That old gang of mine: A fraction of the kids in our neighborhood at the Muscular Dystrophy Carnival we held back in the summer of Nineteen-Seventy-Polyester and Bad Hair. Don’t look for me. I took the picture with my trusty Kodak Instamatic. But that’s my brother Luke Mannion in the glasses, second from the right.
Here’s another story I’m behind the curve on. The one about the mother who was arrested for letting her nine year old daughter play alone in the park while she was working her shift at McDonalds.
Most of the reactions I’ve seen have either started out asking What’s wrong with us as a society that we’re criminalizing innocent parenting? and then worked their way towards a Back in my day reverie meant to show how crazy things have gotten since the good old days or jumped right to it. Well…
Back in my day…
We played outside, roaming far and wide, on foot and on our bikes, on our own, no adults on our tails, as often and for as long as we could. In summers we were out of the house from dawn to dusk, coming inside only to have lunch or cool off, not necessarily at home, and then hurrying back out again until called in for a gulped down dinner before dashing out again to play until the fireflies packed it in.
We played army and cowboys and cowgirls and Indians, We played superheroes and superheroines, spacemen and spacewomen. We built snow forts in the winters and tree forts the rest of the year. In the fall we played football---tackle, never touch---and in the spring we marked off base paths in any open space we could find. We fought “wars” with the kids from the next neighborhood over, elaborate games of capture the flag that ranged over many acres of woods and fields.
In the first couple years after we moved in seven new houses were built on our street. two more on the street behind, and another just around the corner. Sending us out to play meant letting us loose to explore multiple construction sites where to our delight and edification we encountered open pits, heavy machinery, piles of diggable dirt and heaps of reclaimable scrap mined with bent nails and stripped screws, shards of broken glass and split wood, and big, strong, competent men hard at work with hammers, saws, and power drills, whose nightmares included small children creeping up from behind to surprise them with an adorably lisped “Whatcha doin’, mister?” in midswing or midsaw.
Our neighborhood was within easy walking distance of a little shopping district we called Union Street because that was a street the stores and restaurants lined, and starting in second grade I was allowed to hike it or bike it down there on errands to the Economy Market for Mom Mannion, to buy comic books and baseball cards at Salamack’s, ice cream at Friendly’s, lunch at the soda fountain at Kay’s Drugs, toys and school supplies at the Five and Dime, model kits, paint, glue, and dope at Bob’s Hobby Shop, new baseballs and bats at Bob’s Sporting Goods (no relation), and new sneakers at Bernie’s and new dungarees at David’s. I got my haircut at Frank’s, had my teeth checked by Dr McPartlan, and in sixth grade when I was made class treasurer the nuns sent me down to Mohawk Savings Bank with drawstring bags heavy with nickels and dimes kids used to pay for milk at lunch. My friends John Shields and Mike Shorkey came along as body guards but it was my job.
When I was eleven I began taking the bus “downtown”---Schenectady’s business district---to go to matinees at Proctor’s and buy Cub Scout supplies at the Carl Company.
I walked to school.
Uphill. Both ways. In the snow.
Sounds like I grew up George Bailey in Bedford Falls in 1927, doesn’t it? Actually, I was Peter Bailey. Pop Mannion was the real George Bailey. But that world existed in our town until well into the 1970s. Then they built the malls.
Something else happened.
We grew up.
And moved out.
And we weren’t replaced.
In his own brief back in my day post, Atrios reports:
When I go back to the neighborhood where I spent some time growing up, I'm always struck by the fact that I never see any children outside, ever. Maybe that's just changing demographics and there aren't any children.
I know what he’s talking about. For the first dozen years or so after I graduated from college, whenever I visited the old homestead, I never saw any kids out playing in the neighborhood. But I knew why. I don’t know how things changed or didn’t in Atrios’ old neighborhood, but in mine all the houses that used to be filled with kids were home only to middle-aged adult empty nesters. Then, for a few years, when children began reappearing, they were visiting grandchildren.
Over the last decade, things have changed again. Most of the old folks have moved on. Mom and Pop Mannion are the last of the original residents of the street. Young families have moved in and there are kids outside playing ball, riding bikes, chalking hopscotch boards, selling lemonade from card tables, looking and acting like the kids we were. But there aren’t a lot of them. Not nearly as many as there were of us when we were those kids doing those things.
There were fifteen houses on our cul de sac and only four of those were home to fewer than three children. There were six young Mannions. Seven Hawkinses. Four Weissmans, four Hogans, four Rhodeses, three Golubs, three Briens, three Kravitzes, three Molinos. And on any given day some of us could be counted on having school friends or cousins or both visiting and during “peacetime” our enemies from the next neighborhood over became our allies in ball games and Frisbee wars and massive games of Red Rover and Red Light Green Light that stretched out across several lawns.
There was probably never a time when were all running around loose together but there were certainly days when if we’d ever stayed still long enough to count you could have counted twenty or twenty-five of us in the space of our single, not very long block.
