The Unsupervised Child, Outside

A couple of nights ago, I read a bedtime story to Fooey: Danny and the Dinosaur. It’s a book many decades old, in which a boy befriends a dinosaur, and they spend the day wandering around Danny’s city, eating ice cream, and playing with Danny’s friends. When we got to the end, and Danny said goodbye to the dinosaur, and they parted and went their separate ways, Fooey looked at me with puzzlement. She couldn’t understand: Why were the children outside all by themselves? Where were their parents?

That question has haunted me ever since. Fooey does not see children outside in our neighbourhood all by themselves. It is so foreign to her that it leaps out as an aberration when she sees the idea illustrated. Of course, she is only five, perhaps too young to run around the neighbourhood without parental oversight. Perhaps; but perhaps not. I remember playing outside at the age of four or five with my brother (younger) and a friend (my age), by ourselves, unsupervised. We were given the freedom, and trust, to walk from our house to his, to cross backyards, to play in our unfenced yard and garage while my mother made supper, or put the baby for a nap, and checked us occasionally from the window. When I was not much older–seven, eight, nine–I played freely outside in my neighbourhood. I don’t remember having to check in regularly with my mother, or any other mother, nor do I recall being “street-proofed” in any way. We explored beyond our own yards, we crossed quiet streets, played on the college campus nearby, went sledding in winter, had imaginary adventures in the small woodlots on campus, and dipped our toes in the creek. By ourselves. No parents. Hours spent on our own.

My children don’t get to do that. (They play unsupervised in our fenced yard; and they walk to school with friends; but these are activities with obvious boundaries and safety features built in). My eldest is nine. We don’t live in a small town, and we do live on a busy street, but there is a little park nearby, and the neighbourhood is full of other kids … few of whom I’ve ever seen walking alone, let alone just going out to wander around and play. Something about the lack of kids out and about makes sending my own kids out and about feel much less safe. If the little park were frequented by neighbourhood kids, on their own, if the sidewalks were full of kids roller skating and scootering and building snow forts, without parental involvement, if it were the habit of kids to wander around the corner to knock on friends’ doors to see whether someone was home and could come out and play … how different would this neighbourhood look and feel?

What are my kids missing out on? What should I be doing differently, as a parent? Why am I so afraid to let them be on their own for long stretches of time, without me knowing exactly where they are or what they’re doing? (I know what I’m afraid of–terrified of losing one of my children–but I don’t know why I am so afraid. Is the fear irrational? Is my control over my kids’ activities hindering their development as autonomous individuals?).

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8 Comments

  1. Oh yes. This is going to be a long comment, so pour yourself a cup of tea.

    First, this reminded me of this article, which I return to often: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-462091/How-children-lost-right-roam-generations.html Interesting, no? It looks like that this has been a generational trend. I wonder if there will be bounceback? If the pendulum has swung and now it will swing back? Or if this is like a fuel gauge and now were stuck on empty?

    Secondly, this reminded me of when I submitted a kids picture book to a large kids press. They ended up not taking it, but some of the feedback I got was that librarians would not like that there were two young kids walking around an apartment building without a parent. I thought that was strange, as I remember a lot of books from my youth where kids roamed free. And it was a book, a fantasy, not reality. But that was an issue and I rewrote it with an adult friend, too, but I didn’t like it as much, because part of the joy of it was the kids discovering sounds on their own.

    And then this brings me to what you talked about, wanting your children to have that freedom, that sense of exploration and wonder that only being able to roam unsupervised can foster, but the sense of being scared. How do we as a society, or even a neighbourhood, allow that, foster that again? I think we all know that we need to let our kids play, but when we grew up we were told over and over again to fear the stranger. Is this the long-term consequence of this?

    My boys are 2 and 4 and allowed to play outside in the backyard unsupervised. I will let them play in the front, but I need to be outside. I wish I knew how to be better at this, how to negotiate what I want for them and what is now a societal norm?

    I know the chance of them being taken is very, very small. But the chance of them running on the road? Getting hurt? Getting hit by a car? Ugh. It’s hard. How do we do this? And I’m not about to go move to a farm just so they can roam free. I want our cities and towns to be safe. How must it feel to grow up in fear?

    I now just remembered one more thing. It was an interview with a woman on As It Happens a while ago. She let her son walk to soccer by himself, about 1 mile. He was 11. She was *arrested* because of this. It makes me sad.

    Thanks for posting this. Obviously, this is something I think about a lot!

