The realm of the outdoors

Two weeks ago, I was at work and a colleague was telling us about her grandchildren. They were a “disgrace”, this “new generation” because the weather was beautiful and they could not even be bothered to go outside and envoy it. They would rather stay in all day playing some video games of some sort. Her problem: it was sunny and the children would not go out – like she would, presumably.

Then, a couple of day ago, the weather had changed into rainy days, right when the holidays started and she had her grandchildren staying with her. I saw her again and this time she was telling us about the weather and her “poor grandchildren” who could not even go out. I played dumb and asked her why.
“Because it’s raining!”, she said. I knew that was coming and I couldn’t stop myself, I had to be an annoying bitch.
“So?”, I asked gingerly.
“Well, I can’t let them go outside when it’s raining. They’ll get wet.” I told her she could let them go out.
“They are not made of sugar, they are not going to melt, you know. And maybe they don’t go out when it’s sunny because someone ‘s told them it was bad for their skin…”

She was outraged but I made my point about this endless complaining about the weather which is never good enough and mainly about the conflicting messages we are giving to children regarding what they can and cannot do when it comes to the outdoors.

That woman, born in the 1950s, would just not let her grand-children out because it was raining and they might wet and catch a cold. So the kids were doomed to stay inside and find a way to entertain themselves which turned out to be hours in their phones.  And she hates this. She wants them to connect with her although her childhood is probably filled with endless rainy afternoons at her own grand-parents when she had wished she was allowed to just get away from them, whichever the weather was.

I could have pointed out to her that as a child, she would not minded the rain if it meant having fun, but what got me the most was that same, endless chorus of “that new generation these days, really…Never wanting to go out. In my days…”. This business is seriously getting on my nerves, mainly because I hate the fact that the kids are being blamed for basically trying to adapt to all the scaremongering their parents have been subjecting them for generations when it comes to being outside. Your children are like this because of the education you gave them, because of the role models you were to them and your relationship with the outdoors will determine their willingness to experience it and feel at ease within it.

I am 31 now and for a long time, I have been this “new generation” but it turns out that I am not anymore. I am old enough to be the old “new generation”, judging by the ridiculously nostalgia-filled, fact-free, oblivious and conservative Facebook posts of a number of my 30-something friends. They are all describing a childhood in the 1980/1990s: free of videogames and Internet which allowed us to run free in the fields, hunt for frogs at dusk and play football outside until our kitchen-living, marriage-tamed mothers would call us for dinner. We would then beg for more time because there was nothing like spending time outdoors with our friends and nothing, not even the darkest night, would stop us. We were free. We were Laura Ingalls in the Little House in the Prairie, the wild nature was our playing field.

The problem with this vision is that it’s not what happened, it’s what most of us inspired to when we were kids.  I am not even talking about our teenage years when the Internet did arrive and we were the first generation to spent hours on consoles. I was lucky enough to be able to live this kind of running in the fields fantasy but most of us did not because something or someone would grab us by the collar and shout “Stop running!” as we were heading out.

A friend of mine, mother of a toddler boy, loves posting these nostalgic views. According to her, and many others of my still young age, the younger people today are wasting their life away by staying in, stuck on their phones, laptops and videogames. “They will never experience the joy of real life as we did”, she said. “Even with their friends, they’d prefer going to each other’s place and stay in rather than going out”.

Then I went to see her, we had lunch and a walk in the park but I discovered with shock that she was that kind of parents who is constantly warning their children about the danger of everything. In her eyes, and now the eyes of her son, the whole world is a minefield and death is lurking behind every daffodil.

It was sunny so he had to wear a hat and sun cream (in March!), every plant he touched she would snatch away from him and clean his hand with a sanitised wipe. We sat down on the grass and she took out two blankets that she put on top of each other (“sometimes germs get through the first one anyway”) and that was the only space where he could play. Any toy trespassing was swiftly taken away and put in a bag for thorough washing later at home and eventually, because he kept trying to explore his world, like every toddler, she put him on a dog leash so he just stayed there nibbling on his fingers until she gave him her Ipad with an “educational game” to play. Everything he did that meant reaching the outside world was stopped with a warning of danger even when it could have been an oppportunity to experience and learn. Instead, he went to the park and played with an Ipad. He’s 3 years old.

From a person who keeps on reminiscing on her childhood free of all constraint, she was quick to keep her own child was in a cage everytime he steps in the outdoors. I won’t be surprised if that child never wants to go out later and would prefer staying in. I won’t be surprised if he can’t tell a robin from a blackbird or a rose from lilac. I won’t be surprised if he gets grumpy when it rains and only wants to see the sun but never be exposed to it. Tanning booth and St Tropez tan, please.

And why? Because I suddenly realised that he will be exactly like his mother.  She can’t tell a robin from a black bird, she fake-tans before sunbathing because she was told it was safer and the only reason why she agreed to have lunch in the park and not in a café is because I insisted and told her I had not driving for two hours to sit behind a bloody window. I was paler than it was safe to know about and I wanted to be outside. She did put a scarf on because “the air was frisky”. It was 24° in Paris that day.

I can tell the difference between a robin and a blackbird just by listening to them. I know the names the trees and I like all kind of weather expect one (the unified light grey layered sky). I like the sun, I love the rain, the wind, hail, snow and thunderstorms. I like to go and run outside when the rain is lashing down during the summer supercell’s thunderstorms. The water is warm, the wind is strong and you let yourself drown by the power of Nature. I realised I hadn’t done it for years, going out in the middle of thunderstorms, so last year I did and no one but me was in the streets. Cars passing by looked at me like I was an alien standing in the river that the road had become.

