The Thinking 

Arrested Childhood

April 19, 2017


1800s Paul Seignac (French artist, 1826–1904) The Bird

The Bird; Paul Seignac (1826–1904)

ALAN writes:

In 2010, Laura Wood wrote that “elaborate toys are a mistake for children.”

 Elaborate toys, especially mechanical toys, deaden the imagination…

In 1895, Agnes Repplier wrote similar thoughts:

We are doing our best to stunt the imaginations of children by overloading them with illustrated story-books and elaborate playthings.

She continued:

Little John Ruskin, whose sole earthly possessions were a cart, a ball, and two boxes of wooden bricks, was infinitely better off than the small boy of today whose real engine drags a train of real cars over a miniature elevated railway, almost as ghastly as reality, and whose well-dressed soldiers cannot fight until they are wound up with a key. ‘The law was that I should find my own amusement,’ says Ruskin; and he found it readily enough in the untrammeled use of his observation, his intelligence, and his fancy.  I have known children to whom a dozen spools had a dozen distinct individualities; soldiers, priests, nuns, and prisoners of war; and to whom every chair in the nursery was a well-tried steed, familiar alike with the race-course and the Holy Land, having its own name, and requiring to be carefully stabled at night after the heroic exertions of the day.  The romances and dramas of infancy need no more setting than a Chinese play, and in that limitless dreamland the transformations are as easy as they are brilliant.  But no child can successfully ‘make believe’ when he is encumbered on every side by mechanical toys so odiously complete that they leave nothing for the imagination to supply.

                     [Agnes Repplier, In the Dozy Hours, Houghton Mifflin, 1895, pp. 52-54 ]

Both women were right.  The difference is that between 1895 and 2010, it got much worse.

Agnes Repplier was a prolific essayist, born in Philadelphia in 1855, but largely forgotten today.  She was not fond of do-gooders.  Consider what she would think if she were here now and could see the situation of American children today:  “Encumbered on every side” not only by mechanical toys, but by electronic toys, gadgets, playthings, pictures on big screens, pictures on little screens, cartoons, DVDs, movies-to-go, music videos, book CDs, video games, TV in their home, TV in their bedroom, TV in motor vehicles, TV in restaurants, TV in medical offices, and computers for kiddies.

Would Miss Repplier find “overload” adequate to describe the effects of all those imagination-stunting devices?

Could she imagine entire generations of parents who see nothing wrong in dropping all those things on their children?  Who fail to understand how children play and learn? Who fail to understand that all those distractions do not help children to make sense of life and the world around them?  Who cannot imagine that those things destroy or cripple the capacity for abstract thought?  Who cannot see that learning how to push buttons and turn dials does not involve learning conceptual thought, or understanding ideas, or making connections?  Who are blind to the riches that children discover and create out of their imagination if it is not overwhelmed by an excess of things?  Who see nothing wrong in teaching children to become spectators instead of doers—in teaching them to watch instead of encouraging them to play?  Who have proven themselves to have no sales resistance whatever not only toward companies that manufacture all those things but also toward the false premises and wrong ideas that make such parents an easy sell?

What such people teach their children is that there is little or nothing worth doing without gadgets and screens.

The richness of childhood imagination was described by Lawrence Auster in his memory of how he played with a toy truck on the lawn behind his home.  [“One Child’s Universe”, The Thinking Housewife, Oct. 16, 2010]

It was common for Americans who grew up in the 1920s-‘40s to look back years later and say how little they had in the way of toys.  What they should have said is how much they had in the way of untrammeled imagination—and opportunity to use that imagination, like Ruskin, to create their own adventures.

A woman who grew up in County Clare, Ireland, in the 1930s wrote that she and her friends had “’lakes and rivers, good land and bad, bog and rocks, not to mention fairy rings and forts—in fact everything a person could wish for.’  They spent their days exploring the countryside, playing games, singing and telling stories, immersed in the adventures of childhood.”  [Brian Kaller, “Irish Childhood”, March 18, 2017.]

I have no especially fond memories of toys that I had in boyhood.  What I remember best are the impromptu baseball games at the city park two blocks from our school.  And how much I enjoyed throwing a rubber ball against a concrete wall repeatedly and catching it on the rebound when I was 10-12 years old, because at such times in my imagination I became St. Louis Cardinals’ All-Star third baseman Ken Boyer, as did many other boys in St. Louis in their imagination.  But there were no screens.  Almost never did we see Ken Boyer on TV or in magazines.  We coveted his baseball card every summer and listened on radio, the “theater of the imagination”, to descriptions of his clutch hits, expert fielding, and spectacular home runs.  He was a hero to us.

From the 1920s through the 1950s, there were hundreds of amateur baseball and softball teams in St. Louis.  Many teams were sponsored by banks, businesses, retail stores, neighborhood taverns, department stores, and churches.  City parks and playgrounds were always buzzing with activities.

