When I was a little kid, my parents pushed me out the front door every day.
“Come back when the streetlights come on,” they said.
Oftentimes, my 3 year old brother was sent out with me to tagalong. Of course, I considered this a great imposition. After all, at 5 I was way too old to hang out with babies. Still, I had to take care of him because that’s what older sisters are supposed to do.
Back then, we never dialed phones and set up 2 hour play dates. Instead, we’d simply knock on our friend’s doors and say, “Is so&so allowed to come out and play?”
Of course they were.
When we got a good group together, we’d play baseball or kickball in the street.
Yes, in the street.
When the cars rounded the corner, we’d scurry away as fast as we could. We’d use a whiffle ball instead of a real ball in order to prevent hurting anyone’s car. After that, we’d have a squirt gun war. No one checked the temperature on the Internet to make sure it was warm enough to get wet.
Fortunately, no one got sick or died.
Some days, we’d go exploring in the woods. Our minds full of fantastical stories of bad guys chasing us, we decided we must build a tree house. So we gathered up scrap pieces of old wood, rusty nails pulled out of rotting pieces of equipment, and a hammer someone nicked from their Father’s toolbox. Then we’d nail this crap to a tree. Once the rickety house was complete, we’d climb up in it, careful to hold on to the branches in case the floor gave out beneath us. Then, we’d muse to ourselves that we had not built it high enough.
We built ramps in parking lots and jumped them with every toy we had that sported wheels. Skateboards, bikes, roller skates. We didn’t have helmets or kneepads or elbow pads. It didn’t matter. Sometimes we’d fall and rub the skin completely off of our bodies. Nobody cared.
We’d eat berries and apples from strange trees. We’d ride our bikes 6 miles to the park, alone. And not just any park, either. We went to parks with monkey bars higher than our Dad’s heads and dangled our legs over cement. We sat in puddles full of oil and water and swam in water so dirty it might as well be called sewage. In the summertime, we’d go 6, 7, 8 hours at a time without laying eyes on our parents.
And we survived.
Hell, we didn’t just survive. We flourished.
Not a single one of us was overweight; we all had little muscles popping out here and there. We were brave, too. Little badasses. There was no way a perv was going to kidnap us. In fact, we kept little sticks we had sharpened on the sidewalk in our pockets, just in case. Homemade shanks. Sometimes we got lost or hurt, sure. But we knew the difference between a creepy adult you should steer clear of and a responsible adult you could ask for help.
And not one of us died. Not one.
Unfortunately, things have changed and I’m inclined to believe it’s not for the better. I cannot stand how cowardly, weak, and coddled children have become. Children twice the age I was back when I was running the streets with a 3 year old brother in tow have 1/8th the confidence and capability.
Last week, I went to target with a 10 year old and an 8 year old. We stopped in the toy section for a moment because I remember what it was like to walk the isles and dream. (As opposed to today where children walk the isles and demand shit until they get their every heart’s desire)
I said to the children, “I’m going to go look the bath towels. If you want to stay here and look at the toys, I’ll be back to get you in 10 minutes.”
As a child, I wouldn’t have even acknowledged this was a big deal. It was commonplace for me to split from my parents in department stores. They always looked at boring shit and I had a Christmas list to write.
“No, we’ll just stay with you,” the children nervously tittered.
“You want to look at bath towels?” I asked, “Are you sure? Are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay and look at the toys…or maybe cross the isles and look at the electronics?”
“No, we’ll just stay with you.”
I can’t stand it anymore. Kids aren’t normal! They have no childhood anymore. They just have one never ending, confidence crushing, adventure less, schedule. They have self esteem, (whatever that means) but no actual accomplishments.
So I came up with a plan.
I gave the children $20. “This is for cleaning up the yard,” I said.
Then, we went to the mall. As we stood by the pizza place in the food court, I approached them with a little proposition.
“You guys are free to go spend your money, but I’m not coming with you.”
They blinked their eyes, confused. “Where will you be?”
“I’ll be in the boring stores and I don’t plan to step foot in a single toy store. So if you want to spend that $20, you’re going to have to go it alone.”
The children were torn between the desire to spend the money that was burning a hole in their pocket and their preference to remain in the company of adults at all times. Finally, they hesitated and I knew I had them.
“We got to lay down some ground rules, though, before we split up. The first one is that you stay together no matter what. The second one is you do not leave this mall under any circumstance without me…not even with another adult. The last one is we meet back here at this pizza shop at exactly 3:30pm.”
I paused briefly when I realized that neither one of them was wearing a watch. Then I thought to myself, fuck it.
“If you need to know what time it is, you can ask any clerk working behind the counter of any one of these stores. If you need directions back to this pizza place or to a restroom, you can ask them that, too. I want you to mind your manners, don’t break or steal anything, no fighting, no screaming, no running, and no idiocy. You got that?”
They nodded their heads carefully.
“Alright then, go. Have fun.”
I watched them walk away until they got lost in the crowd. For a moment, I felt completely satisfied. They’re finally learning independence, I told myself.
But that lasted only a moment. Not more than 5 minutes after they walked out of my sight, I found myself choking on my fear.
What if they get lost? Fall down? Get into trouble at one of the stores? What if someone sees them walking alone and calls the police? Ten and seven is plenty old enough to walk around a mall, but people are nuts now. Nuts. And what if they’re right? This is a safe neighborhood. Not a single child has been kidnapped here in my lifetime. Crime is low. No gang violence. This is a safe neighborhood! But still…but still…but still.
I resisted the urge to track them down and tell them I changed my mind. If I had I would have invalidated every bit of courage they had displayed in walking away. So, I let them be.
And at exactly 3:15, I was at the pizza shop waiting for them. If they are even 5 minutes late, I will go looking for them. Get on the intercom or something, I nervously told myself.”
But they weren’t late. At 3:30 on the nose, they showed up, cheeks red with excitement, with a bag of spoils wrapped around their arms. They had an adventure. They had a great time. They walked with a bit of a swagger now. Children of the world; little bad asses.
I knew the answer the second I saw them strutting, but I asked anyway, “Did you have a good time?”
Their answer was enthusiastic.
Of course they had.
Of course they had.
No one died. Instead, they experienced a bit of pure, undiluted, childhood.