Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Go Play

When the leaves fall, I can see my son's school from my bedroom window. The walk takes about five minutes. Three if I hurry. I walk him there and pick him up every day. So do most other parents. It seems to be the custom.

There is a corner store a block away, a Dunkin' Donuts and a Del's Frozen Lemonade. He has friends who live in the neighborhood. He has a good bike that he rides well. There are parks and playgrounds and athletic fields all within walking distance.

So why don't we let him walk to them?

No, we arrange activities for him: soccer, swimming, choir, basketball. We drop him off at his friend's houses, or they get dropped off here. We know where he is and who he's with all the time. We're not alone. That seems to be how things are today. Everyone does it. It's all about safety now: car seats, helmets, afterschool activities and all the rest. So why does it bother me?

It doesn't seem right, somehow.


"Go play!" Most of us will remember those words, I think. "Turn off that TV! Go outside and play! And be back here for suppertime. Now get out."

And my folks didn't mean go out in the yard, either. They wanted you gone. Go play.

So I would walk down to a friend's house. Always to the back door, that was the custom. Children call at the back door. And I would knock or ring.

"Can Bob come out?"

Either he could or he couldn't. If he came out, we'd move on to another house. "Is Mike home?" "Can Tim come out?" "Hi, Mrs. Quinlan. Is Francis here?" Our little gang of urchins slowly grew.

No one asked where we were going. No one asked what we meant to do. We couldn't have answered anyway. We didn't know. We were going somewhere to do something. And we would all be back by suppertime.

Or else.

And so we wandered around, looking for trouble, and usually finding it. We'd go hang out at a playground, or at the corner store. We'd go down to one of the factories and play on the docks. Or down behind the factories, to the visibly polluted swamp we called The Muck. Maybe we'd cross over and watch for trains by the tracks. The freight trains were long ones then, very good for flattening pennies. In summer, under the railroad bridges was shady and cool, and there were plenty of empty bottles to break.

There was something strangely satisfying about whipping an empty beer bottle at a stone wall, hearing it pop and shatter.

We walked to school, alone or in impromptu groups. School was a half mile away. The crossing guards were never where we wanted them to be. We weren't too eager to get to school in the first place. We certainly wouldn't go out of our way to get there. We curb-danced. We crossed busy streets. We took our chances. We managed.

We learned about big kid-little kid. Run your mouth at the playground, you might find yourself dumped headfirst into a trash barrel. Ask me how I know that. We learned that keeping your mouth shut is often smart, that certain people should be given a wide berth, others avoided altogether.

Adults were among those to be avoided. We stayed as far away from supervision as possible. Get off school grounds as soon as the bell rings. Don't go straight home. On a bus, sit at the back. Swear a lot. If you don't get caught, you don't get punished. Freedom.

We were latchkey kids and we loved it, I did, anyway: that glorious time between school and supper when the house was mine. Raid the fridge. Turn up the radio as loud as you want. Or have some quiet. The silence of the empty house never bothered me. Not if quiet was what I was after. Those are some of my fondest memories. I know I can't be the only one.


We weren't neglected. We weren't unloved. Our parents did what they needed to do. They lived in their world; we lived in ours. Sometimes these worlds intersected. At least half of us were polished up and brought to one church or another on Sunday. And God help you if the school ever called home to report misbehavior, or if one of the neighbors ratted you out for some misdeed. I think we were all a bit afraid of our fathers.

We lived in a decaying factory town: the kind of place people from the tony suburbs think is very dangerous. It wasn't, especially. There was crime, of course. Every city has that. Still, it was more run-down than anything else. Most of us managed.

Most of us.

It was a different time then, but not the way people often mean that. When I was in first grade, one of my classmates was kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer. I'm not making that up. You don't forget something like that.

We didn't know that then, of course. He wasn't part of our little group. We didn't know him well. We knew who he was, though. We knew he had come to grief, and we knew he would not be coming back.

You don't forget something like that.

For a year or so after, I couldn't explore the woods, or go behind the factories or down by the railroad tracks without a bit of fear. I wasn't afraid of the killer, though. I had this nagging fear that the next time we stirred up a pile of leaves, or crawled through a drainage pipe, or went down to The Muck, we were going to find the body. I know I can't be the only one.

They found his body in a basement six years later.

Our parents gave us all the standard lecture: "If you're out somewhere and someone bothers you, if you don't feel right about it, you get the hell out of there. You just run like hell, ok? And don't you ever get into a car with someone you don't know. Ever. You understand?"

We understood.

And yet, what is remarkable is what our parents didn't do. They didn't forbid us to wander the city. They didn't keep us home in the yard. They didn't make us call home regularly. They hugged us. They told us how we were to handle ourselves. Then they sent us back out to play. Go play.

It was a different time back then.


The boy sat at the edge of the schoolyard, crying silently. He didn't seem hurt. He was far too old to cry in public without a very good reason. Two girls came over to console him. One put her arm around him and said something softly in his ear. A strange display in the swirl of running, laughing children waiting for the morning bell.

Then I noticed the balloon.

In her hand, she held a yellow balloon. On the balloon, the boy had written in black marker "Alexis - we will miss you." And I remembered that one of my son's classmates had been killed in a car crash that weekend. The car seat and belt had not saved her. The bell rang. The three children took their place in line: a line with one child less than the week before.


An email circulated in the community last year. It seemed there was a registered sex offender working at a local store. He had tried to get the name and address of a 5 year-old girl. Her mother had intervened, confiscated the credit card slip, and confirmed everything with the police.

The email passed from parent to parent. It was picked up and forwarded by teachers and principals. Within a few days, almost everyone had received it. There was just one problem.

None of it was true.

The following week, the police announced that the email was a hoax. They were investigating.


I walked my son to school this morning, as always. I'll be there at quarter to three to pick him up, as always. Maybe he'll do his homework and ride his bike on the sidewalk in front of the house after. I don't know why this bothers me, but it does. It doesn't seem right somehow. Why don't I just tell him to go play?

They say it's a different world today. Perhaps. Compared to where I grew up, my world is cleaner, safer, and nicer now. We have almost everything within walking distance. It's why we moved here. Yet we keep our children close, almost never out of our sight. Why? Are we trying to protect them? Or are we trying to protect ourselves?

Why don't I tell him to go play?

Respectfully Yours,



Hilary said...

A good question.

We know more than we did back then. Not necessarily better but more.

Television shows bombard us with incidents - true or feared and the Internet provides us with information such as how many pedophiles and other predators live within blocks of your home. We're taught with fear.

Most neighbours don't know each other as well as they used to so we no longer rely on the "It takes a village to raise a kid" philosophy.

And if our kids are home and underfoot, there are other distractions which we never had growing up. They can watch a movie, play a game on their Wii or Playstation. Or they can chat online (hopefully not with one of those neighbourhood predators).

Our fears greatly outweigh the risk but we're not willing to live with the consequences of that risk. We've been well trained.

Your kids are still pretty young though. It won't be too much longer that you'll send your older one off to school on his bike or walk the younger one home in the afternoon. You'll send him to the store to pick something up for you. You will for sure be telling him to "go play." Just not yet.

ds said...

Powerful stuff. Contemporary suburbia (I was not a suburban child; things were different then) is a mecca of overscheduling: kids go from music lessons, to sports, to tutors. Nobody tells them to "go play." Everyone is afraid, and the truly sad part is that that fear is not only for safety but also for status. Sixth graders are warned about the need to build their "resumes" for college.
You sign your child up for sports or art classes or band because that is where the other children are--and before you know it, their lives are spiraling out of control.

We aren't raising "children" any more. We are raising little adults.
My heart breaks for them.

Maria said...

Hilary's comment says it all. We know more than we did then. My kids certainly don't have the freedom I had back then. But I live in a different country than I did then. Where the dangers probably magnify in my eyes, expat that I am.

I look forward to a world where kids can 'go play' again.

Congratulations on the POTW nomination.

Brian Miller said...

oh man...it was a different world back then...i used to walk a mile to go to work cutting lawns...down a 4 lane highway...i was 12...i would cut through the woods for some....it is a sad loss...is it more dangerous these days...it sure seems it but i dunno...perhaps some that grew up in that freedom now take advantage of it fo evil...great thought provoking post...

Land of shimp said...

Cricket, the percentages on child abduction, etc. haven't really changed over time, we are just more aware of them now.

That said, whereas I understand the spirit of your post, and wish it was possible to say "Go play" it is a calculated risk. Now according to the percentages that risk is tiny, but when you're talking about your kids? Yeah. I can mourn the loss of that sense of freedom, and roll my eyes as I watch a four year old wheel by on a tricycle, parent five steps behind, helmet on her head...and kneepads and wrist guards too...I also remember something that makes me think that maybe this isn't all such a bad trend. Maybe a middle ground wherein people don't wear wrist guards on a trike is worth it but...

