I stroll through the Now We Are Six woods not far from my home in Birkdale, Auckland. Any second Piglet will bounce out. I shall ask him, ‘What day is it today?’ Piglet will squeak, “It’s today.’ And I shall exclaim: ‘My favourite day!’
The streams are laced throughout Auckland suburbia, with bridges over them and thickets of trees nestling and hugging the running, childhood waters. The bridges stretch from small shore to small shore like paths to secrets. They bring to mind that profound moment when Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh toss sticks onto the stream from a bridge and then scamper to the other side to see whose stick comes bobbing past first. “Mine wins, mine wins!” The sheer delight in something as simple as two sticks and the play of a stream keep these two characters absorbed for hours in the natural world.
AA Milne was using a typical activity of children and how they find the marvel, the intimations of immortality, in ordinary things: sticks, or pebbles skipping across a pond. Or the hush and glow of the woods after the “seeker” in Hide and Seek hollers, ‘coming! ready or not!’ Remember this game? How often do we now see children playing like this? The stick or skipping pebble has been replaced by the smartphone and there is something sinister about children perched in bus stops, faces glued to those miniature black tombs.
I have had the privilege of teaching children most of my adult life. I love talking with them, playing with them, “nurturing my inner child”, breathing in the wonder of every moment. But it has shocked me to discover we can no longer speak to “our” children for reasons not only to do with smartphones. Coming back from years in China into the West again, here in New Zealand, I have experienced such paranoia when it comes to dealing with children. ‘I have no more male teachers in my school,’ laments one primary school headmistress to me, eyeing me. I know seasoned school principals like her pick up that I am great with kids. She would love to take me on as a mentor to the senior boys. Many kids come from “complex” or dysfunctional family environments and sorely need a proper male model in the flesh.
In the flesh. Ah, therein lies the pedophile-paranoia rub. Men have left the teaching profession in New Zealand in droves for fear of touching a child by mistake. Grandparents are frowned on for taking cameras along to school sports events to capture their grandchildren’s moments in the limelight. I have mentioned to people that I chat to children at bus stops about what cool stuff they like doing, and I got “the look” from those people. One man even muttered that my speaking to children at bus stops is weird. Subtext of weird: sick. So I no longer talk to children as I may be deemed to be sick. I notice other people steadfastly ignoring children in public. I have heard conversations like, ‘do you know he baths with his kids? We need to call the authorities’.
Another man I know, divorced, tells me about wandering along one of those hundred acre wood streams with his son, whom he has for weekends. He is taking videos of his boy and his boy is taking videos of him. They laugh and skip and run. It is their favourite day. Then they hear the whoop of sirens, and two policewomen run up to them, hands on their truncheons. See how grimly the police stand between father and child, asking lots of questions. See how the bewildered father is manhandled into the police car and taken for questioning. A record is made of the event before the father is released with his equally bewildered son. Though “cleared”, sort of, the father has a record against his name. For life. He has been “done”, just as surely as a man caught driving over the alcohol limit is “done”. He is too scared to relate to his own son the same way again.
Undisclosed people were watching that father play with his son. Undisclosed people were saying: ‘This will not do.’ What they were really saying was, ‘an adult playing with a child must be regarded with deep suspicion.’ ‘There is a pedophile under every rock.’ The abuse done to the boy for the way the “suspicious activity” was handled by the police went unnoticed.
Of course the rights – and boundaries – of children should be enshrined. Of course there must be severe consequences for abusing our little people. I have been an advocate for banning corporal punishment in my blogs. Of course children must be taught not to take candy from strangers. But we are becoming strangers to our children, from whom we have so much to learn. By becoming strangers to our children we lose our Tigger-like wonder about everything, and sticks in the water are just the bare beginning.
I walk through the woods in winter, a place where Tigger could still bounce out and exclaim, “Tiggers eat everything except haycorns!” On the grass near a bridge teenage girls are sitting on the chilly grass, immersed in their smartphones in another world far, far away. Some are not wearing jerseys. I want to say, ‘aren’t you cold? I would put on a jersey.’ But I don’t want to be done. I cross the bridge and its whispering secrets and go up the hill where I see a flock of primary school girls laughing as they skip up the slope. They are dressed in a tartan uniform and I want to ask which school they go to. I shan’t ask. I might get done. One turns and sees me. More turn round and glance at me. They laugh less. Shoving my hands into my jacket I walk to the other side of the road and carry on up the hill, resolutely looking at the ground, head bowed.