(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
Where did you set the boundaries of your child’s unsupervised play? Recently I’ve read a number of articles in magazines and newspapers purporting to guide parents of school age children about the type of limits they should establish over their children’s autonomous roaming. Many were spurred by the story of a single parent who had instructed her child to play in a nearby city park while she was at work. Childcare was too expensive, leaving her with a poignant dilemma. The reactions of the others triggered a few thoughts. They, the unnamed, invisible arbiters of social mores, castigated her for choosing to work rather and allowing the child to play in the park rather than making sure the child had someone with him constantly.
How parents arrange childcare evolves over time and geography. I remember reading a book in the early 80s: And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer. It was a long book chronicling the lives of a couple of ladies living in Ohio from shortly after the Civil War to the years of the Great Depression. The concept that impressed me most from the book was how, with each subsequent decade, the children’s area of freedom to play, and play under their own recognizance, became more and more circumscribed. My own children were in elementary school at the time and I was constantly reassessing how much autonomy we should grant them. Like many parents, I thought back to what limits had been set for me and compared them to what had been set for Walt, factored in contemporary conditions, and hoped we made good decisions.
My limits to roam and what I was permitted to do changed with age and where we were living at the time. The more rural the living area, the greater the geography I was allowed. One of my favorite, and least restrictive, areas was living on Clairemont Mesa in San Diego in the mid 50s. Our neighborhood was still relatively remote from the city proper. We could drive down Clairemont Mesa Blvd. to our west and then down to the city or we could head eastward, over dirt roads between a couple of cattle ranches to Linda Vista. This was in a building boom era where ranch style houses were popping up faster than weeds could grow on freshly broken ground. For most of our time in that house one block of homes stood between us and miles of canyon to the north, and to the northeast was Miramar NAS. Age wise, I’m on the leading edge of the baby-boomer generation so every house was guaranteed to have children who were potential playmates. During summer months and vacations from school, our mothers, for the most part, fed us breakfast, and told us to be home for lunch. After lunch we were told what time dinner would be and that we should be present. The latter was more than a suggestion and from the time I was eight I had a wrist watch to help me monitor my comings and goings. So off we went. My limit was to stay on the north side of Clairemont Mesa Blvd. We pedaled our bikes on every bit of paved road and into the areas that where new homes were being built. When just pedaling was too tame we rode handless. There were few cars to dodge as all our fathers were at work, and since most families still had only one car, our mothers were at home with housework or younger children or both. So how far we swerved across the street as we worked on our balance didn’t matter. If the construction men weren’t on the job, we would clamber over the work site to see how houses were developing. Sometimes we girls would play house in the framework of what would eventually be someone’s real home. We scrambled up and down the canyon walls. We caught horny toad lizards and snakes. We knew which were poisonous and which we could grab. Parent rules stated that all critters had to be released at sunset. One of our favorite past times was to find a pasteboard box, large enough to sit it, take it to the edge of the canyon wall, and slide down. Was it safe? Probably not. Was it fun? You betcha! It was fast and relatively smooth until you bumped over a rock or couldn’t swerve around thick, dry shrub. Did we come out unscathed? Rarely. In the summer we all sported scabs from some minor injury. I also broke a couple of wristwatches a summer, which upset my parents more than the skinned knees. Skinned knees would heal, but watches cost money. We discovered that if we went just a little further we came to a valley that had trees and was green, and sometimes it had a tiny creek. We floated papers or leaves or seedpods. We kicked off our flip-flops, which we called go-aheads, and waded in the water as far as we could go. Our barrier was a chain link fence with a metal sign indicating that the federal government owned all the land on the other side of the fence. This was the far side of the Miramar Naval Air Base. One afternoon three of us stood there and stared at the fence. It really looked interesting on the other side. We didn’t see any people. We’d never seen any people there. The little creek was still trickling further into the valley on the other side of the fence, which did not protrude into the creek. For relatively small kids, it looked as if we could skinny underneath and continue our exploration. Dare we? The other two had civilian parents and felt it was no different than hopping a neighbor’s fence and going across a backyard. With a father in the service, I was familiar with going through guarded gates that required ID. I consulted my watch and decreed that there was not enough time to go any further than we could see beyond the fence and still get home by my time limit. After some discussion we decided to wander back the way we had come. Even with the freedom granted by our parents, or maybe because of it, we generally made good decisions. At least ones that didn’t present too much danger.
I think that’s the key thing to keep in mind. We need to guide our children, not stifle them. Without practice none of us learns to make responsible decisions. Don’t you prefer to work for the boss who trusts you to do your job well? Without that sense of choice and discovery we tend to become indolent and resentful.
The last word:
I suspect there are bad side effects to reducing the time children have to play, imagine and explore at least apparently unsupervised. When we are overly protective or overly controlling we can negatively impact their futures in unexpected ways, including interpersonal relationships, love of learning, creativity, and even their health.
Keep your sense of humor.