Walled Gardens

I’ve been wanting for some time to write about freedom. This week of July 4 seemed like the appropriate time. I had intended to write about how children need to have longer tethers so that they have the freedom to explore. Maybe I’ll still write that article. Some other time.

A phrase changed my mind. It came in the conclusion of the book, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. The author, Steven Mintz, makes a provocative statement: “It is not possible to recreate a ‘walled garden’ of childhood innocence, no matter how hard we might try.” I began to mull over the idea of a walled garden.

A wall serves two purposes: it keeps undesirable things out, and keeps desirable things in. Around the ‘garden’ of childhood, a wall would protect young people from the influences that would either harm them or make them grow up too quickly; while at the same time, it would hold in those qualities that make childhood special: innocence, simplicity, imagination and discovery.

Is Mintz right? Is it naïve to think that children can be protected from negative influences? His argument is that since kids are going to come face-to-face with “contemporary culture” – and by that I infer he means adult issues of sex, violence, language, materialism and the like – we need to “prepare them to deal responsibly with the pressures and choices they face.” We don’t shield them, he writes, we prepare them.

Despite my admiration for his well-researched book, I think he’s wrong. If we want kids to be free to have a childhood, then we’ve got to wall out, as much as possible, those influences that will age them too quickly. They need to be free from worry, free from the numbing effect of violent images, free from the hypersexuality of Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

Is this difficult? You bet. Inappropriate images, words and ideas are bound to get through. They could be on the next t-shirt walking past your family in the mall. When our kids ask questions about such things, we need to be ready to answer – calmly, honestly, but guardedly. We inform, but always with the goal of keeping at bay as much of the adult world as possible.

By doing so, we buy them time. Precious time that, once it’s gone, will never come again. Time to be innocent. Time to be free.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter