BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In The Baron in the Trees, the novelist Italo Calvino has his 12-year old protagonist, Cosimo, resolutely refuse to eat what’s on his plate one day in 1767. Then the young nobleman’s rebellion goes somewhat over the top. Cosimo stomps out of the house, climbs a backyard oak and resolves never to come down again. He finds that he can travel for miles around his estate pouncing from tree to tree, and he lives in the forest canopy for the rest of his days.
The Baron in the Trees is a daring and luminous medtitation on the wild, innocent beauty of childhood, the world that children imagine and create for themselves. Like Mark Twain, Calvino stakes out the boundaries of this world and says, as an experiment, “No trespassing”: let us consider a life guided by the determination to resist the impositions of adulthood. This gesture clearly expresses an aethetic idea, but I propose that it also touches on a moral duty, the obligation to let kids be kids.
I was deeply struck this morning by this passage from early in Calvino’s book:
Cosimo’s first days in the trees had no goals or plans but were dominated only by the desire to know and possess that kingdom of his. He would have liked to explore it immediately to its farthest boundaries, study all the possibilities it offered, discover it tree by tree and branch by branch.
Ah, the sumptuous pointlessness of childhood. But is it really pointless? When I was a kid in the Ozarks I would grab the 10-gauge shotgun on winter days and hike through the woods “rabbit hunting.” I use the quotes because I rarely saw a rabbit and honestly can’t recall if I ever shot at one. I definitely shot at other things–usually trees, sometimes snowballs–but the thing was to be out and about, on my own doing something that didn’t suck quite as bad as the rest of adolescence. Looking back, I guess you could say I was answering a desire to “know and possess that kingdom” of mine.
In the spring and summer I would fish. There was a lake about a mile away, and I would walk to one of the hundreds of little inlets on it shoreline. Since the dam that formed the lake had only been built a few years before, the lake’s shallows were still choked with standing tress, submerged brushpiles and other irregularities that attracted crappie and bluegill by the hundreds, maybe thousands. The real fishing was to be done from a boat just on the other side of the trees and brushpiles, and I knew this. I suppose it was because of the water depth and where fish like to live, but, lacking a boat, I did my best to fish from the forested shore anyway. I don’t think I ever brought home enough fish for a full dinner, but what I did bring home I would dress on a stump by the woodpile and my mom would fry.
I wonder if kids do this kind of thing these days, if they even feel the itch, in Calvino’s words, to know and possess their kingdoms.
Journalists and child psychologists give us reason for pause. Children, they say, before they even form a perspective on the world, enter a virtual reality that is already prepared for them, coded in Silicon Valley and delivered through chatgroups and streaming video. There is no attraction to real fishing if you can just tap your tablet and start playing “Thrill of the Catch,” one of 54 free, online fishing games I found in a search this morning. No need to talk face-to-face with people who matter only marginally to you if you can stay constantly linked up to a chatgroup of your closest fellows, thumbs wagging away round the clock, unleashing one vitally important message after another.
I had to sit up and do some serious thinking about this issue a few weeks ago when I read an article in The Atlantic that asked whether smartphones were destroying a generation of children. I won’t rehearse the article here in any detail: it claims that smart devices zombify kids and make what is alread a trying period in their lives even less likely to be a happy one. If you read the article and feel at all concerned by it, as I was, you should also read a response in Psychology Today that critiques the Atlantic article’s arguments. Children, it says, are more resistant to zombification than we think and actually benefit in some ways from their interaction with smart devices.
As a committed empiricist, I think it is too early to start drawing conclusions about the long-term impact of indulging kids’ screen addictions. There is simply too much going on in that intimate embrace to comprehend it in a mere handful of studies, no matter how well done.
Still, casual observation is the beginning of empiricism, and if you have observed children with any interest at all in the last 10 years you cannot have failed to notice how thoroughly their screens absorb them. They are locked into an interaction (if that is the right word–it often looks very passive) that can last for hours. It takes real effort to break the spell. Whatever is going on there is very powerful. I will sound like an alarmist, but I think it is the better part of wisdom in these early days to ask if, by allowing Net World to stream so freely into our children’s lives, we are not robbing kids of a certain amount of creative autonomy, their natural desire to form a perspective on the world.
I of all people, believe humans can and should change. All species are adaptive, and we are more adaptive than most. At the bottom of my heart I am a Nietzschean, and I think creativity is the soul of bravery and, possibly, of wisdom. Humans should always be forging new paths to we-know-not-what. So whence my unease? Aren’t screen kids just being good Nietzscheans, forging their way to some novelty that is in no way devalued by the fact that I cannot discern its meaning?
Here is my best guess at what is wrong. Net World, the one mediated by all those screens, is already infused with an adult perspective before kids encounter it. After all, it’s created in Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue. It’s a consumerist matrix that threatens to rob childhood of its undiscovered nature and its not-yet-commodified beauties. Calvino, like Twain, touches on one of life’s most sacrosanct rules, that we ought to let kids be kids, primarily by letting them roam free. My concern today is that our technological bubble possibly violates that rule by denying kids their natural inclination to create and imagine their own realities–to roam free and take possession of their kingdoms. I hope I am wrong.