    Reply
  2. Oh yes. This is going to be a long comment, so pour yourself a cup of tea.

    First, this reminded me of this article, which I return to often: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-462091/How-children-lost-right-roam-generations.html Interesting, no? It looks like that this has been a generational trend. I wonder if there will be bounceback? If the pendulum has swung and now it will swing back? Or if this is like a fuel gauge and now were stuck on empty?

    Secondly, this reminded me of when I submitted a kids picture book to a large kids press. They ended up not taking it, but some of the feedback I got was that librarians would not like that there were two young kids walking around an apartment building without a parent. I thought that was strange, as I remember a lot of books from my youth where kids roamed free. And it was a book, a fantasy, not reality. But that was an issue and I rewrote it with an adult friend, too, but I didn’t like it as much, because part of the joy of it was the kids discovering sounds on their own.

    (to be continued)

    Reply
  3. And then this brings me to what you talked about, wanting your children to have that freedom, that sense of exploration and wonder that only being able to roam unsupervised can foster, but the sense of being scared. How do we as a society, or even a neighbourhood, allow that, foster that again? I think we all know that we need to let our kids play, but when we grew up we were told over and over again to fear the stranger. Is this the long-term consequence of this?

    My boys are 2 and 4 and allowed to play outside in the backyard unsupervised. I will let them play in the front, but I need to be outside. I wish I knew how to be better at this, how to negotiate what I want for them and what is now a societal norm?

    I know the chance of them being taken is very, very small. But the chance of them running on the road? Getting hurt? Getting hit by a car? Ugh. It’s hard. How do we do this? And I’m not about to go move to a farm just so they can roam free. I want our cities and towns to be safe. How must it feel to grow up in fear?

    I now just remembered one more thing. It was an interview with a woman on As It Happens a while ago. She let her son walk to soccer by himself, about 1 mile. He was 11. She was *arrested* because of this. It makes me sad.

    Thanks for posting this. Obviously, this is something I think about a lot!

    Reply
  4. Hi Carrie – As much as I miss living on the other side of Westmount as we used to, one large benefit to living where we do on a quiet street near the school is that our kids have been able to have a free range childhood, where they can roam the neighbourhood with minimal adult supervision.

    On the flip side, my 13 year old called yesterday to say he was staying afterschool to help with a volleyball game and would be home around 5. I didn’t even think twice until it was after 5:30. He wandered in at 5:42 but by then I had called three families looking for him, and had prepared my police and media statements.

    Reply
  5. I totally understand the fear (especially now I have my own child). But I’ll also say that neighbourhoods are not like they used to be when we were growing up. When our parents were parenting us, most of them knew everyone on the street. And I don’t mean SOME people. I mean EVERYONE. In my parents’ generation, front doors were left wide open and kids could wander in and out of neighbours homes like they were revolving doors. But all the neighbours were known – not just by name, but where they worked, how many kids they had, etc.

    I don’t think your fear today is irrational. Maybe there are as many child predators today as there ever were back when we were kids, when our parents were kids. But I would argue that because people have become more careful and more aware and more watchful of that, that child predators have, in turn, become bolder and will take greater risks now than they maybe needed to back when we were growing up/when our parents were. We don’t know everyone who lives around us – people are more private -t hey don’t hang out on their porches like in my parents day – doors are locked, blinds drawn. Bernardo and Homolka lured and raped and killed girls right under people’s noses. IN THE SUBURBS this went on – not on some remote farm somewhere. I might live in a special neighbourhood now where I could say I meet people and get to know people better than perhaps many neighbourhoods out there. But I don’t think your fear is irrational. Not one bit.

    When I was 8, everyone knew not to walk by so-and-so’s house on a certain street. We didn’t know the word pedophile. We just knew there was “some creep” who lived there. He was like the neighbourhood boogeyman. I would argue that they’re not monsters out of a fictional novel. They are out there and they live among us and we are wise to take every precaution we can – if it’s to some detriment to our kids sense of independence and freedom -I’m sorry, I’d rather they suffer a little of that maybe than be kidknapped, raped and/or killed.

    when I lived outside chicago, my eyes were opened by a mandatory rape prevention course when I was 16. It was a mandatory course in my highschool. It perhaps stripped away any possible innocence or naivete I might have still had by that age. I became VERY aware of everything/everyone around me. Yeah, it maybe made me al ittle paranoid. But it also may have saved my life a number of times by now throughout my life.

