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  • Lance Mannion
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I go back to my old neighborhood on the Upper East Side and it's the same as it always was. Fewer children, perhaps. Fewer working class families, oh, to be sure.

But play on the street? You can't. You can't play stoopball anymore because the security camera will record when you had to hop the fence to get the Spaldeen. You can't switch the traffic signals off to play street hockey because they're all centralized at a computer downtown. You can't play tag because some Gen Xer gets mad that you breathed on her Trader Joe's bag of groceries.

It's not about rules, it's about culture, and yes, I realize I'm ignoring the whole "internet and video game" side of this, but since that was already in your mind, why should I reinforce your thinking?

lemmy caution

This book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, 2nd Edition with an Update a Decade Later,
explains what happened. The upper middle class switched to a very supervised style of child rearing:


Lance -- We've of similar age and my suburban childhood sounds a lot like yours. Houses in the neighborhood were filled with families whose moms were home most of the day, at time and place where few would have needed the expression "stay-at-home mom." Packs of kids ranged the neighborhood and nearby woods. We played in places we named, without irony, Rattlesnake Cave, Pollywog Pond and the Hairy Green Armpit. (The last, an abandoned construction pit at the edge of the woods flooded with runoff and where some of the sketchier "big kids" occasionally skinny-dipped.)

At 9 and younger, this was our daycare. "Babysitting" was reserved for nighttime and was mostly about getting us in bed on time without burning down the house. The unquestioned assumption was that someone else's mom was around and nearly to step in when needed. In fact, one of my clearest childhood memories is rinsing the blood and sand out of my mouth when the neighborhood doctor's wife took me into her kitchen following an epic bike crash outside her door. We don't have enough info to say whether this was anything like the girls experience in the park, but I tend to doubt it. Still, it's also hard to believe that some intervention short of arresting the mom wasn't available.

I'm now living back in the town I grew up in. It's a fairly affluent town so there are still a larger than average number of moms at home or, if not, a trusted nanny. There remain some pockets of free ranging, but much smaller and at seemingly shorter, designated times. Here I see two big factors for the change. Everyone's kids are so scheduled with activities that it's a rare occasion for there to be the critical mass of kids to give the air of protection of a crowd and the associated network of on-call moms or nannies. Also, home square footage has ballooned (mostly through additions) with dedicated play spaces that kids feel no need to leave (without getting into the "internet and video game" side of things either).

What's also changed, though, is my particular neighborhood. I lived on a dead end street -- not a cul-de-sac but a road where development just stopped at the end of the woods. The road now continues into a complex of condominium townhouses. Pollwog Pond is filled in, and Rattlesnake cave the victim of blasting. The condo association's tennis court fittingly sits atop the Hairy Green Armpit. I drive through occasionally, mostly to cut through to a state road and piss off the condo association. I never sees kids playing around there.

Uncle Merlin

Kay's Drugs was THE only place to get a milkshake and a burger !

Ahh the Morrow Street Gang, always something going on there. Today I've been back to my neighborhood several times and I 've never seen kickball in the street nor any kids outside playing nor any kids out in the Park across the street where we'd play "Flashlight Hour " .

I think BetterYet has hit a nail, over-scheduled kids are never around to really play.
And that's just sad.

Vixen Strangely

I grew up in the 80's in a Philadelphia neighborhood where kids from 4 to 12 stayed outside in a two-to-four block radius until the streetlights went on. We got candy at the corner deli or at the five and dime (both within a couple blocks and learned to mostly stay within earshot of our moms' holler out the kitchen windows. Mostly. There was a single-screen theater two blocks down (it's a 7-11, now) and a city recreation center with a pool, basketball hoops, the whole show, about two blocks up. In the summer, houses with kids had those cheapie kiddie pools with sealife painted on the bottom on their porches, or tried to manage a slip'n'slide down a steep front lawn. A lot of us had stay-at-home moms, but we weren't inside a lot (unless it was lunchtime or something.) We were self-supervising, with older kids making sure younger kids for the most part weren't playing with matches or touching dead birds.

But we knew what a joint looked like, and to keep away from bigger kids doing whatever their business was. The wall we used to play ball against was covered in charming graffiti. (Led Elaine Zeppelin--a tribute to some dude's favorite band and girl--I think--stands out as a memorable tag.) Not one of us knew what a play-date was, and most of us had only one extracurricular if that--I was in orchestra. One of my friends was in cheer, but mostly, until middle school, having a schedule wasn't really a "thing". We rode bikes, climbed monkeybars, got bruises, scars, even, but we lived. I can't say if kids have it easier or rougher than my cohort, but instead of kids being shielded from a screwed-up world, I think it would be cooler if we made it a less-screwed up world for them to be in. And yeah, sometimes other kids' parents reamed our delinquent behinds out--that was socialization. Some kind of "taking a village" thing, I guess. But bad-ass kids' parents weren't really shamed, let alone criminalized for whatever they lacked in parenting-fu. We knew what was going on with people in the neighborhood--allowances were made but eyes were open. I don't think people have or can take the time these days to be as integrated as communities as we used to be. I blame the fall of wages vs productivity and emphasis of productivity over our humanity.

The mercenary nature of our culture doesn't let kids be kids, parents be parents, or neighborhoods be communities as they once were--IMHO. We're instead individualists screwing things up until we get caught at it by our "peers".


This isn't just the US or Europe. I remember the story of some Japanese photographer who for years wanted to photograph the games kids played in the streets. Of course, he had assignments and projects, but eventually, in the early 90s, he lined up the time and the money, and went out to photograph kids playing in the streets. You know the punchline. They were all gone.

I'm not sure what happened. Was it parental paranoia? Was it everyone's mom going to work in the 1980s? If you wanted to afford a house, you needed two incomes starting in the 1980s, and that meant daycare, and that meant the satanic child abuse garbage with psychotic clowns biting the heads off of chickens and imaginary tunnels and nine year olds cracking under torture to name their molesters. Was that why we stopped seeing kids playing in the streets in the 1990s?

I live in a town where you still do see kids out playing in the streets. We surely don't have as many kids as we used to, but the ones that we do have seem to get out and about. In contrast, my urban nieces were in the play date culture; I never saw them engage in imaginative play, which is bizarre. I'm sure they're mammals.

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