Nostalgia for a free-range childhood

One of the markers of my parents' generation is how they puzzle over my generation's child-raising techniques. While I chased my toddler around in tight circles on the grass, my mother shook her head. In her day, mothers held court over cups of Sanka while we were sent with a hand wave "over there" to poke in the dirt with other children. While it wouldn't have occurred to us to invite our mothers to come and play, my son assumes I am always on call, a sheepish Wonder Woman-in-waiting to his tiny but fierce Incredible Hulk. Not only is my son almost never without a willing adult to fill a superhero role, he is almost never required to play alone. What a blessing for him, and what a curse.

By now, we've all talked to death the stories of how our childhoods were different from the childhoods of today, how we wandered the vacant lots and back alleys without scheduled play dates and neighborhood-sponsored Child Identification Programs, how we all simply ambled back home when the street lights snapped on. Still, there's no denying that the world has changed, parenting has changed, and one needs look no further for proof than the nearest playground. Seldom, it seems, does one find a child hanging from the monkey bars or swinging too high. This summer, The Hulk and I noticed the absence of all the children. Where were they?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of two-parent households with children under age 18, more than 61 percent reported that both parents work. That means the majority of those children I didn't see this summer were in some form of nonparental care. While my mother's generation didn't see a need to spend "quality time" with their children - or even envision the concept - most parents of my generation race home from work each day to do just that. My neighbor sold her house several years ago, the search for better schools and wider lawns taking her to a western suburb of Boston. She's now more optimistic about her children's educational futures, and happier that they have ample opportunity to play in their massive, hand-stenciled tree house. But she's one of the few at-home moms in her tonier town and that means there's no one to invite over.

It's not necessarily that the children who spent this past summer in day camp or with baby sitters or those now in after-school programs see their parents any less than those of us who were unceremoniously booted out to "Go play!" every morning. It's that running loose and making one's own fun is a disappearing art. Then again, there's something to be said for keeping children at least moderately busy, though not overscheduled. As someone who grew up making forts and hiding in the then abundant orchards of northern California, playing (we would never have referred to it as "socializing") without adult supervision, I have been disdainful of so many children in so many programs; the concept of children herded into buildings under the watchful eyes of grownups seems cruel and unusual punishment for all but the few kids most in need of a monitor.

Then, recently, I stopped by my daughter's school to pick up her friend in the extended-day program, the child of a single mother who works late hours. I expected 30 woeful, "Pick me!" responses to my classroom greeting, but few faces turned my way. The children were working on computers, playing board games, and doing homework. It was social, relaxed, and not at all lonely.

They were having fun. "Structured time," play dates, before-school and afterschool programs - these are the new normal. I like to forget that many hours of my childhood were spent toeing the dirt, wishing there was something better to do and someone with whom to do it. Vast chunks of my unscheduled days were filled with homespun entertainment such as trolling with a paper cup for the goldfish in my neighbor's new Japanese-inspired pond. Perhaps a little structured time would have done me some good.

I gave my children alone time as babies. Listening to them coo in their crib was one of the best parts of the day for both of us. Now as I nudge The Hulk to find things to do around the house and in the yard without me, I wonder where that went, the sense that he could, and should sometimes, find ways to amuse himself. How are these children going to grow up, as adults needing constant stimulation in a world where that is the norm? There are few empty fields for them, and who is foolish enough to send a child out alone anyway?

The world is larger and busier and more dangerous than ever, it seems. As much as I mythologize "free-range children," where and when would I be comfortable enough to let it happen? My children, so eager to finish the school year last May in order to put in some "quality" playtime, eagerly started this school year, where they could finally see their friends.

Barbara Card Atkinson is a writer in the Boston suburb of Arlington.

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