Growing up wild free is a phrase I would use to describe my childhood. On a typical Saturday morning my parents would sleep in. My brother and I made all kinds of noise inside our Levitt house while we argued over which television shows we would watch. For some reason we thought that H&R Puff and Stuff, Sigmund and the Sea Monster and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl were amazing shows. Let’s not forget Land of the Lost and Isis! Go ahead, I know you want to click on those links! I would always try to dominate the selection process, and make sure that my brother chose time slots that I didn’t care about. He eventually caught onto my game as he got older, and those Saturday mornings just got louder.
My family and I lived in a suburb of New York on Long Island, a place where everything is only twenty minutes away, including the beaches. My neighborhood and school system consisted primarily of Italian and Jewish children with a sprinkle of other nationalities here and there. The dominance of those cultures was so strong, that when my parents moved us to Maryland, we were incredible confused and wanted to know where all of the Italian people went.
Our particular house sat on a road that circled a park. It was a small park, complete with a baseball field, a playground and a basketball court. You could look across the park to the houses on the other side and easily see who was out and about on a sunny day. We played in those fields with white land mines since there were no doggy leash laws during those days. Walking your dog meant letting your dog outside, watching them cross the street and allowing them to do their business in the park where the children played.
The ice cream man roamed our neighborhood since there were always little league games going on and lots of ice cream sales to be had. As we got older there were whispers of other illegal substances being sold out of that truck and most of us stopped buying from him. We didn’t blink an eye. Hot summers meant ice cream and bike rides, adventures through the neighborhoods with the sole intent to try to get lost and then trying to find your way home. Helmets weren’t worn because we could ride with no hands and take our friends on our handlebars. We were professionals!
In the winter we would hop the fence and ride our sleds down the sump. There were no fancy schmancy ski resorts for us, there were only the sump and special places in local parks. Yesterday’s “sumps” are now called dry ponds. Our sump was particular nasty at the bottom where some garbage and rocks and wet water always collected. It took some mad skill to avoid those areas and our parents mapped out a trail to help us stay away from that mess.
I started walking to school when I was very young. Meadowbrook Elementary was only a mile away but it felt like forever. Streams of kids would walk to school every day and we made it to class safe and sound. One morning my friend woke up late and we didn’t show up to school on time. Frantic school calls ensued until we showed up, moseying on in as if we didn’t have a care in the world.
My middle school or “junior high school,” stood next to the elementary school. We continued to walk to school. Every morning a man would come out of his house in his bathrobe, complete nude underneath, and he would squat down to get his paper just as we passed by. It took us several inappropriate views to finally realize we should probably tell our parents about this. He was a known flasher, exposing himself to Girl Scouts and young girls walking to school.
The high school was in the other direction. To walk to the high school we had to pass a prison. The prisoners would work in the field, and as they farmed the land, they would watch us pass. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable that felt every single day. In high school our Vice Principal was called the Brod Squad. I believe he was a former police officer and we were terrified of him. Most of us had nothing to worry about, but I suspect there were quite a few kids who had plenty to fear. We had a kid who called himself Jesus complete with his own followers. We passed notes in class. Our football games were for everyone, and school sports started in junior high and went through high school so there was no need for outside leagues. Everyone was included and everyone played. We were all part of some kind of team.
During lunch, in high school we were actually LET LOOSE! We were allowed to go to Roy Rogers or McDonalds on our lunch break and kids streamed everywhere. I wonder if they still do that in East Meadow. If you are reading this and are still living in that town, I would love to know.
All of the parents in the neighborhood knew all of the kids. There was no hiding from their watchful eyes and if you got caught doing something wrong you were busted. There was no justification from mom, and there was no making excuses for her children’s behavior. We were free to roam, to play, to climb, to fight, to jump and to explore. In the hot summers we jumped on our bicycles and went to the pool. Afterwards we would go to J&R’s or Carvels for a treat.
So why are our children under house arrest?
Some say it is because of technology. I believe this is only half true. My brother and I could play Space Invaders and Pong for hours. We were experts at Asteroids, Break-out and Adventure and had both Atari and Nintendo. I think the truth is that we know too much. Perhaps our memories of freedom and the characters we met became Big Bad Wolves when we turned into adults. Maybe the internet, cable TV and the cell phone brought Amber Alerts and abduction stories to a sensational pitch and we started to internalize our own fears. Whatever the reason, our children are not living the same lives. I think this comes at a price.
Kids are not taking their bikes and exploring the interconnected neighborhoods. Playdates need to be arranged or scheduled in order to play. Sports requires separation from their friends, on separate leagues, intermingled with different schools and neighborhoods. Moms are involved in every single aspect of their children’s lives and then tout their over-indulgence and hands-on approach to everything from sports to school. It’s like our generation of wild and free became the “fear for your child” generation. We live in fear. Fear that they will get hit by a car, fear that they will get abducted, fear that they will get hurt, that they will do something stupid, that they will not be as good as the next person, that they will not do well in school, on tests, or get into the best college. Why are we living in fear? Perhaps because we experienced our childhood as “wild and free.”
I will admit that I am extremely guilty of this.
The cost to our kids has been quite large. At the same time I fear that the cost to the parents has been equally as large. We have become our kids coaches, mentors, teachers, playmates and shadows. To get away from us they absorb themselves online.
Socializing for our children means creating worlds on Minecraft and spending hours on social media. Still the predators lurk. Our kids make Youtube videos, send pictures through text that they shouldn’t send and may even be bullied online. One day they will marvel that their parents allowed them to use some of those programs. They will have their own stories about not having parental protection software on the computers or being allowed to use snapchat or instagram. They will have stories of online dating, strangers or predators sending them inappropriate pictures and tales of friends befriending a creeper. They will remember stories of a girl who committed suicide because she was bullied online. Some of them will see inappropriate material on the internet before the age of ten and will marvel that their parents didn’t know. They will decide to live in fear when they become parents.
They will have their own children.
And they will send them outside.