Apparently 68 percent of Americans think it should be illegal to let children younger than age 9 play outside without an adult constantly present. It’s a good thing my childhood wasn’t a democracy, because those people would have ruined it.
I’m one of seven children. I had a rocking good childhood: A passel of ponies, a creek nearby, acres of fields and woods to explore, a library with unlimited checkouts, parents willing to drive me halfway across the country to argue with a bunch of other teenagers (aka debate tournaments), homemade bread every week, American Girl dolls (those things are a hot mess ever since Mattel got involved, eh? So sad), too many pillow fights to count, rollerskating in the cement-floored basement to our old record player—and, from ages zero to eleven, a giant potato field behind our house that made for hours of excellent mudpies.
Save the debate thing, I don’t really remember my parents around for much of these childhood adventures. Not that they neglected us. They were fastidious about our behavior and academics. It was just that we had a lot better time when they weren’t around, which was a pretty regular thing, considering the seven kids and a farm to run and all. Usually, when mom or dad showed up, it meant we were about to get punished or assigned a new chore.
Disclaimer for My Mom
Now, that’s the sort of line that will make my mom cry if she sees it, so I have to include a disclaimer: I’m sure you were there all the time, mom. I know you read me stacks of books. And kid minds don’t keep things in perspective. When you made us weed the garden, we used to pretend you were our evil slave master, and we plotted our escape fantasy as we pulled out the dandelions. But I actually think it’s a compliment to say my parents largely functioned as the walls and ceiling in my life, as the underlying, little-noticed structure that made it all work. Inside that structure, we were mostly free. And we liked it. My childhood was so great my husband and I are deliberately trying to recreate it for our kids.
That’s why we let our two- and four-year-old play outside together, unattended—besides, I got shit to do. I ain’t sitting outside for two hours watching tiny kids argue with each other over teddy bears. I check on the weenie ones every few minutes, but the neighbors don’t see me peeking out the window. That’s why they make those comments about, “Oh, yeah, your little ones like to ride their bikes up the sidewalk, and I keep an eye on ‘em.” Me, too, Angie. And thanks. That’s what neighbors should do instead of calling the cops like an ignoramus.
My mom remembers the days when, in suburban Detroit in the ’50s and ’60s, all the parents would tell their kids to get outside after their after-school snack, and to not come home until dinner. They played stickball in the street, and everyone knew who everyone else’s kids were, and everyone kept an eye on the tribe’s small ones when they did their own check-ups out the front windows. Nobody was ever kidnapped or raped then, and crazy stuff like that is even less likely to happen today. Kids are far more likely to get maimed or killed in a car accident than to get hurt playing outside by themselves, yet parents insist on bundling them up for ever-more-insane series of arranged activities they reach by car. Statistically speaking, parents should be doing the opposite if they’re concerned about damage to their kids.
Because This Is an Online Article, Here’s A List
But I think parents are more concerned about damage to their egos than the potential damage to their kids. We pretend to ourselves that we do this for the kids, but if we just took a look at their faces we’d know better. Children need guidance, of course, but they also need freedom. They need personal space, just like everyone else. Some need more than others. Parenting consists of guiding a child into self-governing adulthood, not in grafting into ourselves another unnatural, permanent appendage.
I have a few theories about why parents nowadays hover about their children like hornets. This is not an exhaustive list—my kids and I are too young for wizened epic-spinning. First, the obvious one: People have fewer kids, and farther apart. I have no idea how my mother lived through seven children in fourteen years. I have just three, and I’m maxed out. When you have seven children, there’s no way in hades you’re watching them play all day long. Those kids have to eat and periodically receive cleaned clothes. And it would be nice if the house didn’t stay the pig sty they’re always making it. Little ones need nursing and napping. Small people have doctor’s appointments and—for all of my siblings—piano lessons every week. And then they all need to be disciplined and encouraged and checked up on. It’s simply not humanly possible to actually care for several children who are reasonably close in age while watching them all day. In such a scenario, watching the kids play outside is actually bad parenting, because it leaves all the other essential tasks undone.
Second, people think of kids as a sort of time-consuming, stressful hobby rather than a fact of life everyone learns how to deal with. Children are now a choice sexually active people can turn down rather than a natural accompaniment to a normal life. When kids are a hobby, something you opt into, a sort of zeal gets packaged in, because you have to constantly affirm to yourself (and everyone else) that you made the right decision. So people get even more defensive about their kids, and their kids’ existence, and they hop into the parenting arms race. This had better pay off, dad thinks as he speeds his sullen son off to yet another forced baseball practice. I’m giving up my golf game and two promotions for you, kid.
Third—and this may be the root of it all for me—maybe people just don’t have enough sons. I currently have two (and wouldn’t mind a few more). Those little balls of assertiveness simply cannot flourish cooped up inside. I will never forget the look on my eldest son’s face when spring melted away the ice this year. He puddle-stomped for nearly three hours, with an exquisite look of joy on his face. His attitude improved for an entire month. The man cub is never more absorbed than when digging holes in my neighbor’s yard with a stick. (Kidding, Bill! Our yard!) He can do that for nearly an hour.
We’re at my parents’ farm this week. My teen brother introduced my boy to Nerf guns. Take a look (yes, that is a headlamp).