Bring Back Free-Range Childhood Of The Past
April 04, 2018
I enjoy what I suspect is a rare privilege in today's world. I can return to the street where I grew up, and find it almost unchanged more than half a century later.
The street is Oakwood Avenue in Webster Groves. The houses I knew as a kid, which were old even then, are still standing and lovingly maintained. The tall trees still cast their shade over the broad lawns. The gothic tower of Eden Seminary looms in the distance.
There is one difference, though. Walking or biking around, I'm alone. The front yards and sidewalks are empty, and only an occasional car passes in the street.
Back in the day, there were kids everywhere, and I was one of them. Throughout grade school, I walked to school, first Holy Redeemer, then Avery. Outside of school hours, the kids of the neighborhood roamed freely through back and front yards, playing games we improvised ourselves. Or my friends and I would hop on our bikes and go to Lockwood Avenue (which is now signposted as Old Webster, a Historic Neighborhood) to pester the men at the fire station or shop for model kits. We walked to Old Orchard to buy comic books at the drug store, to the creek to hop from stone to stone, to the railroad tracks to leave a penny to be flattened by a passing train.
Where were my parents during all this? Busy doing grownup stuff. Provided my chores got done (my favorite was burning the trash in the back yard) and I returned home in time for dinner, I was safe from reprimand.
But don't get the idea that my mom and dad were laid back. They were vigilant parents. Mom, for instance, insisted that I eat only food she had cooked. I recall that when I snuck over to a shop near school and bought a little pack of an irresistible candy called Sweet Tarts, I felt profound guilt. I wouldn't have dreamed of going to McDonald's on my own.
These were the happiest days of my life until retirement, so it makes me sad to think of today's kids, stuck at home playing video games and waiting for their parents to drive them to the next scheduled activity.
Those streets of Webster, which to me still look like my childhood paradise, have become, in the eyes of parents, a zone of danger where children must not venture alone. What happened?
Michael Chabon, in a famous essay called "The Wilderness of Childhood," wrote that "the primary reason for this curtailing of adventure, this closing off of Wilderness, is the increased anxiety we all feel over the abduction of children by strangers."
But strangers abducted children even in my day. I was 6 when Bobby Greenlease was kidnapped. The criminals murdered him and fled to St. Louis, where they were caught. It was one of the most notorious crimes of the decade, but it didn't move my parents or my friends' parents to keep us home. I didn't even hear of it until I grew up.
I've heard various explanations for the increase in parental worry. The media are more pervasive and coverage of crime is more sensational. People don't know their neighbors as well, or moms aren't at home. (I am skeptical about the last one, because my mom worked. Yes, I was a "latch-key child" who returned to an empty home. In fact, I loved having the house to myself.)
Maybe the real reason is that the world just feels more dangerous. Pundits called the '50s The Age of Anxiety, but of course we didn't know the meaning of the word until The Age of Trump. In the '50s we were scared of the Soviets and Red Chinese; now we're scared of each other.
Still, the realization is spreading that the sequestration of children has gone too far. Chabon lamented that the playgrounds of his youth and mine, "the sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of … jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults."
An ingenious statistician crunched the numbers and concluded that a child who is driven to school is more likely to die of diseases associated with obesity than a child who walks to school is of crime or accident.
But childhood imprisonment has become standard procedure, and parents are afraid that if they don't go along, they'll be criticized or even arrested.
Fortunately, help is at hand. Utah has just passed a "free-range parenting" bill. It says the cops won't come after parents who let their kids "walk, run or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended."
That's what I spent my childhood doing, and guess what? I've lived to a ripe old age.