And we weren’t all the same age and any group of us would include somebody’s big brother or sister or somebody old enough to be your big brother or sister. Odds were you were old enough to be somebody’s big brother or sister. You were somebody’s big brother or sister! And used to acting the part. You could boss the littler kids around, but that was often a way of keeping them in line and safe. And although we crisscrossed the same ground, we weren’t all always playing together. We were out in groups and each group had its own schedule and plans. We didn’t stick together all day either. We had different lunch times, different curfews, different rules about where we could and couldn’t go. We had separate errands we had to run. We had chores to do. We tired out or grew bored or got hungry, hot, or cold at different rates. This meant there were always kids coming and going, always somebody who had to run home where they would report in on our whereabouts and what we were up to or, depending on the nature and intent of the report, tattle.
There were actual teenagers out and about, too, not playing with the younger kids, of course, mostly coming and going on their way to and from whatever mysterious places and events teenagers came and went from and to or just hanging out. But sometimes they helped organize a game, a carnival, or an impromptu contest. Always they were ready to come on the run if anybody fell off a bike, skinned a knee, got into a fight, or felt frightened by a dog.
What I’m saying is that we were keeping an eye on each other.
And when we walked down to Union Street, we were bound to meet up with friends and neighbors along the way or in the store. You’d run into some adult from your church or synagogue. Some adult who knew you because they knew your parents. The store owners themselves were among those adults. They worked their own counters and registers and knew us by sight, by name. They knew our parents who were their regular customers. The fact was that almost no matter where we went, there would be at least one adult within shouting distance who knew who to call if something happened, if we got hurt or into trouble or caused trouble.
Union Street is still thriving but the stores and shops we walked to and their owners are gone. The storefronts that remain are home to fast food franchises and the kind of self-contained businesses kids aren’t likely to walk to or walk into. Bob’s Sporting Goods is a veterinarian's office. The Five and Dime is a AAA travel center. Kay’s Drugs a karate studio. David’s was torn down long ago and replaced by a McDonalds.
Something else has changed. The daily lives of middle class mothers.
Back in my day…nobody’s mother had a full-time job. Those few who worked worked part-time. (Let me take this opportunity to say something. Parenting is not a job, although it demands hard work and causes constant stress and that can make it feel like one. But it’s something wonderful and awful and joyful and scary all to itself: Parenting.) Being a so-called stay-at-home mom doesn’t mean staying at home all day. There are always errands to run. But even so, with some of our mothers at work and others out at the grocery store or taking one of us to the doctor’s or getting her hair done or picking somebody up from school, camp, piano lessons, or Scouts, there was usually five or six mothers at home and on the watch, and often there were all fifteen. They’d be at the windows or out for a walk, down the street visiting one another, out on the front lawn minding toddlers and infants, or just sitting on the front porch, reading a magazine, listening to the radio, always on the alert.
And fathers didn’t work insane hours or endure long commutes. A nine to five job was a nine to five job, which meant most of our dads were home by six and so in the summers, when we were out until dark, and on weekends, the number of watchful adults doubled.
No matter where or how wild we ran, no matter how far we strayed from home, we were always within earshot if not within eyesight of somebody’s mother or dad.
We were never really, totally on our own. We were just outside.
The world I described, the one I grew up in, still exists here and there. We live in a little patch of it now. But even so, it’s the fact, when you send your kids outside to play, you aren’t sending them out into Bedford Falls.
Nine is plenty old enough for most kids to be left on their own to play in the park. The park where that little girl was playing while her mother was working is a popular one, usually full of kids many if not most of whom are under supervision. There was nothing inherently wrong or even slightly negligent in her mother leaving her off there to play for a while. There was a great city park about half a mile from our house. It had a dozen swingsets, at least half as many tall slides, jungle gyms you could really get hurt falling from, which was their main attraction, real baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and a swimming pool (actually, a wading pool the size of a football field) that became a skating rink in the winter. I was probably about nine when I started going there on my own recognizance. I never went by myself. What was the fun in that? I went with friends or to meet up with friends. And we didn’t stay there all day. Our parents would never have stood for that. We were given a time to be home and if we weren’t home by then someone came looking for us, if not our mothers then one of the other neighborhood mothers who could get away, of which there was usually one at any given time, or somebody’s big brother or sister with a bike or a driver’s license.
That little girl was at the park for hours at a stretch three days in a row.
Calling the cops might not have been the best move. The cops arresting her mother were, to put it mildly, overstepping their authority. (Ok. They were nuts!) But tell me. If you saw a young child you didn’t recognize---the story doesn’t tell us if she looked nine, whether she was small or big for her age, and the sight of a strange “big kid” playing with little kids sets off alarms in most adults---playing by herself in the park for hours at a stretch, days on end, wouldn’t you wonder?
