Though I’m not one for drinking songs, a recent report by the Children’s Rights Council that my home state, Maine, is the best place in the country to rear a child, has me raising a water glass and cheering.
Just now, as the whole country gears up for football season and the kids go back to school, I thought it a good time to merge the fun and fundamentals of good citizenry and share them with you.
Ah, yes, I was one of those who got up and went. And except for funerals, an occasional summer at the old cottage near Baxter State Park, and a couple of high school reunions, I haven’t been back to Maine for more than 30 years. In person, that is. In my heart I’ve been back a thousand times.
My “trips” began when maturity crept in and appearances lost their allure, when solid foundations meant more than fleeting frills, and importance grew where importance is. So, by the time the CRC determined Maine was the most child-friendly state in the nation, I could see why. The numbers they used – low crime, abuse and school drop-out rates – certainly matter. But the underlying reason for those low numbers matter more. As I review my childhood, these are some of the numbers I think mattered most.
• There was so much room. I don’t mean we had large, spacious homes – few people did – but there was so much outside. As late as the beginning of the 21st century, the population of the entire state was 1/6 that of New York City, or Georgia, with fewer than 40 people per square mile. There were acres of land between homes. If there were no playmates nearby, we invented them.
• There was so much to do. There were no computers, few cars, only a sprinkling of TV’s and little organized recreation outside of school sports. But who noticed? In summer we had lakes, rivers and streams, and every child learned to fish, swim and row a boat or canoe. We had forests to explore, trees to climb, ball games to watch or play and, on a lazy summer day, plenty of trees to lie under, picnic under, listen to the music of the birds and read a book under, or silently create our own universe from the shapes of the clouds.
Winter changed a few shapes, too, as we stored our poles and boats and took down skates, sleds or skis, and skimmed along the tops of those same lakes and streams, or raced down the hilly landscape after a new snow. Hot dogs and marshmallows never tasted as good in the summertime as they did over a bonfire doing double duty as grill for food and heat for tingly hands and toes.
• There was so much more to want. “If I had it to do over again,” my friend says of parenting, “I’d deprive my kids a lot more.” No 21st century child, and few parents, may agree with me, but oh the creativity when ready-made toys aren’t plentiful and the imagination goes into overdrive. No sled or toboggan? Take the biggest piece of cardboard you can find and slide away. No skates or hockey sticks? Do as the boys in my town did: cut sticks from a tree, wear your slickest “gum rubbers,” and change the name of the game to “walky hockey.”
Margaret, my childhood friend, didn’t leave Maine, but often envies those who did. “I’ve never been anywhere, “ she laments. Her well-traveled neighbor, who came back to Maine to retire, responds: “What’s wrong with right here?” Indeed, she and her neighbor agree, she has lived her life among “people of substance,” none more so than her mother, who raised her own children and nurtured others, “and not one of them ever brought her shame.”
A check of the CRC’s child-raising choices reveals a common thread, not unlike the conditions I recall: Most winning states are sparsely-populated and below the national average in income. Whatever “substance” grows best under those conditions, perhaps states farther down the CRC list can discover what it is, copy it, and revive an 1888 political maxim, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”
I’ll drink to that!
(Barbara Seaborn is author of As Long As the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County’s Past. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)