Many are the tears that have been shed over the demise of the free-range childhood. Yea, verily, say the child-development experts, of the countless plagues to which our youth may succumb, none is so insidious, none so likely to stunt the growth of the immature intellect, as the lack of unstructured play time. Hearing this, parents wring their hands till their knuckles throb and think I knew it, I’m ruining my kid with all these supervised play dates and spendy summer camps—but what else can I do, given the logistical challenges of today’s two-earner family, not to mention all the creeps and weirdos in the world? But the warm tears do not soothe the tender hand bones, which makes the simple act of driving your child to soccer practice an exercise in pain management, and as you’re fumbling in the glove compartment for an Advil, a song comes on the radio—a song in the overproduced faux-country genre, a song that is to genuine music as McNuggets are to your grandma’s roast chicken. The singer’s voice makes you think of old-growth mahogany dipped in high-fructose corn syrup, and the lyrics speak of dusty roads and swimmin’ holes and shootin’ tin cans with a BB gun while a loyal dawg lopes at your side. Even though you know you’re being manipulated—even though you know they make these songs like biscuits, dipping liberally from a big ol’ lard can labeled “Digital Nostalgia Riffs”—well, it gets to you. You get a big ol’ nostalgia lump in your throat, your vision clouds with a hot mist, and you wail piteously (don’t worry, your kid won’t hear you; he’s got his ears stuffed with iPod tendrils), “My precious darling is missing out on a quintessential American childhood! His bare feet have never known the powdery warmth of a sun-baked country road! He’s never been swimming in unchlorinated water! He’s rarely been more than 50 feet from a parent, teacher, or supervisory adult! His dog is on antidepressants!”
Whoa there, buddy. Before you veer into the oncoming traffic, let’s think this through. In the mid- to late 1960s, I had one of these free-range childhoods, albeit a Minnesota-suburban one, and I look back on it fondly. But should I? It was Socrates who said, kind of, that the unexamined bucolic youth is not worth feeling smug about. So I guess it’s high time for a retrospective analysis of my average pre-teen summer day.
Up in the morning with the twittering birds, into the kitchen for a wholesome breakfast of Rice Krispies topped with many spoonfuls of sugar (it made such a delicious silty sludge at the bottom of the bowl), and out the screen door (slap!) for a morning of Whiffle Ball with the guys. We played in the backyard of a long-vacant house a few doors down, wearing base paths into the lawn and thus making the place that much harder for the owner to sell. Home at noon for a quick lunch, then outside again for (a) another ball game, (b) a crab-apple war, in season, (c) fishing for bullheads at the neighborhood “lake,” not to say “slough,” (d) building another in an endless series of ramshackle wooden forts, or (e) another ball game. Dad came home from work and we had dinner, and then it was back out into the neighborhood for the evening. Long, low, slanting sunlight, the sound of lawn mowers, the smell of barbecue grills, the itchy thrill of waiting for dusk, when hide-and-seek could begin. The luminescence of a white picket fence in early darkness, when the trees are dark masses against the empty ocean of sky; dampness hinting at tomorrow morning’s dew, the earth giving up heat, the air cooling, the smell of lilacs and heavily fertilized grass; the invigorating, razor-minded process of calculating, as you crouched like a commando behind a bush, whether you could make it to home base before the kid who was It got there. The voices of the mothers—always the mothers—calling everyone home, the protesting and acquiescing, the last screen-door slaps, a train passing north of the neighborhood, a dog barking somewhere as we sank into sleep.
How’s that for idyllic? Not bad, at first blush—but if I dwell a bit longer on those summer days, I remember that then, as now, there was a war on, and that’s the sort of thing that can eat into a kid’s tranquility quotient. A young man from our street was serving as a paratrooper in Vietnam, and we worried about him. This slight participation in a larger moral sphere did not prevent us from engaging in ordinary childhood barbarity. For instance: One day we watched as a kid named Stewart built himself a rudimentary fort on the boulevard in front of the vacant house, and as soon as he went home for lunch, we kicked it to bits. We disliked Stewie because he was a whiner and a tattletale, and we also held against him the fact that he was adopted. (Forty years later, as an adoptive parent myself, how do I feel about this? Sick to my stomach.) That afternoon, Stewie’s mom tracked us down and asked if we knew anything about the shocking vandalism that had been perpetrated on her darling’s handiwork. Yeah, we said, some teenagers did it. She asked if we knew what they looked like, and we described them in magnificent detail. She let us go on for a good long while before she told us that she’d watched the whole episode from her bedroom window. Then she made us build her kid a scrap-lumber palace.
I won’t go into the cold brutality of the crab-apple wars, or the atrocities that were perpetrated upon earthworms and bullheads in the name of carefree boyhood angling. My brother and I co-owned a BB gun, and we did use it to plink at cans, but we also shot each other in the ass with it, mostly out of idle curiosity. Even baseball, my deepest joy in those days, was a source of stress. My love for the national pastime was too much for me—it turned me into an insufferable purist and crank. I thought each game should be a transformative aesthetic experience; I wanted Aristotelian catharsis from every flight of a plastic Whiffle Ball. I didn’t get it. Instead, I got yanked into the house and told to stop screaming at the other children.
When we lament the loss of the free-range childhood, we’re not thinking about our kids. We’re pretending our lives were once simple, and we’re feeling sorry for ourselves because we know they never were. Somehow it makes us feel compassionate and generous to declare that we wish our children could live in a world of rope swings and dandelion fluff. For their part, the kids don’t much care about our wishes, declared or otherwise.
Last week, a fourth-grader—one whose fate the universe has placed partly in my hands—said to me, more or less out of the blue, “Dad, kids have a secret life that most adults don’t know anything about.” Whether he heard or read this somewhere or came to it on his own, I think he’s right. But now is not the time to tell him that this secret life, provided he survives it, will make wonderful fodder for nostalgia someday.
Contributing editor Jeff Johnson wasn’t even the weirdest kid on his block.