Free-Range Kids

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When did going to a friend’s house become a “play date”? “Play date” sounds so . . . weird.

I remember going over to friends’ houses all the time, even at age five or six, and having friends over to our house. It was awesome: “Hey mom, can I call so-and-so and invite them over?”

Mom: “Okay!”

And then you’d pick up the phone, call your buddy’s number, ask their parent: “Hello, this is Alex, can I please speak to so-and-so?” and then you’d set up the appointment, usually with some final planning like “Okay, you bring Mario 3 and we’ll have pizza hare.”

Now that I have a six-year-old myself, I notice that this does not happen. Parents tend to set up play dates, which is fine, but it makes me a bit nostalgic for the old days. I think it’d be hilarious if my son started calling his friends and setting things up, but I don’t know if parents even like that anymore. Because we’d go to each other’s houses without our own parents around. You’d be relying on your friend’s parents for snacks, dinner, and so on, and sometimes to drive you back.

And I don’t remember parents complaining! There was always plans to have so-and-so over at our house next time, which was great, because you knew it was only a matter of weeks before you’d get to hang out with your friend outside of school again.

Hanging out with friends outside of school was the best thing ever. You had relative freedom to run around outside playing guns, play Nintendo, build LEGOs, draw your own comic books, and generally raise some wholesome hell.

Do kids even do sleepovers anymore? I remember having sleepovers all the time. Now, everyone is afraid of The Child Molester Next Door. Maybe my neighborhood was enough like Mayberry, RFD with intact families that people just didn’t worry so much about a rogue dad or a single mom with random boyfriends coming in and out. I mean, we did have divorcees and whatnot, but they were few and far between, until the late 1990s.

But in the 1980s and early 1990s, which was when I grew up, we bounced from house to house non-stop. Sometimes it was uninvited. In high school, I’d show up at our front door with five or six of my pals in tow, yelling as I came into the kitchen, “Hey mom! We’re home! Do we have anything to eat?”

(Yes, I’m turning into cranky old Grandpa Alex again. Bear with me.)

Me in 40 years.

I remember one time my buddy and I went to our friend’s house after school and the three of us promptly dusted off all of their ice cream, and then went to the river for a swim.

It can’t be my imagination that everything has changed. It’s fashionable to lament the overcautious nature of childhood these days, but I see the truth in this more and more the older my son gets. I get the impression that parents are afraid of everyone. I don’t know exactly what happened. I can’t pinpoint the singular event that changed everything. I can only assume that the atomization of our culture, the modern economy transforming us into economic nomads, media-driven hysteria, and the general decaying social fabric contribute to this distrust of our neighbors and communities.

You know, simple stuff like that.

The obvious answer is to get out more, interact with neighbors, and try to build these connections. Yet it’s difficult when the other party doesn’t reciprocate. It’s a tough problem to crack: when do you stop beating your head trying to get close to people who clearly have no interest?

You also have to step back and wonder: is it me?

This is so strange, because very often when I strike up a conversation with a neighbor or even a stranger in a waiting room, I find them very receptive, yet not so much when it comes to their kids.


Elpida Kallistos doesn’t have many friends. Read what she does about it in my debut novel, A Traitor to Dreams, a fun, sci-fi/urban fantasy adventure featuring high technology clashing with mythical demons and swordsmen that tackles some big questions.

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37 comments

  1. My oldest is 23, my youngest 11. In all cases, the playdate thing wore off after about age 6. They started calling or texting or making plans at school, and then begging for parental agreement. Before that, the playdate thing was more for the moms, so we could have an excuse to get together for coffee and conversation. 🙂 That was my experience, although there were a handful of antisocial moms who just dropped off their kids.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s just a tragedy, a tragedy, I tell ya. So much has been lost! I managed to raise some free range kids, but it sure wasn’t easy. Even 20 years ago there was great resistance and the system was really starting to move against you. It was so worth it though! I look at my kids today and they really stand out. They are problem solvers and self reliant.

    Sometimes I look about the world and I’m not surprised we have so many anxiety ridden young people today. They were raised by people who were expected to be constant helicopter parents, control freaks aware of every potential danger lurking around the corner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Everything is going to kill us: that’s the message we’re given, and in turn we give it to our kids.

      There’s something to be said for streets smarts. You don’t get them by being sheltered by your parents!

      Discernment is key. Yes, there are evil creepers. Thank God they are few and far between.

      I’m thankful I grew up when kids were still told to go out and play and just be back by dinner time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nothing quite like being able to get on your bike and just ride off with your friends for hours having fun in the summer.

    A while back I saw baby on his Mother’s lap playing with an ipad. Children are meant to be interacting with the world, not staring at a screen.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh man, we used to ride our bikes EVERYWHERE! I was born in ‘81, and we might have been the last generation of American kids to enjoy that unfettered freedom. My parents were young when they had my siblings and I, so they clearly remembered that freedom too and passed it on to us. Good times.

      My wife and I try as hard as possible to limit our son’s screen time. To the little man’s credit, he gets bored with devices rather quickly, though he’s a fan of the NES Classic. Even that though, we put a timer on and limit his playing to weekends.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ha ha, nice. That freedom was amazing and we all just took it for granted.

    Never wore helmets either and rode around for hours, played in the woods, rock fights, night hide and go seek, etc. We’d be disappointed if someone went inside to watch a tv show. Course I was lucky to live in a really nice neighborhood. Thank God I had such a good childhood!

    cheers

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Alexander,

    You called your friends before going to their house?! Golly you’re just sooo civilized aren’t you? 🙂

    Me and my friends would just show up at each other’s houses. We’d either ring the door bell or go to the backyard and put our faces on the patio door mosquito screens and call out their names. Most of the time we’d be at the backyard playing so it was easy to play.

    We we’re like birds going from one house to another till it was supper. We had supper the latest so we’d usually head home when our friends ate.

    We biked, played on the street, at home, in the home geez the only place we didn’t play was on the roof 🙂

    Yeah I do hate the chicken little mentality. We’all going to dIEEEEEEEEE!

    Chill. With respect to Ipad, we’re quite strict with the kids. Can’t go to the bedroom to watch alone. So one of the parents has to be beside them. It’s usually me. No biggie but I do get to ask tons of questions 🙂

    I really think that we need some push back If someone sics Child service for the crime of playing freely, I’d take the ‘neighbour’ to a human rights tribunal (evil grin) with the Child service in solidarity (I think the common law uses joint and several)

    xavier

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I wonder how much of a regional thing this is? I’m in flyover country and here kids still play outside unsupervised. I don’t know if it’s as common as it was in the past (more electronic distractions now – kids too young to drive should not have cell phones grumble grumble) but it’s not unusual.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In all the people I’ve ever spoken to, I’ve been told that my sisters and I had almost a unique experience growing up.

    When I was growing up in semi rural Pennsylvania, there were over a dozen families, with about 31 kids, ranging from 8 year olds to late teens. The families had 1 – 5 kids, with most having 2-4. My sisters, all older, were 6, 11, and 12 years older respectively, and everyone had their group of kids they played with around their same age. There was ALWAYS someone to play with or pal around with.

    However there was an immense amount of crossover play where the whole neighborhood was involved in various games and such. We played hide and go seek with all the kids we could get together and had massive games of tackle football in the snow.

    My neighborhood clique was mostly 3 kids, but sometimes as many as 5 or 6.

    We roamed where we wished to, and were often out past midnight. None of the parents cared, they knew we were ‘in the neighborhood’.

    Many were the nights in the summer we camped out in the woods. We just told our parents we were sleeping over at xyz’s back yard in the woods and that was that.

    We didn’t so much ask our parent’s permission as tell them where we were going to be.

    The time and place that was able to occur belongs to the past. It’s like wishing for the idealistic 50’s back where the Mom stayed home and cooked meals and brought Dad a glass of bourbon after supper, as he read the paper in his slippers and the kids played at his feet.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It was definitely gone by the time the Millennials came around. Those of us born in the ’80s had a much different experience growing up than they did. A friend would tell me about his nieces who never hung out with friends, never had sleepovers, and just never did anything fun. I knew a neighborhood kid who was the same: never really did anything away from home or school.

    It didn’t appear to be too out of the norm for how that generation grew up.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pat D—that’s a very good point! Add in the effects of technology/social media and their stress over finding decent paying jobs and the idea of a giant social safety net, protective government has a lot of appeal. They’re already living with much less privacy than we did growing up, and so invasive socially aware “just” government to make things fair and protect people regardless of how its paid or how much it can diminish individual freedom could seem appealing to them.

    Liked by 1 person

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