I was about eight when I was playing in our driveway, just bouncing a ball, being a goofy kid. At the end of the driveway a nice looking, smiling man said with great enthusiasm, "Hello, what are you doing?" and started up the driveway. We lived right next door to a church, and the side entrance was accessed via our driveway, so I didn't think anything of it.

Cricket, that man had no idea that my father -- who I know I've mentioned was slightly crazy -- popped out from behind the bay window holding the shovel he'd been digging up the bed with and said, "May I help you?" and the man got very, very flustered and started backing away. My dad was just standing there, not being lunatic, just it was clear that something in the man's tone hadn't sound right to him.

And that man turned around and ran to his car. My dad was just holding a shovel pointed down towards the ground but that guy fled like he fully expected to have his brains bashed in.

My dad told me to go inside and play. I have no idea what was really going on there, but that guy was walking right up to me...and that church was the only entirely African American congregation in the area, and the man was white.

So, I don't know. If it had been one of the million times I was outside playing by myself would that story have had a different end? The entire "run like hell, scream, get out of there!" thing...I was a pretty smart kid and I didn't know to be frightened until that guy ran for his life.

I think we hold onto our kids well into their young adult years, and continue to hover long past the point where we need to but little kid's have the judgment of little kids.

I understand mourning the loss of freedom that we experienced, but honestly, I'm pretty sure that long ago man had some pretty seriously evil intent. I've always wondered how long it took him to find a solitary kid, whose father wasn't standing behind her with a shovel.

The percentages say it doesn't happen often and it doesn't. Still. I think it's best to hover, and play it safe until kids are old enough to actually have the judgment needed. It's a tradeoff but our kids aren't going to miss something they never had.

Jinksy said...

Having grown up in a city just after the war, being told 'Go out and play' was an instruction I never heard. I cannot even begin to imagine how such freedom may have felt...

Ananda girl said...

Yes, you are not alone. I too grew up that way. There were close calls and oddly enough, I did not tell my folks until years later.

I cannot answer your question for you, but I can for me. When my first son was born, he was so bright and beautiful and completely innocent and fearless that I felt I needed to be afraid for him.

Years later, when we moved our four kids to a tiny town where children could still be told to go out and play, I could not. We were thought odd and over protective, but that is the way it is. All the more harder when it was time for them to be adults to let them go.

Times have changed. We know too much. See too much. The news no longer keeps impolite news out... worse, they seem to be thrilled with it as entertainment. Its sad.

BPOTW said...

My, how things have changed and I'm not sure that it's for the better.

CiCi said...

I think when it comes down to it, it just is not worth taking any chance with our precious children. It would only take one pervert a few seconds to change your life forever. I don't know is this is living in fear or living in strength.

lime said...

good question. i grew up in a small town and remember not ever really having fear and don't remember fear from my mother. then again there were not gang tags in my neighborhood growing up like there are in the small town where i live now. when we lived right in town i trusted my kids to stay within certain limits and each year the grew their boundaries grew with them. but they also knew if they stepped one foot outside those limits their world would become smaller. we lived on a dead end alley and they were allowed to play in any of the yards along the alley where they had friends, or up and down the alley. walking to the park was a source of conflict though...there were known drug dealers haunting that area and i just couldn't see letting young kids wander over that way alone.

but a good question.

Suldog said...

I've long been of the opinion that much of the problem with sending your children out to play - the possibilities of harm or crime - is compounded by the attitude of trying to safeguard the children. That is, if there were scads of children out and about, as in our day, there would be less alone-time and less opportunity for the nefarious to conduct their hideous business. Their is safety in numbers.

Of course, I am neither a child today nor a parent of one, so my opinion on the matter is mighty worthless.

Buck said...

Those are some of my fondest memories. I know I can't be the only one.

You're obviously not, after reading thru these comments. I have similar memories; being an Air Force Brat at a time when the Air Force still had bases every-freakin'-where I got to explore some VERY interesting places to play as a child. It's not every ten year old who rides the metro into Paris to go play at Les Invalides with his two pals... or hang around in a souk in Ankara at age 12.

But, to answer your question: Who would your son play WITH if you told him to go play? I'm thinking he would be one lonely kid.

Sandra said...

A very poignant post. I so wish that children today could live and play in a world as simple and secure as the one I grew up in in the 50's.