December 19, 2013

Free-range kids

Subtract the smoking references and expand the time frame to take in the late 1960s through the late 1970s and this list compiled by Jenny Isenman turns into a pretty accurate description of my childhood.

1. Thinking the middle seat in the front was the best seat because I could get crushed into the dashboard, I mean, because I got to control the five radio stations.

On vacations, the seating arrangement in our ginormous Ford station wagon was three in front, four in the middle, two in the pop-out rumble seats (above the spare tire) in the back.

2. Being totally inaccessible from after school until dinner. Now, we would call that being lost.

"Be home in time for dinner," my mom said as we ran out the door.

3. Having an equal intake of air: 50 percent oxygen, 50 percent second hand smoke.

My parents didn't smoke, thank God. We didn't have air conditioning either. By my teenage years, my dad had installed a whole-house fan that helped a lot.

4. Thinking that SPF 4 was responsibly using sun block.

SPF didn't exist as a concept for most of my childhood.

5. Thinking the haze of Solarcaine I was engulfed in was a healthy way to heal the 2nd degree burns I inevitably got from using SPF 4.

But Solarcaine did.

6. Getting excited when someone had a pick-up truck because that meant the kids got to ride on the flatbed.

7. Sitting on my dad's lap and manning the steering wheel.

8. Eating salami straight from the log.

And lots of raw cookie dough.

9. Playing on a rusted swing set where that one leg always popped out of the ground threatening to propel into space and then came back with a thud.

I know exactly what she's talking about. Remember jungle gyms and monkey bars and dodge ball? All those elementary school delights have since gotten sued into extinction.

10. Helmets? No one wore them and if you did, you were super geeky, protecting your nerdy brain and all.

Another safety concept that didn't exist for most of my childhood.

11. Being a latchkey kid by seven years old. The first couple times I stayed home. I parked a chair right inside the screen door and just sat there staring out, so I could see my mom pull up (also, the world could see I was alone with an open door, brilliant).

12. Fearlessly scaling fences, climbing trees, playing in the woods, and jumping streams without a parent in sight to save us (hell, we used to ride our bikes through a cemetery).

Several vacant lots and a swamp, in my case. We could travel as far as our bikes would carry us. My brother broke his leg playing in a house being built on one of those lots. Nobody got sued.

13. Running into the store to buy an adult cigarettes.

14. Nerf Shmerf—oh, we had them, but cap guns and BB guns were way more likely to shoot your eye out, and we preferred them.

I made a bow and bought real arrows to shoot. Could have killed somebody with one of those. During my chemistry phase, my mom bought me a pound of sodium nitrate. The pharmacist sold it to her, knowing damn well what I was going to do with it.

I bought a canister of calcium carbide at the Army Navy Store without an ID or nothing. Annoyed the hell out of the neighbors making milk carton bombs.

15. Car seats? Bahwawawahaha. My dad drove me around on the back shelf of his convertible in a Moses basket. "Oops, she was here a minute ago, must of hit a bump."

16. And forget seat belts—I barely sat in the seat at all, lying across the back windshield of my mom's Mercury Marquis or popping up and down from the floor was way more fun.

We seatbeltless kids managed to survive the real-time experiments in Newton's First Law of Motion: an object in motion stays in motion unless acted by an outside force. The outside force being a parental arm, not the dashboard.

We were lucky. Ubiquitous seatbelt use is the best public-health idea our safety-obsessive society has produced of late.

17. Jumping on beds until they collapsed. I was once under a bed when that happened.

18. Babysitting at eleven years old. In my town, once you were able to dial 911, you were considered a candidate for babysitting jobs.

19. Eating unwrapped things people handed you in stores—like pretzel logs from the bank.

And everything we could rake in on Halloween. The razor-blades-in-apples myth had just begun to gain traction in the suburbs, but that didn't stop any kid from snagging all the edible loot he could (parental escorts not required).