Even back in my day, the many adults on the benches on the outskirts of the playground would have. Park employees would have noticed. Other kids would have asked, Who are you with? and Where’s your mom?
So I don’t see this as a What’s wrong with us? story as much as a What’s wrong with some people? one. And by some people I mean cops. It’s a case of over-reaction and just one case. I’m sure there are others---like the case of a father arrested because his eight year old son skipped church--- but I haven’t heard any evidence to make me think it’s a societal trend. It doesn’t seem to be something that’s happening every day.
Nope. I see it as a Look at how difficult we make life for poor working parents story.
I’m not talking about the arrest or not the arrest by itself, although it’s hard to imagine a middle-class mother, particularly, a white middle-class mother getting cuffed because she left her child to play in a park while she argued a case in court or leaned in to close a business deal. The point is, lawyers and corporate execs don’t need to. Their kids are in daycare or have competent and reliable sitters. On the rare days when they have to scramble, they just tell their bosses they need to take the day and then they take it---with pay! What astonished me more than the cops’ stupidity was the reason the daughter was in the park. She was tired of being cooped up all day inside the McDonalds where her mother works. And the astonishing thing about that is that her mother’s boss lets her bring her to work and stay there for her whole shift. There aren’t many workplaces that would allow that even in an emergency, let alone every day.
That father was fired from his job after he was arrested. So far, this mother, Debra Harrell, has kept hers, although, apparently, there was some confusion about that for a while. What there’s no confusion about is that she had her daughter taken away from her for a time and she still has to appear in court. I would bet she gets ordered to find “proper” daycare for her daughter. Harrell’s a shift manager at her McDonalds. Imagine what kind of daycare or babysitting she can afford on what she makes from that.
Like I said, I haven’t heard there’s an epidemic of arrests of parents who let their nine year olds play alone in the park. What I have heard is far too many stories of poor working parents who got in trouble for leaving their nine year olds and younger kids alone at home while they were at work because they couldn’t find or pay for competent childcare.
We ended Welfare, told the poor they had to become the working poor, told them find a job to set a good example for their kids, then didn’t bother to tell their bosses they had to help those parents by offering paid family leave, onsite daycare, a living wage. “Get a job,” is all we’ve said. “Your kids are your own lookout.”
“If you fail one way, we’ll take your job away. If you fail another, we’ll take your kids and probably your job anyway.”
To which the Republicans have added, “And don’t count on unemployment or food stamps to help you. We’re working to take those away from you too. Oh, and at some point we’re going to figure out how to take your new health insurance away from you too.”
Republicans love to see failure. It makes them feel like winners, even while they’re struggling to get by themselves, especially when they’re struggling to get by themselves. It doesn’t make them sympathetic. It makes them mean.
At Philadelphia Magazine, Joel Mathis takes this a step further, with more righteous indignation. He says, We’re Not Criminalizing Parents. We’re Criminalizing Poverty!
Here is where we are as a society: We want — not unreasonably — to see people earn their pay instead of rely on government. That’s the logic of our welfare system.
But it’s also true that the jobs increasingly filled by adults don’t pay well enough to survive. And it’s also true that those low-paying jobs have increasingly turbulent schedules — the kind that leave workers “on call” for unpaid hours and unable to pick up a second job in order to supplement the income.
All of this is great for consumers, who get low-cost meals and goods out of the deal, and for corporations, which maximize their profits by keeping labor costs low. But it leaves too many poor parents at the mercy of a society that might decide they’ve endangered their children by trying to keep those children clothed and fed. That’s obscene.
Times have changed. Parents can’t parent the same way our parents did. They have to make different calls. It’s not Bedford Falls out there everywhere. Maybe it never was. But consider: It’s not just a question of whether your kids are old enough to play in the park by themselves. You have to ask, are they old enough to be trusted with a cell phone and not lose it or break it or let it lose its charge? And there’s a concern that overrides whether or not they’re old enough. Are you close enough? Back in my day, when we went to the park, there were at least half a dozen mothers ten minutes away. What if your nine year old falls off that wonderfully high jungle gym and breaks her arm? How fast can you get there? Add this. Your kid falls and breaks her arm. The call from whatever stranger is there to help goes to your voice mail because you’re in a meeting that’s going to last another hour. She’s rushed to the hospital. Good! But which hospital? Do your kids know which one is in your insurance network?
But here’s what I think is the main difference between then and now.
Back in my day, Nixon was well on his way to impeachment, but he’d already achieved his goal of firing up white middle class resentments to create a hardly silent, Republican majority, and Ronald Reagan was the acknowledged heir apparent, and LBJ was known to have failed to bring about the Great Society. The most influential politicians of the time were dead, Bobby, JFK, and FDR. Martin was gone. But still!
Their influence and their example were felt from beyond their graves.
They were felt to be watching us.
Back in my day it wasn’t a crime to be poor.
It was a sin not to care and do something to help.
Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist.