Our neighborhood here in California is about twenty years old. It is a mature neighborhood … there are no small children to be seen. When we moved in ten years go, there were a few kids but by now, they are teenagers with cars of their own. But I get around. And something I’ve noticed lately is that I rarely see children without their parents. Even at soccer practice, when there are coaches to watch the kids and Mom could be off running errands, she’s sitting on the sidelines watching. I remember thirty years ago, when our kids were kids, we lived in a neighborhood with many children. It was a common sight to see big wheels racing up and down the sidewalks or kids kicking the soccer ball against the garage door. Sure, Mom would occasionally look out to make sure everything was OK … and would be there in an instant at the sound of crying … but the kids had some space to learn life lessons through experience.
In my neighborhood in East Haven, CT 50 years ago had many children, mostly boys, enough to pull together two baseball teams for a game in the hayfield behind our house or to play a game of Indians in the woods on a moment’s notice. In our neighborhood, no one wanted to be a cowboy. We made our bows and arrows ourselves and they were a lot more fun than toy guns. We would assemble after breakfast in our unfenced yards and disappear until lunch time. It was a good bet we were either in the hayfield or in the several miles of woods that bordered the hayfield. We named places in the woods so we’d know where to meet. There was the Arrow Patch, where plants with long straight stems provided our Indians with arrows. There was Deadman’s Cliff, a sheer sandstone precipice at least 10 feet high. Indian Cave wasn’t really a cave but a pile of boulders providing a large main room and plenty of passageways, some so small that we’d occasionally get stuck and need our friends to help us out. Pollywog Pond was a perpetual puddle where bullfrogs croaked and laid their eggs in the spring, providing free science lessons on the miracle of life. More than one naval battle was fought on Pollywog Pond using the models we’d painstakingly built from the previous year’s Christmas presents. A can of Dad’s lighter fluid and some matches provided the pyrotechnics. On the other side of the woods were The Train Tracks, where we’d put pennies on the track to see them flattened by the next train or throw rocks at the boxcars as they emerged from the tunnel. Once, on a dare, we tried to make it through the tunnel but had to duck into a small indentation in the tunnel wall when a train came.
We were completely unsupervised. Yet there were no casualties and few injuries … yeah, some poison ivy, bruises, and once, a fish hook in a cheek … but nothing major. There weren’t any kidnappings either, although more than once, we encountered strange men who asked odd questions about our bodies and we’d run like the wind, laughing hysterically in shared fright. I learned lessons in those days that aren’t in books and have never come from the lips of parents. It was the best of times that made the film, Stand By Me, such a success. Looking around, it’s hard to imagine children were raised this way and I sometimes wonder how much has changed because the world’s become a more dangerous place and how much because parents have become more fearful. And I wonder sometimes if the price of the perceived safety of our world of helicopter parents is young men and women who have never experienced independence prior to their adolescence. I find it interesting that although we had much more independence than modern teens, we’d never imagine trashing our parents’ house with a party when they were away. Could that have been because we’d had a chance to experience independence before the hormones began to flow? Or was it because back then, our Dads would have kicked our collective asses? Some of each, I’d guess.