In some respects I was a lonely kid who didn’t quite know how to talk to her peers and I wasn’t athletic (see “wombat,” above). I think my kids are happy (except when there’s no ice cream for dessert) but their experiences remind me about how profoundly the world has changed from my childhood.
Oh dear. Does every generation think so fondly about its own (lost) youth? Does the fact that I’m waxing vaguely nostalgic about my childhood mean that I’m middle-aged…or older?