‘Chasing Childhood’ at Aspen Filmfest
Seated at a table of sixth graders in the new documentary “Chasing Childhood,” the writer and kids’ advocate Lenore Skenazy asks, ‘How many of you go home, have a snack and then go play outside?”
The kids meet her with stunned silence. None of them have ever done anything like that simple ritual of American childhood, common just a generation ago. They then start listing all of the after-school programs they’re enrolled in – sports and skating, hip-hop dance and STEM and art and more filling their time for seven days of the week.
The film, which screened at Aspen Filmfest, profiles kids and parents from three communities in the tri-state area around New York City, including an affluent Connecticut suburb and a working class Long Island town. Documentarians Margaret Munzer Loeb and Eden Wurmfeld examine the phenomena of over-programming and over-protecting children, the loss of free play time amd the tragic results for kids’ mental health. But their film is more interested in exploring possible solutions than it is in sensationalizing the problem.
The most powerful aspect of the film is how it utilizes the voices and stories of kids themselves, ranging in age from early childhood through Savannah, who is in her early 20s and reflects on her sheltered, high-pressure and over-programmed childhood through a lens of post-drug rehab clarity. (Her mother, Genevieve, is among the main characters in the film, trying to amend her past parenting mistakes by campaigning to change Connecticut laws that restrict children from playing without parental supervision – part of a national legislative movement for “reasonable childhood independence” and “free range” children’s laws.)
“My mom always tried really hard to be a good mom,” Savannah says in the opening moments of the film. “She just didn’t know how.”
One teenager, in a section about the pressures of today’s college admissions process, says, “I don’t have time to sit, I don’t have time to think.”
One storyline in the film follows Skenazy, a former New York Sun columnist who became a national lightning rod when she wrote about letting her 9-year-old take the New York City subway on his own. She has since become an advocate for free play and president of the nonprofit Let Grow Project. Through the organization, she works with kids and parents to lengthen their leashes.
The film follows her and a group of Manhattanites on an initiative to let kids choose to do one thing on their own that their parents might not let them do (one wants to have a party, another to ride the subway to his dad’s house). The filmmakers handle these sections – and much of the film – with welcome humor rather than the more severe tone viewers may have come to suspect from coverage of hot-button parenting issues (it was shot before the COVID-19 pandemic and the divisive fights over mask mandates and vaccinations).
A school superindendent in Patchogue, N.Y. has responded to the issue by adding meditation and yoga to the curriculum, adding free play rooms and extended recess times. He’s seen mental illness diagnoses go down while grades and signs of healthiness and happiness go up.
The film more sparingly uses statistics on rates of anxiety and suicide in young people, and does not lean heavily on experts and authors like Peter Gray and the usual “kids in crisis” stories retold in media in recent years. Instead, the feature-length documentary does well when it fleshes out kids’ and families’ stories in a way that news segments and such on these issues cannot.
Munzer Loeb and Wurmfeld tell a powerful story with these kids, but drop in enough nuggets from the experts to provide context. One points out, for instance, that today’s U.S. may be the only society that has stopped letting its kids play, other than historical instances of child labor and slavery. Gray, the psychologist and author of “Free to Learn,” explains the evolutionary importance of free play for mammals, explaining how it “provides the whole range of skills they need to become functioning adults.”
The trend in so-called “helicopter parenting” emerged, the film points out, as crime rates plummeted and streets were safer than ever, but came in the wake of a few high-profile child abductions and the advent of “milk carton” kids. That created the unfounded perception that kids were under threat if they were out of sight, “Chasing Childhood” argues, and combined with sky-high pressures of college prep to, in the words of one subject “negate childhood.” The overprotectiveness, they’re learning, is the danger in itself.
But as Skenazy puts it: “All the worrying in the world doesn’t prevent death. It prevents life.”
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