Where Do the Children Play?
When I was a kid, I grew up on a street lined with cookie box post-World War II Cape Cod style houses, painted in pastel colors—a bit like sneakers and a prom dress as far as paint colors. But what did we care? We were raucous kids screeching through the backyards lined up, one against the other. The land had been clear-cut prior to construction. No one on the street put up fences or hedgerows to separate one plot of land from another, and as a result, everyone’s backyard became part of one long grassy playground without boundaries. We ran wild, and mostly our parents did not interfere with our fun; they were too busy taking care of the sixty plus kids that poured out of those sixteen houses. And . . . there were two additional streets of similar small boxy houses, beyond our backyards, also filled with boomer babies.
Our street ended in a cul-de-sac, with an embankment below, and hundreds of acres beyond filled with woodlands, ponds, logging trails, rock cliffs and caves. When we weren’t exploring the woods we were racing up and down the street on bicycles, tricycles, and in wagons; it’s a wonder any cars made it up and down those streets.
In good weather, after school, on weekends and school vacations, we were outside, save for rain and snowstorms, but once those cleared, it was back out the door, playing under the sprinkler on hot days, and building snow forts in winter. We were, for the most part, unsupervised. As long as we were on the street, everything was fine. In my house with three more siblings, we had to tell our mother if we were going to the park a couple blocks away, or to the store, or off into the woods. She kept tabs on us, as did most parents on our street. And when it was dinnertime, our mothers, up and down the street, stood on the back steps calling out our names to come in for supper.
Of course there were dangers; they always exist—kids falling out of trees and breaking arms, kids coming down with life-threatening illnesses, kids who died, and much to our confusion, were never seen again, strangers who tried to entice us into their cars—we had it drilled into our heads from a young age what to do in an emergency, to report strangers who bothered us, to stick together walking to school and so on. But the truth was that none of us could control what happened in life, not then, or now. Most of us do our best to stay safe; to take care of our families and ourselves, but life happens regardless, for good or ill. This is what experience teaches us.
Back then, we lived with the magic of play and exploration; lying under a backyard tree reading books, one after the other and then walking the mile to the library to borrow more books. We played marathon games of monopoly and sandlot baseball, or red rover. Those three streets produced a major league baseball pitcher, a minor league owner, a minor league player, and a GM for the Red Sox—that Boston heartbreak team—all because we spent long afternoons into the evening hours, playing in that field of backyards.
We got into trouble, wandering out of bounds; there were tiffs and hurt feelings, shining moments of defending the underdog, bruises, cuts, confusion, and getting a slice of wonder bread with butter and sugar from Mrs. Reardon—something my mother would never allow—we played and ate the forbidden, while my unsuspecting mother made bread and pies and relishes, and did the laundry.
The worst that could happen to a kid on our street often happened at home. There were alcoholic and drug-addicted parents, and kids who were beaten, or sexually abused by an uncle, a parent, a family friend—those scenarios have not changed. Children are often more at risk in their own homes than running outside, unsupervised, across a field playing dodge ball—just as it was for us in all those cookie box houses.
We were practicing for life without supervision.
But somewhere in the 1990s this style of childhood began to change. Parents became much more hands-on, determined to prevent those broken arms while roller skating, to supervise wintertime sledding parties, to organize play dates for their children with pre-approved families of similar socio-economic and political views—in short, the right way to do things. This is still the accepted way to raise children in 2017. To defy this new norm is to risk interventions with significant consequences.
Currently, there is a sense of outrage and criminality when children are allowed to play in their own backyards without adult supervision; a mother in Virginia faced ongoing police interrogations for just this offense. A family in Maryland has faced charges for allowing their children to walk to a park two blocks from their home. A woman in Houston was arrested for child endangerment for allowing her children to ride scooters at the end of their cul-de-sac street.
Parents, law enforcement, and educators have become more and more intrusive, not allowing children to get dirty, play in a sandbox, or climb trees, all the while as diagnoses for ADHD and other behavioral disorders in children are on the rise, along with the drugs used to treat these children.
There are lifelong trade-offs for the price of parental peace of mind. Kids who are not allowed to make small decisions on their own, to create games and rules, to negotiate, to see the world through their own eyes, do not learn how to problem solve, how to think creatively, or navigate through the world on their own steam. They only know how to do what they are told to do, and often cannot handle the slings and arrows of adult life.
Sadly, classrooms reinforce much of this. Teachers lament that they are forced to teach to national standardized tests, and although they recognize the travesty of this, far more often than not, their hands are tied. Children are expected to learn a curriculum designed on the theory that one size fits all. They are expected to follow guidelines that brook no nonsense. I don’t know about you, but I have yet to meet a child who is not delighted by nonsense . . . But these cookie box children have replaced the cookie box houses—so who would wonder that these kids come out of this system as rigid adults who lack compassion and creativity? Of course, not all children are so negatively impacted, but the risk is certainly higher.
Yes, this is a dangerous world. Guns, violence and the like are all around us, but somehow parents have to find creative ways to both protect their children and allow them the freedom to explore and discover.
But aren’t we the parents? Can’t we figure out a way through the middle of this? What about block parties where everyone is together and there are baseballs and bats, books piled on tables, badminton nets and rackets, bicycles and scooters available, while parents sit back on their hands and stop directing, maneuvering, critiquing . . . and simply allow their kids to play all on their own. Slowly and wisely, the umbilical chord is cut . . .
I am reminded of Kahlil Gibran’s beautiful prose on children . . .
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.