Where Did the Neighbourhood’s Childhood Friends Go?
I was typing the other day, intently lost in thought, when I looked across to the large window of our front porch and saw a 3-foot-tall person wearing a burglar’s mask and a princess dress peering in, face pressed firmly against the glass.
“Hey Tilly, come on over,” I chimed, without missing a beat.
Tilly’s friendship with my daughter Piya reminds me of the friendships I formed when I was in primary school. I had two really good childhood friends, Danny and Brian. The three of us were inseparable essentially because we lived so close to one another. We found ways to entertain ourselves by making audio taped concerts and performing our own original plays. We visited each other’s houses, slept over, and figured out how to entertain ourselves when the school recess felt too long. In other words, we engaged in natural social interaction.
Tilly gives me hope that these gangs of “neigbourhood kids” have not been lost, something I’ve increasingly thought might be gone for good. When our family lived in Mumbai, a 12-year-old expat desi would occasionally accompany her little sister to our house for playdates. As I talked to her while the other children played, she admitted she was homesick for the US. She said she spent most of her free time on Facebook, chatting with friends half a world away, even though she had been living in Mumbai for a couple of years. While it was great to learn she had such strong connections abroad, it also reminded me of what is lost when those connections begin to exist solely online.
“Hey Tilly, come on over,” I chimed.
I had always thought that, even today, if you lived in a housing society, the sheer number of kids meant a new child could easily integrate into that community. Indeed, when we lived in Mumbai, our older daughter had several friends spread across the nearby housing societies. But as much as our tech-savvy daughters were at home in the neighbourhood, smartphones and apps were reshaping communities, enabling the older girl to drift further apart from the people next door.
Today, kids simply aren’t spending time with one another organically. Children are committed to so many activities that they are scarcely at home long enough to play with one another. What little time they might have free is taken up with homework assignments that grow longer and more bizarre by the day. They have Facebook, Snapchat, WeChat and tons of other ways to connect that don’t require time spent face-to-face. They are growing isolated from one another even as they are also growing up so quickly. (The news is full of stories of 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old kids performing complicated scientific research or acting in films. Impressive to be sure – but where are their friends?)
And this is why I don’t mind being startled by Tilly’s little face peering in the window like a Peeping Tom and shouting, “Where’s Piya?!?” All these two want to do is dress up and run around the house or ride their bikes. Their newest favourite activity is doing ‘run-hugs,’ for which they go to either end of their houses and run as fast as they can to embrace each other. These two 4-year-olds are on the cusp of becoming little people full of complicated thoughts and facing a world that will split them up by Likes and interests and fast-track their growing up.
But for now, at least, all they need is each other. There is time enough to comb through a Facebook feed or carefully curated Instagram posts. These childhood friends simply want to race their bikes and raid each other’s clothes bins to play dress up. Seeing Tilly peer through the window or watching Piya drop her school bag and run next door at full speed reminds me to appreciate and enjoy this simpler time in their lives. The gangs of neighbourhood kids may still exist; but they won’t last nearly long enough.