Lucy, Linda, Larry, Lyle, Lance, and Luke Mannion, circa a hundred and ten years ago. I’ll let you guess which one is me.
When I was a kid, if I needed a new pair of jeans - we called them dungarees way back then - because I'd outgrown my last pair - you didn't wear them out. Moms sewed or ironed in patches on the knees and the seats. - I walked down to the clothing store. I didn't like to do that because the owner's sister-in-law, his chief sales clerk, practiced high pressure sales techniques. No matter what I thought I wanted and needed, she set out to convince me I was wrong. I was buying the wrong size, the wrong brand, the wrong color, the wrong amount---“It’s buy one get a second pair free. Didn’t you read the sign in the window? You’ll save your parents money!” I was forgetting I needed a new shirt or a new belt or half a dozen new pairs of socks. And what about a sweater? It didn’t do me any good to protest I didn’t have enough money. My parents had a charge account there.
“Underwear! You’ve got to need new underwear, a growing boy like you!”
Three out of five times I walked in there I walked out without buying anything because she overloaded my decision-making circuits. The fourth time I walked out with something I didn't like that I ended up returning the fifth time when at last I walked out with the new dungarees I should have insisted she sell me the first time.
The key phrase here is not "new dungarees". It's "I walked."
I grew up in a suburb that over time became more and more defined by new developments of split levels, raised ranches, and Colonials. But our street was part of an older neighborhood that dated back to before World War II when the country was much less dependent on cars to get everywhere. We were within walking distance of a not that little business district and that distance was walkable, with sidewalks and crosswalks and stoplights the whole way, and the summer before second grade I started to walk it every day.
I walked everywhere a kid needed to get. I walked to school. I walked to church. I walked to the park. I walked to all my friends' houses.
I walked to get ice cream. I walked to buy comic books. When I needed school supplies I walked to the Five and Dime. When I needed spray paint or airplane glue for my models I walked to the hobby shop. When our last baseball was lost forever in the woods that was our centerfield fence or our last good bat split behind taping, we pooled our money and walked down to Bob’s Sporting Goods. When Mom Mannion needed some extra groceries quick she gave me money and a list and I walked to the market for bread or milk or a box of spaghetti or a jar of peanut butter. I still remember my heartbreak when a jar of tomato sauce ripped through the bag, fell to the sidewalk, and shattered at my feet. I stood there staring down at the mess, unable to decide what to do. I wanted to go back to the store but I wasn't sure I had enough money left for another jar because I'd spent some of the change on a new matchbox car. I felt like a screwup for letting the bag rip and I felt like a sneak and a thief for buying the matchbox car. I always had permission to use some of the change to buy a little reward for myself. A candy bar, a soda, a comic book, a pack of baseball cards. But matchbox cars were expensive. Fifty cents! But I couldn't resist. All four doors and the hood opened on this one.
At last, I walked home where I apologized profusely and insisted on walking back down to the market. I even offered to return the car. Yes, I was that much of a goody two shoes. I had to be. I was a Cub Scout. It was in the oath.
Which reminds me, I used to walk to my den meetings.
Whenever I didn’t feel like walking, I rode my bike.
Now, Mom and Pop Mannion didn’t permit all this free-ranging walking and biking just because I was a reliable, responsible, and safety-conscious Cub Scout.
They permitted it because they knew that no matter where and how far I went, I was never out of sight of somebody’s mother.
The other day, a twitter pal called my attention to a blog called Free-Range Kids. I haven’t had time to explore it thoroughly, but I'm intrigued by what I’ve read so far and I'm definitely sympathetic to its main theme. Which appears to be that adults have become so desperate to keep their kids safe that they’re denying them the freedom to roam and explore and amuse themselves on their own that’s not only one of the joys of childhood but necessary to experience life in a way that will teach them how to grow up into responsible, self-reliant, and independent adults.
It does often seem that as a society we are in a constant collective panic over the safety of our children and that we are dealing with this by becoming overprotective to the point where we reflexively react as if every unsupervised move children make on their own will lead immediately and inexorably to death, dismemberment, or incarceration for a felony and parents who take their eyes of their kids for a second are guilty of something akin to child abuse.
Seems that way.
But it’s true that an seven year old walking to the grocery store by himself will likely attract the attention of a police officer. And it’s true parents have to be more careful than their parents had to be, not for fear that something will happen but of someone else being afraid something will happen and calling 911. Sometimes when we went on errands with Pop Mannion he’d leave us in the car alone for a few minutes while he ran into the bank or the grocery store or the repair shop, the car windows open and the doors locked, of course, and we kept ourselves amused and safely in the car with coloring books and toys. How many parents would try that today?
Still. Too much of our public debate is driven by unacknowledged nostalgia. What made the idyllic childhoods of the 50s, 60s, and 70s possible was that the country was rich enough and generous enough that families could get by on one salary and mothers could afford to stay home full-time. That doesn't mean they were home all the time, mothering 24/7. Individual mothers could run errands, go shopping, take classes, take breaks, do chores, even hold part time jobs, spend a little time being themselves, because there were so many mothers in the neighborhood that at least half a dozen were at home at any given moment to keep watch.
But it wasn't just mothers. Fathers were around more too. A 9 to 5 job meant 9 to 5. And since commutes were shorter most of the neighborhood dads were home by six. Going outside to play after supper meant being under the watchful eyes of all the parents in the neighborhood. We were always within shouting distance of somebody's mother or father.
And then there was the sheer number of us kids. On just my street alone, a cul de sac with fifteen houses, we could organize a small game of kickball or capture the flag or frisbee wars with only 20 kids on each side. This included teenagers and pre-schoolers. You could go outside on your own but you were almost never alone. Somebody's responsible big brother or sister was usually on hand to take charge if any of us skinned a knee, stepped on a hornets nest, got into a fight, failed to look both ways, or just melted down from sheer exhaustion. We looked out for each other and after the little kids.
The country changed. And it changed because the economy changed. There's no bringing back what was so good about growing up back then without bringing back the economic conditions that made it all possible, which, liberals take note, doesn't just mean strong unions and higher taxes on the rich and a revitalization of domestic manufacturing - it means bringing back a Japan and Europe still reeling from World War II so that the United States can dominate the world's markets for everything. And a not likely to be even being close to equaled housing boom that brings with it a proportionate demand for new appliances, furniture, and lawn mosses and shrubbery and roads leading into and out of them. Not to mention families with an average of more than 3 children.
The current generation of mothers of very small children includes women who were born in the 1980s. (I'll pause here for a moment while we all feel old together.) I wonder how they remember their kidhoods. My guess is they remember having more freedom to roam than they had because people tend not to remember what they didn't do.
Boomers and Gen Xers weren’t left to our own devices, unwatched and unworried over. We were watched and worried over in a different way made possible by the times and the circumstances.
And, like I said, people tend not to remember what didn’t happen. We don’t remember the trees we didn’t fall out of. The strangers who didn’t offer us candy. The cars that didn’t hit us.
After I left for college, my little sister Linda was struck by a car. Fortunately, she suffered only a broken wrist and lots of cuts and bruises.
She was nine. She was with a friend. She was in a crosswalk and crossing with the light.