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Yes, it was just like this (for me) when I was a kid

From the Atlantic, "On the Overprotected Kid":

In 1972, the British-born geography student Roger Hart settled on an unusual project for his dissertation. He moved to a rural New England town and, for two years, tracked the movements of 86 children in the local elementary school, to create what he called a “geography of children,” including actual maps that would show where and how far the children typically roamed away from home.

Hart’s methodology was novel, but he didn’t think he was recording anything radical. Many of his observations must have seemed mundane at the time. For example: “I was struck by the large amount of time children spend modifying the landscape in order to make places for themselves and for their play.” But reading his dissertation today feels like coming upon a lost civilization, a child culture with its own ways of playing and thinking and feeling that seems utterly foreign now. The children spent immense amounts of time on their own, creating imaginary landscapes their parents sometimes knew nothing about. The parents played no role in their coming together—“it is through cycling around that the older boys chance to fall into games with each other,” Hart observed. The forts they built were not praised and cooed over by their parents, because their parents almost never saw them.

Through his maps, Hart discovered broad patterns: between second and third grade, for instance, the children’s “free range”—the distance they were allowed to travel away from home without checking in first—tended to expand significantly, because they were permitted to ride bikes alone to a friend’s house or to a ball field. By fifth grade, the boys especially gained a “dramatic new freedom” and could go pretty much wherever they wanted without checking in at all. (The girls were more restricted because they often helped their mothers with chores or errands, or stayed behind to look after younger siblings.) To the children, each little addition to their free range—being allowed to cross a paved road, or go to the center of town—was a sign of growing up. The kids took special pride, Hart noted, in “knowing how to get places,” and in finding shortcuts that adults wouldn’t normally use.

I remember especially pride in the shortcuts!

As I understand it, things are very different today for parents and children. I remember a moving post from Riverdaughter, who speaks (IIRC) of how her daughter had almost no time in which she was not compliant with some adult regimen or other. Of course, I've never married and don't have children, so I view this gigantic shift in social norms with bemusement, from afar.

And then there's this:

Lately parents have come to think along the class lines defined by the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau. Middle-class parents see their children as projects: they engage in what she calls “concerted cultivation,” an active pursuit of their child’s enrichment. Working-class and poor parents, meanwhile, speak fewer words to their children, watch their progress less closely, and promote what Lareau calls the “accomplishment of natural growth,” perhaps leaving the children less prepared to lead middle-class lives as adults. Many people interpret her findings as proof that middle-class parenting styles, in their totality, are superior. But this may be an overly simplistic and self-serving conclusion; perhaps each form of child-rearing has something to recommend it to the other.

"Enrichment." Indeed. I don't think I'd want to be somebody's project; that sounds rather dehumanizing. If only TV and video games* would be recognized for the public health hazards they are, working class kids might get out of the house an inherit the world.

NOTE * For readers who are serious gamers, I'm not talking about immersive, narrative "games" but first person shooters and crack equivalents like Candy Crush Saga.

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V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

...I just (3 days ago) retraced an adventure I had as a seven year old. Using Google earth, I found my home in Locust Valley, N.Y. and traced my way to the rr tracks which I followed to Beaver Lake. It was about 2,000 meters. I went in the early morning, before my parents woke up.
Long story short, I caught the painted turtle I had been wanting, nearly drowned falling into the lake (didn't lose the turtle) and waked home soaked to the skin, from head to toe, in my winter jacket.
When I got home I was immediately stripped and stuck in a hot shower. I did not get into trouble, because they knew I was going.
This was typical for me growing up, free as a bird and more adventures and experiences than any 20 kids today.
Thank the gods I had the parents I did and a vast amount of personal freedom.
Always have had. ;)

hyperpolarizer's picture
Submitted by hyperpolarizer on

In 1955 (I was 8 years old, and my family had just moved from Maine to Long Island) I cut school with a friend, and we walked 2 miles into town to buy our first cigarettes. No sermons please. We couldn't take our bikes, as that would have entailed going back home from the schoolbus stop to get them-- a dead giveaway. I don't remember how I squared the absence with my teacher, in those days of notes signed by parents. I don't think I could have plausibly forged the signature of either one of them -- that part of story is lost in the mists of time.

The point is, as kids we were surprisingly on our own, in a mid-sized suburban town, that had (in those pre shopping-mall days) a real downtown.

As Lambert noted, we could get on bikes, and join football games in strange neighborhoods. At 9 or 10 I could go by myself to the Saturday all-cartoon shows at the movie theatre -- downtown, about two miles from home.

When I was 13, my father gave me a few bucks, and a friend and I accompanied my brother, then 6, to New York City, 40 miles distant, to visit a theme park called Freedomland. We phoned for a taxi to the train station, took the train to the city, and figured out which subway we needed (I think it was the IRT Pelham line) to get to our destination. Nothing seemed unusual about this.

My mind still boggles at the concept of a playdate. How the hell do kids today learn to negotiate the world?