Nature Valley, the granola company, put out a new video — a “chilling” video, according to many people — this summer as part of its #rediscovernature campaign. In it, an off-camera voice asks three generations of people some variation of the same question: “When you were young, what did you do for fun?”
One of my favorite responses comes from an elderly man who recounts having a basket full of fish and seeing a black bear. He decided that if the bear started chasing him, he would “keep throwing the fish out of my basket until [the bear’s] gorged and he won’t bother me.” There is no mention of where the man’s parents were at the time.
In a different interview, a woman talks about building “massive forts … the kind you can sit in” with her friends, and a grown man says he liked to go door-to-door and round up all the neighborhood kids for a game of hide-and-seek or baseball. Another elderly man remembers fashioning his own, possibly dangerous, toboggan that was “very slick and very fast.”
Again, there is no mention of parents.
Then the interviewers turn to today’s children and ask what they do for fun. As you might expect, the kids only list tablets, video games and other handheld devices. There are no dangerous escapades or unleashed afternoons roaming the neighborhood streets. And their parents and grandparents, the ones who were interviewed earlier, are sad about that.
The Internet’s response to this video was also sad — and swift. I saw it reposted in my Facebook news feed at least a couple dozen times. People bemoaned our electronics-obsessed youth and the fact that kids today have no sense of adventure.
Now, let me tell you about something that happened this weekend.
We were visiting my parents’ lake house, and I was still inside getting into my bathing suit and sunscreen. Unbeknownst to me, Ford, almost 15, and Owen, almost 13, went outside and got in the lake by themselves. They were swimming by the wooden floating dock a hundred feet offshore. The dock has a rustic, splintered ladder for climbing out of the water, and at some point, Ford had the brilliant idea to jump off it.
But Ford didn’t just want to jump off the ladder’s steps; he wanted to climb up onto the makeshift hand railing, which is also rustic and splintered, and actually isn’t a hand railing at all. It’s the two-by-fours that make the sides of the ladder and stick up out of the water.
Ford planned to put one foot on the narrowest end of one two-by-four and one foot on the other. He was going to balance “Karate Kid”-style until he jumped backward into the lake.
Things didn’t go as planned.
As soon as Ford was “balanced” on one “hand rail” and lifted his left foot to place on the other, he fell backwards. Which should have been fine since there was only a lake behind him, but Ford’s outstretched leg landed on the hand rail first, and then it violently slid down the side, scraping off skin as it went.
When Ford came inside to show me, he already had a grapefruit-size bruise on the back of his thigh. And Owen trailed behind him, almost unable to talk he was laughing so hard about what he had just witnessed.
Trust me, I know it could have been much worse. In fact, it very easily could have been. I saw visions of Ford’s head hitting the dock, or him breaking his leg and being unable to swim when he landed in the lake. And, of course, the first thing I did was yell at both boys for getting in the water before I was outside.
But watch people’s reactions to this story. Pay attention to the comments. I can already guess what they will be:
“I can’t believe she let her kids go near the water by themselves.”
“How stupid was her son to attempt such a thing?”
“Why wasn’t she watching them?”
The commenters might as well just say, “Why weren’t these boys inside playing video games, where they’d at least be safe?”
You see, I don’t think kids have really changed at all. They are still full of (sometimes) reckless adventure. They would go fishing and risk being chased by a bear … if their parents would let them. They would go door-to-door and round up neighborhood kids .. if their parents would let them. They would make dangerous, slick toboggans … if they didn’t have to sled with their parents and wear a helmet.
So when you feel sad about Nature Valley’s video, stop and ask yourself: Can a generation of kids who have never known fishing by themselves really be to blame for the fact that a generation of grown-ups who came home when the streetlights came on won’t let their own kids do the same?
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.