Sunday, April 11, 2010

Social Class and Adventurous Youth

Michael Chabon wrote some powerful essays in his recent collection, Manhood for Amateurs, that address the way we try to control and protect the experiences of our children today, compared to how freely and independently our parents allowed us to roam our neighborhoods.

This rings very true for me as I look at my experiences with my own kids and compare them with the routine excursions of my childhood.

But when I walk or drive around my own neighborhood, I do see the occasional individual or pack of kids roaming around, heading to the store, the library, or simply wandering along the irrigation canal in the vague direction of a park or open field. What's interesting is that these kids are almost exclusively young people of color, usually Latino or African.

I say Latino because I hear the kids speaking Spanish to each other and because many of them have a mestizo cast to their complexion and features that is familiar to me from growing up in southern New Mexico. I'd guess that they're probably Mexican American, but that would be assuming more than I know.

I say African, not African American, because there's a small cluster of Somalis living in my part of Boise, part of a slightly larger but still small enclave of refugees who were resettled here in the past decade. So while many of these kids have probably grown up here and speak English, they weren't born here and I don't know their citizenship status.

These two groups of kids seem to have two basic traits in common. First, relatively speaking, they're poorer than the largely middle class suburbanites that surround them. They come from one of several apartment complexes, a trailer park, or a few duplexes occupied by a large number of people. Second, I think that many of them come from families where the parents and other adults grew up in places other than the United States of the late 20th and early 21st century.

I suspect that this combination means that their families have both fewer resources (in terms of time or the money to pay other people for their time) at hand to constantly monitor their children and fewer psychological hangups about leaving their kids to fend for themselves during certain times of the day.

So perhaps these kids have the opportunity to explore and create their own adventures that Chabon argues is denied to middle class American kids in our current culture. And I wonder how that will shape their experiences and attitudes. Are they getting a chance to develop a part of their imaginations that will be stunted in my kids and their peers? Or are they just wandering bored, waiting for a chance to play video games or sign up for a youth sports league?

Now, I'm not arguing that being an adolescent member of an economically disadvantaged minority with the freedom to roam around is the same thing as being a middle class kid with that same freedom. It's not. The middle class white kid has fewer basic needs to worry about and certainly finds it easier to fit in to the surrounding society, particularly in a city as white as Boise.

But our neighborhood is a pretty safe place, and the local branch library is nice, and I see a lot of these kids in and around there. So I hope that they are getting a chance to enjoy some of their unstructured, unsupervised time and indulge in that freedom. Because the irony would be a little hard to bear otherwise.

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