On the final day of my last full year at the University of Maryland, my roommates and I reached back for a last taste of childhood.
We spotted baseball cards for sale. We bought a bunch of them. We ate some of the bubble gum inside, which tasted sweet as 1956. We pitched the cards against a wall, hoping for leaners, wondering if we still had the skills of our previous 11-year-old selves.
The moment was a kick and, in retrospect, kind of poignant. Here was our closing moment before society handed us our official adulthood certificates — and we were reaching back for a last fling at vanished youth.
I think of this now because of some new studies about young people, mentioned the other day in the New York Times by Kim Brooks, author of “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.” Her Times piece is headlined ‘We Have Ruined Childhood.”
Brooks notes one study that declares children today are more depressed than they were during the Great Depression and more anxious than they were at the height of the Cold War. And another study that says the rate of depression among teenagers rose 60 percent over the last decade.
Many in earlier generations, ever nostalgic over lost childhood, recall days carefree as the flip of a baseball card. This generation, Brooks says, will look back at regimentation.
She points out “the lack of free time, the rise of the overscheduled, overprotected child, the overarching culture of anxiety and fear. … School days are longer and more regimented. Kindergarten, which used to be focused on play, is now an academic training ground for the first grade.
“For many children, when the school day is over, it hardly matters. The hours outside school are more like school than ever, [with] aftercare and camp while their parents work. Unsupervised play [is] now often off limits.
“Those who can afford it drive their children from one structured activity to another. Those who can’t keep them inside. Free play and childhood independence have become relics, insurance risks, at times criminal offenses.”
We had organized activities in the old days, which sometimes felt like regimentation. We had Little League, Pony League, Cub Scouts, Brownies and Girl Scouts. We had summer camp. All were handed to us with the best of intentions.
But nothing in the world was better than heading out the front door, where your friends were waiting. Maybe you rode bikes, and maybe you played ball. The choices were yours. Maybe you just hung out on the corner or the schoolyard and shot the breeze, listened to somebody’s transistor radio, sang along for a few falsetto lyrics that signaled the onset of adolescence.
You were forming a tribe, a community and a generation. You were comparing notes in the same fragmented language, figuring out you weren’t alone and learning you could laugh at the new, confusing elements between childhood and adulthood.
You weren’t waiting for your parents to drive you to the next organized activity. And you weren’t alone in the house watching video games. You didn’t have a computer. You wouldn’t trade one now for a single pack of baseball cards.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).