Disclaimer: what you are about to read may give the impression that my parents were irresponsible, neglectful, even abusive. I assure you they were not. They were merely representative of their time and circumstances, and I, the product of their parenting, turned out just fine.
My son recently read an article about how children today have lost the right to “roam” as much as their parents or grandparents did. Rather than walk to school or the park or a playmate’s house they are chauffeured everywhere and usually monitored closely throughout their daily routine. They are delivered to school and picked up afterwards. They have “play dates” rather than go off to see what the neighborhood kids are doing. They play in organized sports groups. They attend “after school programs”. And of course, many simply stay inside. A current national survey finds that today’s children spend an average of only four hours a week outside—less time than prison inmates. Parents who defend this lifestyle say they perceive more dangers outside- traffic, crime, violence- and therefore feel more protective of their child’s safety. I certainly understand their concerns…and yet…I can’t help feeling we’ve lost something vital that we’ll never get back.
My own childhood was one that few people can relate to, but there were also aspects of it that were universal. Yes, we worked in the fields alongside legal and illegal aliens, and our life was just as transient. We often lived in three or more houses per year. I attended most schools for a year or less. But even though we worked hard, we played even harder. We celebrated family traditions. We went to church when we could. We sat down and ate dinner together. My parents believed in the importance of education and I was a good student. But I was also a “wild child” by today’s standards.
A prime example of my childhood freedom immediately came to mind when I read the article about children being closely supervised. When I was about eleven years old we lived on a unique property in California. I don’t remember how many acres it encompassed, but there was a peach orchard and a small vineyard. The property surrounding the house included a hand-dug wine cellar with an open stairway, a prohibition-era tunnel leading to an escape hole in the middle of the orchard, a water tower with ladder access, an irrigation system that always had flowing water, and animal pens for our sheep, goats, pigs and chickens. There was a huge water trough of goldfish next to a prickly pear cactus patch. There was also a decaying barn and a junk pile of old tools and harvest equipment. In other words, it was a child’s dream land! So much to explore and do and find! We were also just one block from the local elementary school and our classmates wandered across the property or stopped by to play or talk. One twelve-year-old boy often stopped by to talk to me and smoke a cigarette before he walked the rest of the way home…on the bank of the canal across the street.
At that time my three younger brothers were often the bane of my existence. Although my parents didn’t expect me to control them, I was usually told to “keep an eye” on them and it wasn’t an easy task. One day they were out playing near the barn and I was at the pig pen when I heard yelling. Of course the youngest one had decided to climb to the roof of the barn because his older brother was already up there. (I learned later that he was trying to figure out what they would need to do to “fly” off the barn.) Poor little Jimbo only made it half-way up the ladder before he panicked and started yelling for help. I climbed the ladder and retrieved him, but on the way down he wiggled, I shifted, and I stepped to the side of the ladder and onto a piece of rusty barbed wire that went right through my little toe. Then I was the one yelling!
We made our way to the house where my mother and visiting grandmother held me down and my father removed the wire with a pair of pliers. Then grandmother soaked my foot in bleach and wrapped it with some cloth. I don’t remember going to the doctor or getting a tetanus shot, although with my accident record I’d probably had one already.
On closer examination this simple story illustrates three major characteristics of my childhood.
- We spent most of our time outside. We worked, we played, we explored, and we walked…outside. Inside was for washing, eating, and sleeping. I often sat under or in a tree to read a book. My oldest brother and I once spent a week building a “reading platform” in one of our trees. We also dug holes, made forts out of sticks, played “cowboys and Indians”, and collected bugs.
- We spent a lot of time “on our own”. When I walked back to the house to show Mom my foot she had to send for Dad because he was out working in the orchard. My mother and grandmother had been cooking. No one had been watching us even though my youngest brothers weren’t even old enough to go to school. During the following summer my oldest brother and I were dropped off at one of our fields a few miles from the house, left to monitor the irrigation system while Dad drove to two other fields, and then picked up a couple of hours later.
- We learned to solve problems. Being outside playing, wandering around, and spending time unsupervised meant we sometimes made poor decisions, found ourselves in danger, or had accidents. I understood from a very early age that my parents expected me to be smart, do what I’d been told to do, and “if in doubt, figure it out”. They trusted me to be responsible and I knew that if I wasn’t I would suffer the consequences- a stern reprimand and a spanking. I didn’t sneak off with the neighbor girl when she wanted me to meet a gang-member friend. I didn’t smoke with the guy who liked to stop and talk. I asked permission before walking beyond our neighborhood.
You may say that times were different and we were safer then than our grandchildren are now. Perhaps. But I lost classmates to violent crime. I was bullied and threatened. I was nearly abducted. I survived more than a few accidents. I was sometimes confused and afraid. I know that danger existed in the fifties.
I think what was truly different was that our world was “smaller”. My parents knew most of their neighbors and talked to everyone around us. When we were out and about I never doubted that any unruly behavior would be observed by another mother and reported to my own. My parents met our teachers and knew what they expected of us. They shopped at local markets and knew the owners. If I went to the store alone I knew what to do and whom to expect to see behind the counter. I even knew the names of the guys at the local gas station. No matter where we were or how brief a time we were there, my parents made sure we became familiar with our surroundings and we learned to function in a variety of situations.
Nowadays families function within a much broader world. They work, shop, play, go to school, and attend church across town, in different towns, and in different states. Increases in our population means they encounter more strangers and cope with more traffic, longer lines, and more stress. Crimes seem more random and of course the media is much more efficient: we’re informed of every crime and crisis within moments. All of those factors change the way parents perceive the world and the dangers that might be lurking “out there”.
So…I understand why parents prefer to keep their children close at hand. I understand why “inside” might seem like the safest place for them. However, I still think they would benefit from just a bit more of my childhood freedom.