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Disappearing Childhood Independence and Mobility

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
December 2013
Disappearing Childhood Independence and Mobility

Growing up in Mumbai, I remember I was all of 10 years old when a friend and I first negotiated the city all by ourselves. It was summer break, and looking for ways to keep ourselves occupied, we decided to visit the offices of the various international airlines that lined up just outside of Churchgate station, a hub in the downtown area. In those days it was a hobby among our lot to collect postcards, stickers, and brochures of various airlines. Sometimes one could get lucky and hit the jackpot—an actual model of a plane.

Our adventure for the day involved taking one of Mumbai’s infamously gritty suburban trains from Vile Parle to Churchgate, with little over a dozen stations in-between. Thankfully, we started at 11 a.m.—the relatively slow time of the day, when, instead of getting squished by a sea of bodies, one might even find an empty seat…if lucky.

So why am I recalling this seemingly random event from my past? Because it strikes me that, from today’s norms of parenting, it seems inconceivable that our parents had the faith to let us loose—two 10-year-olds—in the “Maximum City” of Mumbai. And that, too, without the leash of a cellphone (unimagined in those days.)

Indeed, by that age, I was already commuting by myself throughout our own suburb by bus. But venturing out all the way across town in the train was a new and highly invigorating experience—an experience of the kind that, sadly, most young children growing up here may never have.

In those times, children as little as around seven were routinely venturing out by themselves in neighborhoods away from their homes. All this while their parents had only the foggiest idea of where their child might be. I don’t mean to say there wasn’t any communication, but once out the door, it was almost impossible to keep tabs on them.

Contrast that to our current time and place and it seems impossible for young children to experience the independence of negotiating their way through their town just by themselves. The reason is partly the fact of living in a country where the cities (and certainly the suburbs) lack adequate mass transit. Also, most suburbs are not conducive to commuting by walking. (When I first came here, I was thrilled about the “car country” concept of suburbs. I still appreciate the convenience, but certainly feel our children’s loss in not having urban areas where they can safely walk. Incidentally cities in India and most other countries are almost entirely traverseable by walking.)

This lack of opportunities for freewheeling results in children, even in their mid-teens, being chaperoned almost everywhere. There is precious little adult-free time!

What makes it worse is the change in parental attitudes. Today, it seems harder for parents to cut the psychological umbilical cord. They want to know hour-by-hour if not more where their child is and what he or she is up to. As Bill Fitzpatrick, the host of our Americana column lamented in a recent installment, this shift has happened not just for us immigrants, but also within America, from the past generations to this one.

I am not sure what this lack of independence and mobility, along with other factors such as being addicted to electronic devices, will mean for the psychological health of our next generation, but I know for sure that it is a huge loss not to experience the thrill of negotiating your surroundings without an adult in tow.

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