I was having a conversation with another mom I don’t know too well when she said something that gave me pause. She was talking about this new family that had moved in on her street, and bemoaning that the parents let their kids “run wild” and that these new kids might be a bad influence on her own kids. Run wild? That sounded interesting. Were the kids committing acts of vandalism, bullying younger kids, terrorizing the neighborhood, running around naked with paintball guns? Nope. “Running wild” meant, to this woman, that these parents allowed their kids (all ages seven and older) to ride their bikes and scooters around the neighborhood, to play in their front yard, and — horror of horrors — to sometimes play outside wearing their pajamas and sneakers. For these transgressions, this woman was pondering calling CPS to report this family.
My mind was boggled.
I thought back to what my own childhood looked like. When I was around four or five, I was allowed to play outside alone in both my front and backyards. I was allowed to walk down the street to my friend Kelsey’s house, five houses away. By the time I was eight, the summer before third grade, we’d moved into the house my dad would live in until 2009, when a minor stroke necessitated my brother and I moving him out to Seattle where we could keep an eye on him. I was allowed to walk alone to my friend Sheila’s house, around the corner on the next block, and to pretty much roam around with friends.
Our neighborhood, with an elementary school within walking distance, was chock full of kids. During the school year, everyone walked or biked to school. On warm spring and summer nights, the sounds of children playing echoed up and down the streets, kids were out in the streets with bikes and balls and skates and skateboards, and I don’t think any adult would have thought twice about us making noise. We were kids, that’s what we did. It was perfectly acceptable to be loud, to yell and shout and run and bike and play tag, until dusk turned to dark and the last kid had been whistled home by a parent standing in a doorway. We all knew every kids’ parents’ distinct whistles or yells, and we could pick our own call to return to the nest out of the crowd. And when you heard the whistle that said you were being summoned home, you didn’t question, you didn’t argue, you just went. Because you knew that if you didn’t go home when called, the consequence would likely be a restriction on your freedom to roam, and it wasn’t worth being stuck inside listening to all the other kids playing and having fun.
All of us kids rode our bikes freely all over our the realm of our kid territory, which extended roughly half a mile in any direction, and no one wore a bike helmet or elbow and knee pads. Within those boundaries, we had pretty much free rein, and as we got older, the acceptable roaming perimeter extended accordingly. By the summer before seventh grade, if I was at home and not my grandmother’s, I would get up, make myself a sack lunch, and be out the door by 9AM. I’d walk alone a mile or so over to the place where we boarded my horse, spend a lot of alone time there hanging out, grooming my horse, riding alone, imagining things.
Later in the day, maybe I’d walk over to a friend’s house — we didn’t have cell phones so I couldn’t call or text to make sure my friend was there, I had to take my chances, and walk all the way there from the horse pasture. If my friend wasn’t there, at least her grandmother would be, and she’d offer me a cold drink. And if she wasn’t there for some reason, it was perfectly acceptable to help myself to a cold drink from the garden hose. There were countless lazy days when a whole pack of us would roam the neighborhood on horseback, stopping to eat mulberries right off the tree, sunbathing on horseback. We’d even go through the DQ drive-in on horseback. I had a lot of time and space to imagine and think and just be a kid. We all did. We had two things that kids today seem to be sorely lacking in: Time. And freedom.
I was thinking about another friend of mine from a few years back, an unschooling mom who had a firm philosophy around giving her kids a great deal of freedom. A group of us were at another friend’s house for some class, the kids were all playing out in the front yard, when one of the kids came in and said that this woman’s son was up in the tree. By “up in the tree” I mean that her son, who was maybe 9 or 10 at the time, was near the very top of a fir tree that stood nearly 100 feet tall, with no ropes or safety harness or anything.
We all went outside and there he was, cheerily perched on a fork near the top of the tree, smiling and waving. I would have been having a heart attack — actually, I probably was — but this mom smiled and waved, and called up, “You okay?” He nodded. “Alright, come back down whenever you’re done.” He made it down safely eventually, to the relief of the other adults. His mom just said that he climbs trees all the time and that he wants to be a forest ranger or mountain climber when he grows up. Probably he will be. Part of me envied her the ability to be so relaxed about her son being 90 or so feet up in the air of that tree, grinning confidently from ear-to-ear, and part of me, even now nearly five years later, feels a knot of fear thinking about that small boy, so high up in that tree with nothing between him and the hard ground if that branch he was perched on broke. But boy, did that kid have freedom, a freedom most kids, even my own, will never get to experience.
My kids have so much less freedom than I did at their age, and that makes me sad. I wish they had the freedom my brother and I had, the freedom they saw the kids in ET and Super 8 have, to just roam around on bikes and scooters with no adult hovering near. When did I get so old and stodgy? There’s a great park walking distance from our house, but my kids only go there if an adult goes with them; it’s surrounded by woods and walking trails and secluded areas where someone could lurk, and a search of the sex offender database for our neighborhood reveals, at any given time, 8-12 repeat sex offenders living within a couple-mile radius from my home in this very nice middle class suburban neighborhood. Probably there were as many sex offenders in my childhood neighborhood, only no one could look it up on the internet so no one thought too hard about it. So one of us goes with them, sits at a picnic table, keeps an eye from a distance while they run and play with whatever other neighborhood kids are out at the park, usually also with a parent nearby.
My 12YO walks to a friend’s house six blocks away, but he has to call me when he gets there and before he leaves to go home. He and his friend walk to the 7-11, but I make sure my son has his cell phone when he goes. My younger kids, especially when they have a pack of friends over, will play out front in our yard and the cul-de-sac, but certain of our neighbors give us looks like we’re being recalcitrant in allowing our kids to play out front instead of confining them to the back yard. The only time you really see kids out and about in our neighborhood is on the occasional snow day, when it’s acceptable to bring out your sled and take over the streets, or if they’re riding bikes safely on the sidewalk or the bike lane, wearing helmets and pads, accompanied by a parent. And it’s not just because we live in somewhat snooty Bellevue … I have free-spirited friends in Seattle who get crap from their neighbors over kids playing outside or riding bikes or skating in the streets. One friend who has a pack of kids had a neighbor actually call the City to report a building code violation over the club house her kids built in her backyard out of scrap lumber from a remodeling project and a tire swing on a tree. Maybe when he was a kid he didn’t have anyone to build a clubhouse with, or maybe in his middle age he’s forgotten the joys of kid-hood. Or maybe he’s just a jerk who doesn’t like kids, who knows?
I look back on my own childhood now, from the weighty perspective of parental responsibility, and my neurotic mind sees all the things that could have gone wrong, and some of the things that did. Yes, I could have been kidnapped, or murdered, or knocked myself unconscious falling off my horse while jumping a fence (okay, that I actually did), but I didn’t, and I lived through my childhood of what feels now like freedom of Pippi Longstockings proportions. Probably we kids pissed the grownup neighbors off from time to time, but they got over it and survived our youthful transgressions, too, and most of them are probably dead now anyhow, so in the end did it really matter if we rode our bikes across their lawn? Not really.
I try to balance giving my kids freedom to explore and learn with keeping them safe from harm. I compensate by making sure we’re not over-scheduled, by making sure they have plenty of time for spontaneous games and kid play. And I let them play out front in our cul-de-sac in spite of the neighbors, sometimes even in their pajamas and sneakers. Because they’re kids, and if there’s a time in your life when it should be okay to run outside and play a game of shadow tag in pajama bottoms and a-shirt, it’s when you’re a kid, right? Maybe next time, I’ll play too.