Why me and not her? She looked horrified when I told her this. “You should never go out under a thunderstorm or you’ll get stroke by lightning!”.

Me and not her because all her childhood she heard all the following:
Don’t go out in the rain, you’ll get wet and you’ll get sick!
Don’t go out in the wind, you’ll catch a cold!
Don’t go out in the snow for too long or you’ll get too cold and you’ll get sick!
Don’t stay out in the sun for too long because you’ll get sun burned!
Don’t stay out in the heat because you’ll a fever!
Don’t go out in the sun between noon and 4pm because it is too bright and dangerous!
Don’t go out, it’s foggy and you will get run over by a car!
Don’t go swim for three hours after you ate something because of a phenomenon that no medical record has ever proved to exist!
Don’t touch this leaf! I don’t know what it is so you might get poisoned!
Don’t get go anywhere near a hedgehog, it’s full of fleas, it’s dangerous!
Don’t go look at that swan, it will get angry and break your arm!

Millions of children heard, are hearing and will hear this nonsense. Millions of children who then grow weary, scare or outright uninterested in the outdoors they see as a danger when not a complete bore or a nuisance that needs to be destroyed. No wonder, they always stay in!

I never heard any of these from my mother. Or anyone from my family as a matter of fact and everyone else looked at us weirdly. It’s not new. My grand-mother, born in 1936, and her siblings were already seen as bad seeds and daredevils by some of their classmates for they like the outdoors too much. It looks uncivilised. So at home, in a long family tradition, my mother always ridiculed my uneducated and scare-prone father and did not care for which weather we were playing under.

Maybe because we come from an enlightened family where I-heared-thats, such as cold-water drowning, have never had a place, for some of us were scientists and doctors, but all I know is that she never stopped us from going outside whichever the weather was. When it is sunny, my mother was the first to take us out and lounge with a book for hours while we were playing, all under the bright sun. She was getting looks at the time already and it was the 1980s.

So as usual, when the sun finally showed up a month ago, I went out and told a friend of mine that I was sunbathing. She said “Oh God, you shouldn’t! The first rays are always the most dangerous”.  That doesn’t even mean anything! She had been complaining about the bad weather for weeks and now that the sun was there, she was already weary of it, looking at it from the inside. “What a beautiful weather! But I am not going out, yet. It’s too dangerous”. And she is 35. How much do you bet her children will belong to this new “new generation who never goes out when it’s sunny”? Her parents were born in the early 1950 and already, they filled the heads of their children with ideas that the weather and the outdoors was full of dangers and need to be avoided.

My mother taught us to love the rain. It’s good for the garden and birds can find insects to feed their young. She would take us out to collect snails we would keep for a few days and feed herbs before realising them. Or crab that come when it rains on the beaches of Normandy. I was surprised to discover that none of my friends’ parents ever did that with them. And comes to think of it, my brother and I were almost the only ones to be out when it was raining. I remember friends of mine were forbidden from jumping in puddles of water or go near the river. We could do whatever we wanted, come back home soaking wet and covered in mud, my mother would just wash the clothes and get us in a bath. No word of having been an “irresponsible child who will deserve to catch a cold.

When it snows, she would take us out. It was not a question of yes or no from us. We would have to turn the Sega off, whatever level we were about to reach with Sonic, and go out to play with her. We did not have a sledge so we would take bin liners or kitchen trays but we had to beg to go out and it was fun. I regretted Sonic until the first sliding down.

When we don’t know a leaf, we would look at it carefully and look it up at home. She taught us that a hedgehog’s fleas are not interested in us and that every garden should have a family of hedgehogs because they are cute and they eat slugs which otherwise eat the leaves of our favourite plants.

My childhood now sounds like the ones of these Facebook posts but it has nothing to do with living in the 1980s, the 1990s or the 2010s. My family has always suffered some finger-pointing by people who would raise their children afraid and weary of all weather, all animals except for pets, all outdoor situations. Everything is a danger, everything is a risk, and everything is something their children will have to stay away from. And this has not started with the “new generation”.

You want your child to go out? Stop making them fear the outside! Let them play in the mud, the water, run in the rain. Make them love the outdoors and stop blaming everyone but yourself. It’s not your children’s fault if they can’t see the point of being outside, it’s because you never make them want to be there to begin with. My mother taught me the love of Nature and I regularly stop playing games or get off the Internet for hours just to sit still in her garden under a drizzling rain to watch sparrow, starlings, tits, blackbirds and robins feed and fight over some peanuts or bad apples we had put there for them. It took me six hours to write this piece because the sun showed its ray after four days of uninterrupted rain and I went to have a thorough tour of my mother’s garden.

Teach your child the love of the outdoors and they would gladly take their bike to ride for hours rather than sitting down at a computer. It takes nothing but to start with believing that Nature is here for us to admire and to appreciate whether it’s sunny or rainy.

t to have a thorough tour of my mother’s garden. Teach your child the love of the outdoors and they would gladly take their bike to ride for hours rather than sitting down at a computer. It takes nothing but to start with believing that Nature is here for us to admire and to appreciate whether it’s sunny or rainy.

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