Remembering the days when kids ran wild

As the calendar turned from ‘09 to ‘10, I spent New Year’s Eve as I usually do these days. I attended a party of families with small children. Typically, we celebrate the coming of the New Year on east-coast time. The kids blow their horns and we drink our champagne at 9 p.m., which allows us to get the kids home and in bed by ten o’clock.

That evening I had a conversation I’ve had several times before, with parents my age, in which we wonder why our parents worried about us so much less than we do about our kids. We all say the same thing. When we were young, but old enough to cross the street by ourselves, our parents would send us out the front door and say, “Go play.” We’d wander the neighborhood. We’d ride our bikes to friends’ houses that were a dozen blocks away. We’d play in fields and canyons and hang out at the park.

Today, by contrast, parents are afraid to let their kids out of their sight. Children don’t walk or ride their bikes to school. Even kids who catch the school bus are accompanied to the bus stop by a mom or dad. I had a part-time job as a school bus driver in Minneapolis twenty-five years ago. Even then, elementary school children found their own way to the bus stop.

What turned us into a nation of hovering parents? It’s tempting to look for simplistic explanations but reality is rarely simple. One contributing factor must be the sensational coverage of child abduction and child sex-abuse cases in the media.

In San Diego the trial of David Westerfield, convicted of kidnapping and murdering a seven-year-old neighbor, truly made me fear for the safety of my son. This is despite the fact that abduction of kids by strangers is so rare it’s outrageous to let it govern our parenting styles. Parents today act as if they know there’s a child molester, living on their block, who sits at his front window just waiting for the first unprotected kid to wander by so he can lure him/her into his lair.

Another factor is the modern tendency to program a kid’s day. Middle class and high-income parents seem to believe their kids just won’t turn out right unless they spend most of their time doing “constructive” activities – activities that are planned and supervised. This means lots of driving kids around town to soccer practice and music lessons. It also means a lot less time that kids spend wandering around, playing their own games and discovering their own adventures.

Was there a third factor? I’m sure there’s that and more. We have smaller families today. It was impossible to keep close track of every kid back when people had seven or eight. The point is that family life in urban/suburban America has changed dramatically, and it’s up to all of us to decide if it’s for the better or the worse.

Fearing for our kids is natural. But when does it become an obsession that robs children of the skills they need to learn independence and become adults? I wish all parents, including myself, the wisdom to figure that out.

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One Comment on “Remembering the days when kids ran wild”

  1. Jim Fudge Says:

    Tom, Afraid the good-old-days are gone forever, perhaps due to larger populations, more coverage of child molestation, and a greater fear of deviants out there amongst street people in general. Of course I can remember my childhood from the depression years when children were allowed to run freely and without parental concern. Some close calls but most of us survived. Now parents and grandparents line up in cars to whisk elementary students either back home or to after-school activities. The die is cast.


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