I was in a conveyor belt sushi bar watching a toddler having the time of his life throwing colourful plates of salmon hand rolls and tuna maki through the air like the most exciting game of Frisbee ever. Whoosh! There went some dark fronds of seaweed salad. Wheee! Sweet potato tempura was flying through the air. A small amount of pink pickled ginger landed on my nose. It was rather refreshing. The child’s mother, whose back had been turned for a moment, swung round, fury gathering in her eyes, her mouth, her arms – even, perhaps, her feet, which were shod in raspberry strappy sandals. “Benjamin!” she yelled. “Those are not good choices!”
What currently constitutes good choices is an obsession in parent-child relations. Sitting at home on the bank holiday, trying to devise some good choices for my own brood, I leafed through an essay criticising the tyranny of school attendance and music practice and after-school activities that plagues American and European children. Instead, the author advocated the natural rhythms and freedoms of Inuit children, of the part-Cherokee young of West Papua, or the Wintu people of California.
Children should roam wherever they choose, inside and out, the writer seemed to believe, foraging for food, like the young of the Sami people who are free to discover “a strip of cooked reindeer meat or a freshly caught fish” in the local huts, thus avoiding that hideous source of family conflict: mealtimes. Or picture the children of sea gypsies, the Bajau, who are so beloved of their watery freedoms that they almost appear half child, half otter. And they never cry, not even the little ones. In many other communities, for example among some families in West Papua, children were seen to be always the best judges of their own needs, always managing their hunger and sleep, at one with nature, content, and with almost no intervention from parents who were too busy to fuss and hover madly over the details of their lives anyway.
As someone for whom a weekend in the English countryside feels daring, I was not quite sure what to do with all this information. Not being carefree and wandering like the indigenous peoples of the world was a hard criticism to answer.
I like indoors. I’ve always had a bit of a fear of things that are too wholesome. As a child my favourite outing in the world was being taken to play fruit machines in an arcade in King’s Cross with real gangsters in black suits. I felt so noble there, practically dodging bullets, a hero. I am completely urban: I like traffic, litter, dual carriageways, cafés, bus lanes, street markets, hopscotch, protest marches, chatting, museums, shops, circuses, caffeine and alcohol. I’ve never before felt bad that my children don’t hunt for wild foodstuffs. I was rather proud of keeping a good table with regular mealtimes. It was a whole new take on failure.
As a mother it is easy to feel, particularly on Saturday mornings, that there is a parallel family leading the life you ought to live, carefully building memories that will be sustaining in old age, indulging in pastimes where everything is deliberate and meaningful, free of commerce, sugar, computers, pollution and sarcasm. In this family, who live on a hill in the moral high ground, all the travelling is done on a handsome pair of tandems. And, instead of pop songs, the children croon music from Shakespeare with a vast array of different arrangements. The family string quartet must be heard to be believed. Pioneering in spirit, they will go out and make a big difference in the world.
As I read about the children and their wild, roaming, natural ways, my children were playing swingball in the garden, chatting about this and that, whacking the life out of an innocent tennis ball.
I thought of a relative at an enlightened boarding school who was sent to till the fields at harvest time with the local farmers (if that is when you do tilling) to get a sense of the rhythm of the seasons. I remembered a family I met once whose children pointed at the chocolate brownies and charmingly enquired, ‘What is that brown-looking cake?’
Yet the idea of a life spent wild and carefree, hunting and fishing, makes me double over with panic. If not resembling an otter makes me a bad person, then I admit it freely.
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt