Not too long ago, my junior-high-school friend Monroe and I were comparing the raising of today's kids to our experiences as children and teens. We decided that we felt sorry for kids today. Their lives are constrained by insurance concerns, safety mandates, and above all, the new phenomenon of "helicopter"parents. They are so confined, protected, regulated, organized, merchandised, medicalized, and supervised that what we knew as childhood has pretty much disappeared.
Back in the 1940's and 1950's, my friends and I were allowed to be free in ways that today would elicit social condemnation from neighbors, and possibly the attention of social agencies or even the police.
In this and following articles, I want to explore where the balance point is between permanent panic and negligent parenting. Are the dangers that are marketed to us by the media, product developers, politicians, regulators, and the medical industry that real? Is life more dangerous today than it was for us? What was the real benefit, if any, of the freedom we had? Are we better in some way than today's kids?
A few years ago, after what she felt was adequate preparation, Lenore Skenazy let her 9-year-old child ride the subway home all by himself. The criticism she received when she told people about this incident moved her to turn the argument about how much control and intervention is appropriate in children's lives into a national movement. I just started following her at FreeRangeKids on Twitter.
This has gotten me thinking about the freedom to take chances and learn from experience that I and the people I grew up with have enjoyed all our lives. I remember the chances we took, the defeats and the triumphs, the lessons never forgotten, and all the fun things we got to do that we could value as entirely our own.
By the age of 4, I was playing with friends out on the sidewalk in front of our South Bronx apartment building, or at the playground across the street. My mother joined the other mothers for a chat nearby. If someone fell and skinned a knee, a parent would go into action, but we seemed to stay out of harms way on our own, for the most part.
At age 6, I started learning to ride a two-wheel bicycle. After a little help from my Dad, I was on my own, along with all the six and seven year olds, to gain skill on my own.
No Balance Bikes in those days! I could barely reach the pedals on my old hand-me-down bike, so getting on the bike meant standing on a step, swinging my leg over, and getting up to speed before I fell over. The goal was to learn to put one foot on the pedal, swing the other leg over, and start pedaling. Just like mounting a horse.
This is not an easy way to learn, but we all learned this way, so we accepted the falls, scrapes, and moderate blood loss as part of the package, sometimes cheerfully, sometimes not. Oh, yeah - the surface was concrete. Pavement. Did I mention that helmets were not yet even a gleam in a politician's, regulator's, crusading pediatrician's, or product marketer's eye?
And yet I do not recall one instance of a noteable injury. We were a more or less close group of about fifteen kids, so we would certainly have heard about it. Our parents chatted amongst acquaintainces in an even wider circle, and we would have heard it from them. How did we get so skilled in keeping ourselves basically intact?
I remember playing "cowboy" in our living room at age three. The game consisted of climbing on the piano bench and diving face-first onto the floor. I think there was one or two friends playing with me. We did it until my Dad got tired of the noise, or wanted to play his piano, or something. But we learned how to fall. One of my bed-time sports at age 7 was diving off my dresser onto my bed. As I got bigger, I went farther, until one day I partly missed the bed. I learned, not just in my mind, but in my limbs and reflexes, the lesson of calculating distances before committing to such a move. I was learning how to fall.
By age seven, we were riding our bikes on the sidewalk around our large city block. Parents were now free to stay upstairs and do their own thing. We were told not to ride across the street, and we didn't. We were crossing the street on foot on our own. By age eight, my friends and I sometimes walked home from school through the city streets, instead of taking the bus. We lived two blocks from the Yankee Stadium, so during the World Series (it seemed the Yankees were always contending), the buses couldn't get through the traffic anyway. I remember crossing an intersection by climbing over the bumpers of the jammed automobiles.
By the time I was eight, my time between school and dinner was all my own. I would check in (or not), and play until dinner. Sometimes we would invite each other for dinner, occasionally, for an impromptu sleep-over. We did not have all that much homework. We learned in class.
My Dad had an old car, but we went into Manhattan by subway. The Lexington Avenue line went underground right in front of our building, and we walked to the station just two blocks away. I started taking music lessons at Settlement School in Manhattan at age eight. After taking me each weekend for about a month, my parents let me take the trip myself on nice days. It was no big deal; the train went right to the school.
At age eight, I went to a summer camp where we learned "tumbling". This was mostly diving face-first onto mattresses, doing a tuck-and-roll, and ending up on our feet. We worked our way up to diving over several other kids.
This was quite some camp! It was my first time away from home. We stayed eight weeks, with two parental visits. This was the only time I ever saw a kid cry on the bus back home because he did not want to leave.
We lived in bare wooden cabins, without electricity or running water. The one (cold) shower was behind the mess hall. The counselors slept in their own cabins in the center of each clearing, and the kids slept in their own cabins. I remember the counselors as wise and mature. When we got in a little trouble, the counselor explained why our behavior was bad, we listened, and never did such a thing again. There were few incidents. We were too busy doing interesting things. Each unit had some real responsibility to the camp. The eight-year-olds planted gardens, and were expected to provide the kitchen with fresh veggies.
The next year, I was nine. Our unit was supposed to build campsites for overnights. We learned campcraft skills, like cutting firewood, building a campfire, digging a latrine, and building a more or less weather resistant lean-to from the branches of small trees, and catching and cooking our own fish from the stream. We learned safe handling of pocket knives and hatchets. On our big adventure, we were driven to a stream, and the staff left us to prepare the site so we could stay until the next day. We built a shelter, dug a latrine, and went swimming and caught a few fish. I don't recall seeing an adult all day. The staff joined us for dinner with some additional food, tucked us into the cowboy-style bedrolls we had made from our blankets, and left. A perfect day, until we woke in the dark to a torrential downpour and the counselors arriving in cars to take us back to our bunks. They had never been far away.
On our own, with no adult suggesting or coaching, we played cards, mumbledy peg (look it up!), explored the woods, and made belts for our cap guns out of bark we cut from downed trees with our pocket knives. I remembered learning that I could see in the dark. I had to walk to the messhall from our cabin at night, with no flashlight. I discovered that the path through the trees gave off a faint glow. It was a little scary, but just at first.
We kids had a lot of unstructured free time at this camp. We interacted, and we learned from each other. It seemed natural; it was no different, socially, from our lives back in the city
I remember walking through Central Park with my Dad that fall. I had just learned how to whittle, so the piece of glass (sharp tool) and chunk of plastic (raw material) I found on the ground seemed just right for an artistic project. Of course, I cut a finger. Pretty deep, too. My Dad just shook his head, chuckled, and said it seemed like a pretty stupid thing to do. He wasn't that upset, and, taking my cue from him, I don't recall being that upset, either. We walked to a nearby hospital, and I got a few stitches and a tetanus shot. Later, he explained why carving plastic with glass would not work: material too hard, tool too dull, no safe way to hold either one. That year, I started building wooden model airplanes with real tools.
We moved to Philadelphia when I was ten. By then, I was accustomed to getting around almost anywhere on my own. We lived on a tree-lined street of single houses, and there was much less traffic. We played punch-ball and "tennis" in the street, and moved out of the way when someone yelled "car". I was soon going on long urban bike rides with my friends.
You may ask: How did we all turn out? Did we all survive? Did the lack of homework in elementary school condemn us to a life of menial labor and poverty? Well, we children of first-generation lower-middle-class professionals all went to college and graduate school, got the best grades in school, and led successful, more or less well adjusted lives. Did we acquire a lethal taste for risk, impairing our health and shortening our lives? All I can say is that as long as I kept in touch with any of the friends of my youth, I never heard that one was in legal trouble, suffering the effects of a misspent life, crippled, or prematurely deceased. We got into trouble, we got out of trouble, we learned, we were better for it. We had good parents who taught us without controlling us, or trying to live our lives for us.
We kids were allowed to develop a parallel culture of childhood, with its hierarchies of age and recognized abilities. There were would-be tyrants, but in our healthy child-society, they were quickly pushed to the fringes, perhaps to torment those unfortunate children with less tolerant parents, who had not provided the gifts of meaured freedom that we had enjoyed. It was largely this culture that protected us from adults who may have had bad intentions (although this was always and still is much rarer than it is currently fashionable to believe). We approached life as a group that had learned from parents, older children, and experience who was good company and who was not. We were able to interact with adults in beneficial ways that often seem out of reach, or prohibited, for today's kids.
Throughout my childhood and teen years, I was exposed to risk that increased in a measured fashion as I learned to deal with unstructured or novel experiences. These experiences were mostly fun, sometimes unsettling, and often required confronting a challenge that at first seemed beyond my ability.
The rewards I got to keep all my life have been substantial: I learned patience, perseverance, and endurance in achieving a goal. I learned to tell the difference between a transient discomfort and pain that signals real damage, between a little blood and an injury needing immediate repair. I learned that it is good to venture into unkown territory, and that it is acceptable to fail. I learned how to fall, and how to deal with an injury when there is no help around. I learned, above all, that people, as all animals, are constructed to interact with and adapt to their environment, beginning in infancy, with parental help that must diminish with the child's growing up, in a manner that reflects a parent's own wisdom, acquired in the same organic way.
A child needs to be allowed to make his or her own mistakes, learn their own lessons, and cope with their own challenges, with close, attentive, and intelligent parental guidance that grows less close with the demonstration that the lessons have been learned. I would not send a child to the kind of summer camp described here if that child had never broken the fish bowl, jumped off the dresser, fallen off a bicycle onto concrete, gotten lost (and found) at the zoo, walked to school on city streets, and spent a childhood sorting things out with friends without adults butting in.