In Palestine, a summer spent on childhood's frontier

A visit to Ramallah in Palestine's West Bank invites questions about what me may have lost in our quest for child safety.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Palestinian children play at a park near Ramallah, West Bank.

There's been an e-mail message – or variations on the same message – in circulation for the last decade or so on the subject of childhood nostalgia.

"Remember when ...?" it asks, and goes on to reference quaint objects and activities from our childhoods through a rose-colored, middle-aged lens.

Remember when we had to get up to change the TV channel? Talk to our friends on a rotary phone? Go to a real library? Cook using an actual oven? Remember when we stayed out playing until dark, and didn't come home until we heard the dinner bell?

It's natural to romanticize the "dinner bell days." But while life is quite different today (Internet, microwaves, smart phones, etc.) – and in many ways, better – perhaps the most telling piece of longing in these electronic odes to a bygone era is the memory of the freedom of childhood.

Childhood has changed in America.

"The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past," wrote Michael Chabon in his essay "Manhood for Amateurs" in the New York Review of Books a couple of years ago. "The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors."

Fear for the safety and well-being of children has seeped into the culture to such an extent that it would not even be possible to practice the parenting of yesteryear today without incurring the judgment of neighbors and the intervention of the law.

Kids are under constant supervision. State laws govern age and weight requirements for obligatory car seats; cyclists wear helmets and shinguards. Schools practice mandatory reporting and parents preach "stranger danger."

Kids are safer, yes. But something is lost. And we feel it acutely.

Last summer, I spent two months in the West Bank with my 5-year-old son. We rented an apartment in Ramallah and watched from our window as the neighborhood children came out to play in the cool of the late afternoon and evening.

No adults were in sight. The children walked alone to the neighborhood shop to buy sweets. They rode up and down the street on a motley collection of scooters and bicycles, with the toddlers trailing behind. The little girls sat on the steps and talked or played games. The boys tore through the hillside terraces and climbed up to a treehouse they had built with salvaged wooden pallets, cardboard, an old foam mattress, and assorted junk.

They were loud and unruly. Fights broke out from time to time. No one asked them to keep the noise down, and no one came outside when a child cried in distress. The crying child picked himself up, or worked it out, or went home, or was taken home by the older children.

Yes, there were nail-biting moments. Two toddlers teetered on the edge of a steep drop that, had they fallen, could have resulted in severe injury. Stones were thrown at a stray dog, which whimpered in misery. A fire was set among the olive trees and raged out of control for a while.

My son did not ride in a car seat the entire summer. But I became progressively less anxious, and my son began to exhibit confidence and independence; venturing to the shop alone for an ice cream, coins in hand, and up to the treehouse, returning with bottle tops, rusty nails, and other treasures.

At the playground in Ramallah, the mothers chatted in a nearby patio area while the children threw sand at each other and balanced on top of the equipment, unobserved.

At our playground in Washington, my son waits patiently for two dads to get off the climbing frame so he can have a turn. He wonders why I won't allow him to roam the neighborhood alone; he chafes at the boundaries that have closed in around him like an invisible fence.

Childhood is different in the West Bank, I tell him. But is it better? More authentic? I don't know.

These are questions for the experts, and I'm just a mother. In that capacity, I say, let's remember that the cultural norms of parenting are different in other places. Let's remember it was different here once, too – and maybe not all bad.

Let's learn to parent across borders, because it takes a global village to raise a child these days.

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