I keep returning to an image I had last week of ducks playing in the water just off the first spillway (referred to in the previous blog entry). I wasn’t able to capture them in a photo, but something about their behavior intrigued me, piqued my interest.
I think it was the sheer joy and exuberance, the spontaneity and “lightness” of their movement. One duck jumped off the water and propelled himself into the air about four or five feet, then suddenly dropped into a skid along the surface of the water. He seemed to be showing off, but could just as easily have been practicing landings, not so much as an exercise in discipline or maturity or security, but for the “feel” of the splash, for the unpredictability of where he would land or how far he would skitter.
The duck’s antics reminded me of my attempts as a child (and still sometimes as an adult) to see who could make the biggest splash when cannon-balling into a lake or pool. Or who could dive into the shallowest part of the water without scraping the bottom. Or who could jump the longest or highest over the hedges in our backyard. Or who would climb the tallest tree and swing back and forth with the greatest sway! Indeed, no sooner had one duck danced into his landing than another popped up into the air to follow with his best effort to make a smoother landing or a higher splash. I could almost hear their laughter at the results.
Another duck watched on, apparently bemused by their competition, or not yet confident in his or her own capabilities. Still another, indifferent to their childish games, turned upside down and poked his head beneath the surface to feed off the abundance of plant life below. “Been there, done that, but if you want to play, I understand,” this last duck seemed to say.
The scene becomes even more evocative in light of a recent article by Hannah Rosin on the over-protected child in The Atlantic. Rosin makes a compelling case for the fact that today’s parents actually stunt their children’s growth and development by micro-managing their lives and trying to ensure their absolute health and safety (and, I would add, success in whatever their endeavors might be). She cites one safety expert as saying, “adults have come to the mistaken view that children must somehow be sheltered from all risks of injury… In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”
Rosin argues that rather than grow up too fast, children today are not given an opportunity to grow up at all. They never learn to negotiate danger, to tackle physical or emotional tests of maturity, to try their limits, to develop their imaginations, to work with others to solve problems, to establish reasonable norms on their own, to “become truly independent and self-reliant.” Worse, they never really experience the “thrilling experience” of stepping into the unknown, of over-coming their fears, or taking responsibility for their actions. We provide playgrounds for them that will pass litigation standards. We fence in their yards. We carpool them to their games, tell them never to talk to strangers and are surprised when they can’t think for themselves.
By current standards, like many adults my age, I should have died several times over when I was a child. My parents often didn’t know where I was. I hung from trees, I floated down rivers, I wandered through forests, I skated on ice too thin to hold. I took rides from strangers, I jumped off cliffs, I swam across lakes on my own. I built forts from sticks, made my own bow and arrows, defended myself from local gangs, and sometimes, gloriously, did nothing at all.
I think part of the appeal of a place like Stony Brook, both for adults and children, is that it expands the notion of one’s back yard in what Rosin would call a “healthy” way. If not an element of danger, there’s a sense of mystery and adventure here, of excitement and possibility (especially on night hikes), but it’s a safe and stable environment overseen by experienced guides and well-informed educators. You can wander here. You can play. You can sit for hours and observe the wildlife, listen to the birds or get caught in an afternoon shower. But maybe most importantly, you can still get lost if you take a wrong turn, and be forced to discover your own way.
The ducks seem to know all this intuitively. They revel in their freedom. They learn from their mistakes. They shrug off their fears and teach us to do the same.