20. Being left in the car to wait for my mom do the grocery shopping because I didn't feel like going in.

Hey, I've got a book and the radio. I'm fine right here.

21. Running around until sundown without a care in the world, a phone in my pocket or shoes on my feet.

Again, "Just be home in time for dinner."

Related posts

Land of the paranoid
Free-range kids (1940's edition)
L.M. Montgomery's free-range kids

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
12/19/2013 8:18 PM   
One social change that has puzzled me is the noticeable drop in school fighting that occurred at SGHS in the early 1980s. My first two years covered '81-83 and I have distinct memories of seeing several fights, some after school and a few violent events that occurred in school. If you recall our bus was the closest to the sidewalk, where the smokers gathered, and that is where fights usually were waged.

And then the fighting ended. I suppose there were skirmishes that involved underclassmen but nothing stands out. I suspect the school administration got much more effective at identifying violent students and moving them to alternative programs. But being a young'un I was unaware of that.

So it seems that beginning in the 1980s adults started paying attention to children and began efforts to improve them. Some changes were helpful, particularly removing the violent kids from the scene. But now a full generation later the adult intervention is becoming clownish. The headlines of kids being suspended for making finger guns reveal an utter lack of common sense. Only in a culture immersed in the attitude that kids must be kept safe at all costs and beyond reason can such judgments be made.

Perhaps the time has come to start removing irrational educators to alternative programs.
# posted by Blogger Joe
12/20/2013 8:33 AM   
I have a vague memory of only a few minor fights at the at the high school.

More interesting was Principal McGwire's (sp) approach of 1) give an idealistic speech and then 2) ignore everything where lives aren't at risk. (Keep the smoking behind closed doors, keep the private parts covered and don't bug me.)

I'm still amazed at how egalitarian our high school was. There were cliques, but they weren't strong and a Venn diagram would show an awful lot of commonality, even with the stoners.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
12/20/2013 4:24 PM   
At SGHS there were the village people (mostly blue collar families), the farm people (mainly the poorest of the bunch as these kids lived in the boonies because it was cheapest place to live) and the suburbanites (from mainly white collar families). I agree with you that there was a very egalitarian attitude. I assume part of that is people who lived near Schenectady NY (GE nothwithstanding) didn't earn tremendously high salaries, no matter their degrees or occupation.

It also is a reminder of how much economic attitudes have changed. Think of all the families you knew in 1980 and how many of them owned high end cars? Of course back then it seemed those with money and the desire to spend it bought boats and cottages on the nearby lakes & reservoirs. Perhaps people today are more prone to spend bucks on luxury cars because water-front properties are priced out of reach.

BTW, I don't recall there being many fights. Just that there were some and then there were none. Likewise in Indian Hills we had real bullies who stole bikes and committed regular small acts of vandalism. Then they aged out and no one, to my knowledge, replaced them. Small sample size for sure but I think there was a real change. One theory is this had to do with lead paint and the eventual eradication of it. Whatever it was kids today grow up in a different culture than we did.
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
12/21/2013 6:32 PM   
I loved raw cookie dough! And I blame a particularly "progressive" parent of a friend for ruining it for me. I was told that if I ate it, I would be ingesting all kinds of dangerous larvae from the flour (seriously, it was the flour, not the raw eggs that was supposed to spook me). I couldn't eat it after that, but part of my childhood died. *Sigh.*

On the other hand, parents needlessly frightening children with tales of dangerdangerdanger doesn't seem to have changed over the years!

Oh, and I loved our station wagon. During cross-country vacations, I had the entire rumble seat area of the station wagon to myself. I created a little kingdom amongst the suitcases. All 60-odd pounds of me tucked between pieces of Samsonite. But like this kid, I bounced.

Currently, whenever I scratch the paint on my blue Toyota, I spray-paint it over with a blue that isn't exactly the same color--just like the family station wagon! Seeing the non-matching colors gives me a dose of warm and fuzzy nostalgia.