Freedom to communicate or freedom to roam
Reading children’s books from the past, or indeed talking to older people, I am always struck by the freedom to roam that children had then. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the children are sent off for weeks on end, on an island, without life jackets, and not all of them can even swim! ‘Go out and play and don’t come back ’til tea time,’ which was then a common enough parental instruction would now be regarded as parental dereliction. So, our children sit at home, in front of screens big and small, and talk.
For what has replaced the old freedom to roam is a communication revolution that allows children to communicate, widely and largely unsupervised, through instant messaging, texts, Facebook, the full panoply of modern chat, and they generally do so with greater fluency and facility than their parents. Can this freedom replace the old freedoms? Before we get too misty eyed about the old days, it’s worth bearing in mind that research indicates in medieval and early modern England, children roamed freely, and, too often, paid for it, inquest reports being full of accounts of children drowning, falling, and in many different ways paying for their curiosity and intrepidity with their lives.
So, no rose-tinted nostalgia. It was still a dangerous world, and even if people didn’t fear prowling paedophiles, there was always the danger of a bad-tempered horse kicking out, or the latent anarchy of unsupervised children running out of control. But, is it any wonder that children then became responsible adults so much sooner – after all, they had been responsible for themselves, and learned the consequences of recklessness, so much sooner. Today, with freedom to communicate but no freedom to roam, the sticks and stones of encounters with real, bristling, tangible dangers have gone, to be replaced with the subtle dangers of insult and upset. All real enough, but more easily resolved via an ‘unfriend’ or a ‘block’ than the problems of roaming. Is it any wonder that we find it so difficult to grow up these days? We have been physically removed from the key understanding of adulthood: that actions have consequences.