In 1963, the city had 138 softball and baseball fields.  Some of the teams were the Bombers, Clowns, Indians, Pelicans, Tom’s Trains, Tots, and Women of the Moose.  Just to list all the C.Y.C. baseball and softball teams took five pages in the 1963 report of the Parks and Recreation Department; there were 306 softball teams and 510 baseball teams.  (Of course many of those Catholic churches no longer exist, thanks to the combined assault of Liberals, Feminists, and Communists.)

In 2002, a man drove through neighborhoods in St. Louis where he had lived as a boy in the 1950s.  He recalled how he and his friends played ballgames on the spur of the moment.  But “Sports were not our only games.  We played cops and robbers, cowboys, and war games…  We had western, military, and modern type play guns.  We chased each other around the neighborhood in our make-believe world.  The script was made up as we played….”

Half a century later, he saw empty yards, empty sidewalks, empty porches, empty parks, and no children playing outside.  [Mike Brown, “Where have all the children gone?”, South Side Journal, June 30, 2002 ]

That should sound familiar to readers. Mrs. Wood wrote:

 Childhood is fast disappearing. It is not the same cultural institution it was when I was young.  ….Travel along the streets near my home, and you will see. There are no children outside playing….  [“Childhood Lost”, The Thinking Housewife, April 15, 2011 ]

It is doubtful that children can “make up the script as they play” if their capacity to imagine has been pre-empted by prepackaged entertainment throughout their infancy. Parents who are easily dazzled by screens and techno-gadgets may think they are doing their children a great favor by showering all those things upon them.  I think what they are doing is a travesty.

Not only that; I also think that the first generation born after World War II was the last generation to have the good fortune to grow up with more-or-less the right kind and proportion of childhood play.  What do you get when you look down on the kind of imaginative play that children enjoyed for centuries and replace it with elaborate toys, screens, and gadgets?  What you get, I suggest, is a population of perpetual adolescents—people who have not grown up largely because they were never allowed and encouraged to pursue the imaginative adventures of childhood that all previous generations enjoyed.  A nation of perpetual adolescents is what we are burdened with today, as is obvious to any Americans sixty years old or beyond and as has been remarked by people ranging from Laura Wood to Charlotte Iserbyt to Joseph Epstein to Diana West.

“The world as it is elicits a response from a child,” Mrs. Wood wrote.

Wise grown-ups know both that this is true and why.  They also know what to do about it:  Encourage it.  Marvel at it.  Take part in it with children.  Do not dismiss it or belittle it.  Slow down.  Learn (or relearn) to value little things that children find extraordinary.  This does not require toys or techno-gadgets or “higher education” or “advanced schooling”.  It requires the willingness to use the eyes and brain God gave us. It also requires pause, a principal No-No in the creed of the Fast Folk tribe.

One morning last week I was standing outside.  It was after sunrise, but the grass was still wet with dew.  When I glanced down casually at a patch of grass, the glint of sunlight on a drop of dew caught my eye.  It was a mere pinpoint of light (although I do not like using the word “mere”).  By altering my line of sight ever so slightly, I could see the reflected and refracted light change from white to red to green to bluish-white.

This is the kind of element of nature that might engage the imagination of a child if grown-ups are smart enough to encourage it and share in it.  But most are not that smart, because most cannot see what is in front of them in plain sight:  A prism in a drop of dew or in the twinkling of bright stars like Sirius and Vega.  Most grown-ups belong to the Vitalist Crowd.  [“The Vitalist Child”, The Thinking Housewife, May 11, 2009 ]  To see such things would require taking time out from the endless busyness and commotion in which Vitalist parents immerse themselves and their children.

I can just imagine Agnes Repplier walking into the section of a modern bookstore or library stocked with books “for” children and seeing hundreds of volumes of garishly-designed storybooks and picture books “for” children and board books “for” infants.   After determining that she had not landed on some alien planet or in the lower tiers of Hell, I imagine she would recall a line she wrote in 1887:  “Those were not days when over-indulgence and a multiplicity of books robbed reading of its healthy zest” for children—and then express her incredulity toward a population who have lost all sense of proportion in how they treat their children, seen in that “multiplicity of books” and multiplicity of toys, gadgets, and screens.

Never have so many children been targeted by so many do-gooders and left unshielded by so many parents.  No wonder they are in deep trouble.

— Comments —

Paul A. writes:

A childhood friend of mine had creeks behind both his house and his families cabin. That was where we spent all of our time. Once, we noticed that the creek was covered with a sort of scum. I threw a stick at it and it bounced off! It was actually frozen! (I lived in California at the time). Lots of fun and adventure.

Today, I do not own a television, and get antsy when people are watching it. Much to my disgust, I find myself watching it too. It is really nasty stuff, but I cannot deny its siren song.

I go to houses (sometimes including my family) where everybody, including infants, are in the same room staring at different screens.

Mom used to make us go outside when we complained that we were bored. Do people still complain like that? Or are we all anesthetized?


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