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Glory Days —

October 10, 2012

I had an idyllic, fortunate childhood. My middle class family moved into Argonne Forest, a brand new subdivision, when I was a baby. As a child, I recall wandering the freshly paved roads that wound through a burgeoning neighborhood surrounded by receding woods and a diminishing cornfield. Houses sprung up quickly and our Argonne Forest quickly developed into a middle class paradise, perfect for raising young children.

Being born in 1979, my youth also coincided with the infamous Etan Patz kidnapping, missing kids on milk cartons and the rumors of satanists in white vans seeking children to offer as blood sacrifice. My parents never succumbed to the paranoia and panic that so many parents did. Instead, they simply warned us about strangers and white vans, particularly on Halloween, then sent me out the door to play.

Last night, I asked my mom how old I was before she let me play outside on my own.

“Four,” she said. “But there were older kids around to watch you and you weren’t allowed to leave the cul-de-sac. I kept an eye on you through the window, though.”

My youngest, Lottie, will be four years old in January, and I would never, EVER let her play outside this way, even if there were other children (such as her 12-year-old brother), even if I put boundaries on her play area, even if I could keep an eye on her through the window.

The fear of the unknown is too great. If Lottie is out of my sight for even a second, that brief opportunity might invite a tragedy that would be entirely my fault for not being a vigilant parent.

My little girl play in the front yard while I’m inside? Unthinkable.

So, I asked my mom how old I was when she let me roam the entire subdivision, which was rather large.

“Oh, at least six,” she said.

Six? Really!? What, was my mom conspiring with the Illuminati pedophile ring?

Our middle child, Linny, is turning six at the end of the month and the idea of her roaming the streets of our neighborhood alone terrifies me. How could I ever live with myself if she were struck by a car or snatched by a stranger or attacked by wild dogs? I wouldn’t even let her play in the front yard without me, let alone give her the freedom to explore the neighborhood on her own.

And yet, that freedom to explore, unencumbered by the stifling influence of grown-ups, was one of the great joys from my childhood. I spent countless hours riding my bike places that would have made my mother blanch or playing any number of pretend games in the woods or imagining myself an inch tall and floating on a leaf down Cold Water Creek.

In Michael Chabon’s warm and funny memoir, Manhood for Amateurs, he reminisces about his own longing for the days when kids could be… well… kids.

The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

As if we weren’t already aware that the Wilderness of Childhood is extinct, the recent ordeal of Tammy Cooper brings the differences in childhoods into sharp focus. Cooper is a stay-at-home mom who was recently arrested for child endangerment when a neighbor called the police on her for letting her kids play outside unsupervised:

Cooper, who spent 18 hours in jail overnight, says she was watching her children, ages 6 and 9, from a lawn chair during the time of the incident. The family lives in a cul-de-sac, and Cooper told KPRC that the safe location was one of the reasons she had chosen to reside there.

The charges were ultimately dropped, but not before Cooper’s children witnessed their mother being handcuffed and taken away by police officers.

So not only do we have struggle with the fear that harm may befall our children if they aren’t perpetually supervised, but now we have to worry whether our neighbors will turn us into the police for negligence.

I wish I could simply wave a magic wand and make the world simple and safe once again because, quite frankly, I would much prefer an environment in which my kids can play outside unsupervised while I make dinner or clean the house or go to the gym. Instead, I feel compelled to chaperone my children outdoors, to take them to parks and playgrounds, so that they remain safe and secure, where I can watch and respond to any immediate threats.

This cultural correction, this emphasis on oversight, has fundamentally changed what it means to be a parent. Whereas my family growing up was like a little universe of individual planets orbiting the sun at our individual paces, the modern family is forced to occupy a single planet, a single country, a single city even. Like some kind of clunky, homemade Voltron, all of our movements and activities must be coordinated, however awkwardly, so that there is no child left behind.

And while I absolutely adore watching my children play and have made it a priority to let them play outside as much as possible, parenting would be much easier if I could, from time to time, boot them out the door and let them find their own path.

But this redefinition of responsible parenting has probably affected our kids more than it has affected parents. While parents are merely inconvenienced by the shackles of the sheltered child, children have become entirely dependent upon parents for their freedom, which is no freedom at all.

Today’s children have two choices: play inside or persuade a parent to take them outside. And given the increasing burden of responsibility that parents have, particularly with the rise of two-income households, taking children outside has become a time-consuming chore that we have to work into our already-hectic days.

Parents must attempt to achieve these lofty expectations, even while facing the withering criticism of assholes like Susan Combs, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. As you may recall from my post on Weight of the Nation, Combs plays a significant role as both finger-wagging detractor and anti-obesity hero.

Before boasting of the success of the Texas Fitness Now (despite zero effect on obesity rates), Combs lays the blame for childhood obesity squarely at the feet of parents.

Obesity will crush the United States and we will fade in the rear view mirror in oblivion. We could have done something different, we should have done something different, and we lacked the moral fiber and love for our children to do the right thing.

Excuse me?

Before you start talking about moral fiber and love, Ms. Combs, perhaps you need a lesson in modern parenting. If my kids don’t ride their bikes for hours at a time like I did as a child, it isn’t because I lack moral fiber or love for my children. It’s because I’m already juggling more commitments with less time than my parents had when they were raising us.

And now it has become a national priority that when I get home from work, I cannot rest on my laurels, as the breadwinners of yesteryear could. Immediately upon arriving home, I must manage the lives of my own children to ensure that they can have an illusion of freedom and imagination that might simulate my own Wilderness of Childhood.

This month, we will be inundated with hand wringing and pearl clutching over Child Obesity Awareness Month. So when you hear critics like Combs, bear in mind that outdoor play, and the physical activity that accompanies it, has now become a new and burdensome mandate on parents. Most parents want to give their kids time to play outside, but instead of it being a natural, integral part of a healthy childhood, providing access to safe play areas has become just another stress-filled consideration for over-burdened parents.

So cut parents some slack, as almost all of us are doing our best to provide our children with a new American idyll.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2012 12:41 pm

    “Today’s children have two choices: play inside or persuade a parent to take them outside. And given the increasing burden of responsibility that parents have, particularly with the rise of two-income households, taking children outside has become a time-consuming chore that we have to work into our already-hectic days.”
    THIS. This x 1000. We moved into an apartment building in July so now our son doesn’t even have a yard to play in. Taking him outside to play is an ordeal as there’s no real green space or playground here, the closest being his school down the street. If I want to take him, I have to make sure the baby is ready to go too, and that I’m not too tired, etc etc. Most often what I do is, when picking him up after school, is stay and let him play on the playground equipment for an hour. With the bad weather on our doorstep though (hello, Wet Coast of Canada!) that’s going to quickly become not an option. Getting out to play will become a thing of the past, except for those rare days when all of us and the weather coincide otherwise. Over the winter I see a lot of Wii being played.

    For anyone interested in the Free Range Kids movement, head to and find other parents who are unlearning our culture of fear and to let our kids play again!

    • October 11, 2012 11:37 am

      Thanks for the tip, Jen. During our humid summers and our icy winters, we take the girls to McDonalds (*GASP*) because they’re the only place in town with an indoor playground.

      I’ll have to check out Free Range Kids. But unlearning that fear is going to pretty difficult. My protection instinct is incredibly strong.


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