The annual Viljandi Folk Music Festival retains a haunting and cinematic quality, especially at its peak on Saturday night, when the Tallinners swarm into town in their old-fashioned linen shirts in search of Curly Strings, beer, and kebab.
Crowds form around the street performers — violinists, bagpipers, a washtub bass — and the sounds of exuberant conversations grow intoxicating beneath the lush green foliage.
Under the watchful spire of Saint John’s Church, scores of children occupy themselves with entertainment set out just for them. A giant game of tic-tac-toe, a small stage decorated with a sign reading Lastelava, “Children’s stage,” and colorful curtains that the children wrap themselves in. Finally, there is a maze constructed from the rough wooden pallets used to transport goods. Dozens of youths, their clothes stained by mud and dripping ice cream, filtered into the maze, only to get lost here and there, with others trying to hop the walls to escape while exhausted parents like myself looked on, happy just have a break, to sit and observe the scene. As the clocked ticked closer to midnight, and the fun showed no sign of end, it did occur to me.
This would never happen in America.
First of all, children were allowed into Viljandi Folk for free. Provided they could prove their age, they were given a special bracelet that gave them permission to enter. Back in my home country though, anything this good would certainly come with an admission price. Any kind of childhood entertainment would likely be fenced off, and that rough wooden maze over there? That would probably be constructed out of some kind of rubber synthetic material to minimize the chance of injury. In America, the organizers would do so not only out of concern for the well-being of the playing children, but out of fear of hungry personal injury lawyers eager to make a few bucks. Taken together with the disapproving looks of worried parents — Do they know how dangerous that is? They could get a splinter! — the play area of Viljandi Folk would no doubt be closed.
It wasn’t always that way in the United States. Even when I was a child, we would disappear for hours into the woods. I got into my share of scrapes and still have the scars to prove it, and yet I am grateful for those times, totally convinced that if I was ever shipwrecked on a deserted island, I could set to work constructing a livable shelter from some young trees, just as I did when I was a boy. Piece of cake! That was only 30 years ago when I could roam free like the children of Viljandi Folk. Only 30 years!
But then something happened. A cloak of ‘safety first’ descended on the great land of freedom. Most child-related activities became intensely supervised, and children of responsible parents were not allowed to leave the confines of their suburban castles unless encased in a suit of protective plastic armor, or accompanied by a tough, eagle-eyed adult guide on the lookout for falling tree branches and sexual predators. The classic American childhood, epitomized by literary gems like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn became something you could only read about in an old book, watch in a film, or experience during a ride at Disney World. You could watch characters have real childhoods in the movies, but you couldn’t actually have one yourself.
I learned this first hand years ago when we lived in the US for a school year. It was a pretty, pristine place at the end of an island, with woods and beaches that begged to be explored, and long country roads with little traffic. It seemed like the perfect spot for a classic childhood, and yet no adventurous youth ever came to our house on a bicycle, none ever knocked at our door unaccompanied to see if one of our children could come out and play. Instead, all so-called “play dates” were prearranged, even though the parents would, at times, while we were exchanging children, fess up to the antics of their own wild childhoods long ago, which were chaotic and joyful and free. Kids who had once carried slingshots, sped around on skateboards, and robbed candy stores had grown into cautious adults happy to embrace and enforce “safety first.” It was hard to believe.
If you asked them why it had happened, they would tell you that things had simply changed. “Just look at the news,” they would say, pointing to the steady stream of sensationalized stories about child abductions and murders. Sometimes I wondered how safe American youth had actually been in earlier eras, the Industrial Revolution perhaps, or the Great Depression, yet this line of questioning went nowhere. The culture of worry had fallen on us. It was senseless to struggle against it. Like the other parents I went along with it, even though I sensed something was amiss. There are some in the US, of course, who have tried to steer the culture back the other way, with a free-range parenting movement set to raise a new generation of independent kids, parents who risk interference from social workers to let their kids go to the woods or ride the metro alone.
The fact that the last hope for American childhood is a book, or a movement, or a website, only deepens my sense that something has been lost and cannot be replaced.
To be honest, among my fellow countrymen there are those who would view my lifestyle with some contempt. I have certainly been denounced by a few for living what they see as a shiftless, libertine, decadent European life, where I while away the days writing in cafes. Some say they have no respect for me, others have accused me of running away. Yet as I watch my children laugh as they tear through a wooden maze under the watch of a medieval church at midnight, I have to respond: Can you really blame me?