Betty Duffy

Monday, June 6, 2011

Speaking of Nostalgia...


I tend to think that as recently (?) as thirty years ago, the golden era of young children wandering willy-nilly around the neighborhood in continuous, outdoor, unstructured playtime was already gone. Or maybe it was just gone for me. Maybe the chemistry was off among the children in our neighborhood. Or maybe I was an annoying child who couldn't keep friends.

I don't know what my brothers were doing in those days--one was enough younger on one side and the other, enough older on the other, so as to have little to do with me. And my sister was reading, all day, every day, which I'm sure my parents deemed worthy and quiet enough to allow in superfluity (actually, any of the three of them might have been out enjoying nature, just not in my memory).

There were grace periods when friends were brought in from other neighborhoods, or when we went to visit other families. Then we played hide and seek in the dark, and kick the can, while the parents did whatever it was that parents did. Also, when my boundaries expanded with age and experience, new outdoor opportunities opened up. My pre-teen years were full of adventure with my favored friends, as we could bike several miles to one another's houses, or meet up at a local park. And on vacation, I was allowed to go by myself into the woods, and sit with my journal and write stories of alienation, which was heavenly.

Occasionally, my mom would get together with her girlfriends and all the children would be thrown into a hazy wasteland of benevolent neglect. I was eleven when I started babysitting, so my parents also probably assumed that I was old enough to be left alone for short periods of time. But I was not old enough, at eleven, to drive a car, which is exactly what my cousin and I started doing when our moms went to play racquetball.

The moms pulled out of the driveway in one station wagon, and not ten minutes later, my cousin and I pulled out of the driveway in another to drive to Osco, and buy bulk candy, which her ex-babysitter, an Osco cashier, sold to us with a wink for a penny a pound.

Our little interlude of underage driving lasted for some time, until I tried it once by myself in my own driveway and backed into a tree, then pulled forward into the foundation of the garage. I managed to center the car in the driveway and vacate the scene of the accident, which caused a major row between my parents when Dad thought that Mom had wrecked the car and didn't tell him about it. I was eventually found out, and disciplined.

In any case, driving with my cousin was one of my most enlightening and enlarging adventures in unstructured playtime. And I believe the success of that experience in my memory was one hundred percent related to putting ourselves in danger.

Kids love danger. Tottering on the edge of death, facing our mortality, we feel more alive than any other time. Hence people pay lots of money to jump out of airplanes, and off bridges, and to ride roller coasters. My kids don't want to play in a shed, they want to play ON the shed. They don't want to hop placidly on a trampoline, they want to pull the sucker under a tree, and jump from high branches onto a super-elastic springboard. While I do think there's such a thing as a more naturally cautious child, I'm not directly related to any.

I want to say that kids just need clear limits and boundaries for their protection, which is true, but anytime you outlaw death in their activities, they give them up completely. Or shall we say, kids tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. No threat of death on the swing? No, thank you.

Nor can a parent outlaw death in nature itself. It's beautiful and wonderful, but death is always close by in nature: coyotes frozen cold in a corn field, mosquitos slapped on one's arm, cows, pigs, chickens and goats led to slaughter, roadkill, food chains, and a rhino beetle stuck on the round backside of its exoskeleton, flailing its legs on the pavement.

to be continued (again)


Kimberlie said...

I have a very distinct memory of sledding down an elderly neighbor's garage roof. It was one of those garages built on a slope so you could easily climb up the one side, then take a wild ride down the other. Kids + danger = fun.

See, now, about the 30 years ago thing, I am nearly 47, though I only admit to being 35. So, I am a good deal older than you. I think that what happened between my childhood and yours was that more moms went to work which meant fewer kids roaming around outside on a day-to-day basis. Plus, my mom never thought anything of us taking off on our bikes at 10, 7, and 4 (I was the oldest). Heck, I hated riding the bus after school so my mom and two other moms let me and my two friends walk home from school (about 2 miles) and we were 8 yrs old!

I think the 24 hr news cycle has made us all paranoid. I tell myself that I would never let my kids do what my mom let me do, and yet then I get frustrated and think "why not?" Well duh, it's because we worry about what others will think of us and will they be calling DHS is we let our kids jump from a tree branch on to a trampoline (or sled off garage roofs).

Keep the nostalgia coming. I am enjoying the trip down memory lane.

BettyDuffy said...

Actually, you called it. Part three deals with that twenty-four hour news cycle.

I also think you're right about more moms going back to work. But I'm a little hazy on how that affected me. My mom went back, and I remember spending time alone. But still being outside.

Emily J. said...

You do me wrong! Although I admit I spent most of my after school hours in the blue chair reading (and was chastised for it because I didn't do my part of the dishes), my summer memories involve being off riding bikes between cemetaries and creeks and Frosty Boy with the kids who lived over by KB. My memory may be faulty, but I recall you and your friends preferring Barbie to bikes. No shame in that, eh? Love, your sister

liz said...

Okay, I'm nearing 50 and remember walking, alone, to kindergarten.

Compare that to the news I just heard that,in our town, little kids are no longer allowed to run out into the street to retrieve the candy thrown during parades.

Somewhere the idea took hold that we can eliminate danger if we're just very careful. I agree that the 24-hour news cycle is part of this, but I also think it stems from a litigating culture that says all tragedy and mishap is the result of someone's negligence.

Life happens and it isn't always pretty.

BettyDuffy said...

Emily--I actually edited that paragraph to allow that my memory is always biased towards my agony--but if you were at KBs no wonder I didn't see you frolicking, though I do remember you hiding in the woods all day to make some sort of statement towards getting a pet goose.

I did prefer Barbies to bikes. Heh, and trying to hijack your friends to play them with me--probably why you were avoiding me

JMB said...

My mom used to lock us outside when the baby was napping and my brother would torture us until we couldn't take it anymore. Then we would beg her to let us in and when she did she wouldn't let us make any noise. My childhood was lonely, despite being part of a large family. We lived in a 60s style neighborhood with no sidewalks. Nobody hung out on our street. I actually loved going to school so I could be with other girls.

It's funny because me and my sisters have chosen to raise our families in older suburbs, with sidewalks and neighborhood schools. I think it's a direct result of growing up carless in a surburb where you needed a car to do anything. My children's lives are far more social than ours were. They walk to school, walk into town, ride their bikes all over the place. There are dozens of children that live on our street to play with. I love it too. I don't have to micro manage their social lives.

Erin said...

LOL This just gets better as it goes...

mrsdarwin said...

My children, too, prefer to play ON the garage rather than IN it, and I might even allow it if I knew how strong the roof was. Still, I hate to have to explain it to CPS or the ER nurses, so I kick them off like a meanie.

Actually, a lot of my protective measures are inspired not so much by worry about the child's safety as by the difficulty of having to explain to CPS if something went wrong.

berenike said...

Dunno. I hated any stuff where I wasn't in control of the danger, as it were. I did spend whole days outside, usually on my own, often till late at night, on the beach, in the woods, in the fields. And thirty years ago I was still a toddler :) But then, different continent.