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In Palestine, a summer spent on childhood's frontier

A visit to Ramallah in Palestine's West Bank invites questions about what me may have lost in our quest for child safety.

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Palestinian children play at a park near Ramallah, West Bank.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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There's been an e-mail message – or variations on the same message – in circulation for the last decade or so on the subject of childhood nostalgia.

"Remember when ...?" it asks, and goes on to reference quaint objects and activities from our childhoods through a rose-colored, middle-aged lens.

Remember when we had to get up to change the TV channel? Talk to our friends on a rotary phone? Go to a real library? Cook using an actual oven? Remember when we stayed out playing until dark, and didn't come home until we heard the dinner bell?

It's natural to romanticize the "dinner bell days." But while life is quite different today (Internet, microwaves, smart phones, etc.) – and in many ways, better – perhaps the most telling piece of longing in these electronic odes to a bygone era is the memory of the freedom of childhood.

Childhood has changed in America.

"The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past," wrote Michael Chabon in his essay "Manhood for Amateurs" in the New York Review of Books a couple of years ago. "The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors."

Fear for the safety and well-being of children has seeped into the culture to such an extent that it would not even be possible to practice the parenting of yesteryear today without incurring the judgment of neighbors and the intervention of the law.

Kids are under constant supervision. State laws govern age and weight requirements for obligatory car seats; cyclists wear helmets and shinguards. Schools practice mandatory reporting and parents preach "stranger danger."

Kids are safer, yes. But something is lost. And we feel it acutely.

Last summer, I spent two months in the West Bank with my 5-year-old son. We rented an apartment in Ramallah and watched from our window as the neighborhood children came out to play in the cool of the late afternoon and evening.

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