I go back and forth as to whether Wilderness is the best way to describe the freedoms granted to kids by conscientious parents in the American cultural mainstream just a decade or two ago. Wilderness, the wild place where one finds one’s self literally be-wildered, has many affinities with the adventures, explorations, and dangers of a more free-range childhood. But it was not a wilderness in the sense that when you were out there, you were truly alone, and could not depend on anyone to hear and come if you called for help. (A scenerio ironically more likely these days when all the local kids are being shuttled to their activities in cars).

The endangerment of children—that persistent theme of our lives, arts, and literature over the past twenty years—resonates so strongly because, as parents, as members of preceding generations, we look at the poisoned legacy of modern industrial society and its ills, at the world of strife and radioactivity, climatological disaster, overpopulation, and commodification, and feel guilty. As the national feeling of guilt over the extermination of the Indians led to the creation of a kind of cult of the Indian, so our children have become cult objects to us, too precious to be risked. At the same time they have become fetishes, the objects of an unhealthy and diseased fixation. And once something is fetishized, capitalism steps in and finds a way to sell it.

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children’s imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible. Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride her bicycle. Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it—nowhere that I was willing to let her go.

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