Parentless Playtime

bigwheelsOur 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 Caveindian 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 frog eggsthe 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 learnedstand by me 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.

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5 Comments on “Parentless Playtime”

  1. cherperz Says:

    I agree that over the last 60 or so years, the level of comfort in letting children play unattended has gone from “no fear” to “on guard”. As, I have mentioned in one prior comment, I have the unique experience because in 1959, I was kidnapped. When I later did research for a book, I thought I was going to write, I only found one other reported kidnapping that year…or at least one that had multiple states involved.

    I also, talked to the investigators and judges in my case and asked what the environment of safety was for children in 1959. The old detective had a lot to say. Far more than I can relay in your comment section.

    My point is that while it was rare, it did start happening more and more frequently and the laws changed with it. I was kidnapped out of AZ but the minute my abductor took me into New Mexico, it wasn’t AZ problem any more. That, of course, isn’t the case now.

    As far as leaving children unattended…I was pretty consistent to not let my own children very far out of my sight but we did live in neighborhoods where our children played and the moms had coffee cliches that looked on.

    With my grandkids, those little guys will never get out of my site. Their parents are more comfortable giving them a little leeway but they also live in a neighborhood where everyone knows them. It’s not that I don’t believe they are safe or that something terrible will happen but I don’t think the world is as safe as it once was.

    • oldereyes Says:

      I really value your opinion on this because you have experience that is different than mine. As is often the case, my posts aren’t so much commentaries for change but reflections on how things have changed, and if the world has gotten more dangerous, our children have paid a price in terms of how much independence we can give them. I, too, have had the experience of having my grandkids get momentarily out of sight and felt that instant of panic. And although I and my friends encountered potential sexual predators in the woods and ran away laughing, I don’t recommend sending kids into such situations. But the way I was raised served me well, at least in those days.

  2. territerri Says:

    Times have changed, for sure. I think I grew up in a sort of transitional generation. Most kids enjoyed untethered freedom when I was growing up. My siblings and I did too, for the most part. But my parents were a little more strict than most. We had to work hard to get them to agree to let us play ditch in the neighborhood after dark with all the neighbor kids. The kids who came along a few years after me were the ones who had all kinds of structured playtime and constant supervision. I guess the scary tragedies we occasionally heard about on the news made a huge impact on parents.

    • oldereyes Says:

      Unfortunately, as Cheryl says, some of the increased danger is real and we probably can;t go back even if we wanted to. But I’m glad I was raised when … and the way … I was.

  3. Fred Bova Says:

    I also played at Pollywogs Pond, and did a lot of the things you mentioned at around the same time. I’m 63 now, and I lived near “The Castle”, and we played in those woods and built our forts and bows and arrows from the local little trees. Thanks for the memories.

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