    We live in an unpredictable world and there are ‘boogeymen’ out there (and I say men because at the time I had done a 30-page paper for human sexuality course in University, there were no known cases of female pedophiles reported.) I’m sorry to leave such a long reply. This piece hit a real nerve. We simply live in a very different world than the ones we or our parents grew up in and I think we are wise to be a little bit afraid of what or who might be out there. Even indoors now, predators attempt to prey on our kids via the computer.we are all terrified that our child might ever be the one that goes missing. being hit by a car is a good point, too. Anything can happen when we’re not there to supervise. I think there are many other ways to teach a child independence and foster the feeling of freedom with understandable safety precautions and limitations. Thanks for such an emotive piece, Carrie.

    Reply
  6. I totally understand the fear (especially now I have my own child). But I’ll also say that neighbourhoods are not like they used to be when we were growing up. When our parents were parenting us, most of them knew everyone on the street. And I don’t mean SOME people. I mean EVERYONE. In my parents’ generation, front doors were left wide open and kids could wander in and out of neighbours homes like they were revolving doors. But all the neighbours were known – not just by name, but where they worked, how many kids they had, etc.

    I don’t think your fear today is irrational. Maybe there are as many child predators today as there ever were back when we were kids, when our parents were kids. But I would argue that because people have become more careful and more aware and more watchful of that, that child predators have, in turn, become bolder and will take greater risks now than they maybe needed to back when we were growing up/when our parents were. We don’t know everyone who lives around us – people are more private -t hey don’t hang out on their porches like in my parents day – doors are locked, blinds drawn. Bernardo and Homolka lured and raped and killed girls right under people’s noses. IN THE SUBURBS this went on – not on some remote farm somewhere. I might live in a special neighbourhood now where I could say I meet people and get to know people better than perhaps many neighbourhoods out there. But I don’t think your fear is irrational. Not one bit.

    When I was 8, everyone knew not to walk by so-and-so’s house on a certain street. We didn’t know the word pedophile. We just knew there was “some creep” who lived there. He was like the neighbourhood boogeyman. I would argue that they’re not monsters out of a fictional novel. They are out there and they live among us and we are wise to take every precaution we can – if it’s to some detriment to our kids sense of independence and freedom -I’m sorry, I’d rather they suffer a little of that maybe than be kidknapped, raped and/or killed.

    when I lived outside chicago, my eyes were opened by a mandatory rape prevention course when I was 16. It was a mandatory course in my highschool. It perhaps stripped away any possible innocence or naivete I might have still had by that age. I became VERY aware of everything/everyone around me. Yeah, it maybe made me al ittle paranoid. But it also may have saved my life a number of times by now throughout my life.

    We live in an unpredictable world and there are ‘boogeymen’ out there (and I say men because at the time I had done a 30-page paper for human sexuality course in University, there were no known cases of female pedophiles reported.) I’m sorry to leave such a long reply. This piece hit a real nerve. We simply live in a very different world than the ones we or our parents grew up in and I think we are wise to be a little bit afraid of what or who might be out there. Even indoors now, predators attempt to prey on our kids via the computer.we are all terrified that our child might ever be the one that goes missing. being hit by a car is a good point, too. Anything can happen when we’re not there to supervise. I think there are many other ways to teach a child independence and foster the feeling of freedom with understandable safety precautions and limitations. Thanks for such an emotive piece, Carrie.

    Reply
  7. Oh my goodness, I share your concerns! I don’t want my daughter to grow up in a safe little padded bubble. I want her to run around and have adventures and learn to cope with life on her own. Like you, I was an out-in-the-neighbourhood kid from the age of 4, in small towns and in cities. I want the same for my daughter.

    The big problem is the absence of other children on the street! I hope (*crossed fingers) that I can, when Maggie is old enough, send her to “call on” neighbourhood friends, and they can build up a gang, like we had. I wouldn’t mind if she was out there, today, IF there were other kids with her. I don’t fear molesters or abductors, but I do fear cars – I want to know there’s a second and third child present to go for help if they need to. And surely if enough of us make the same leap of faith, and let our kids go out together into the world, we’ll partially repopulate the streets and make them safe again.

    Our chosen neighbourhood (Seaton Village, Toronto) seems, also, a little more open and friendly than others I’ve lived in, so I hold out hope. People do play in the parks, walk their dogs, go out to community events here. Jane Jacobs talks about this a lot, about what makes streets safe is the number of eyes watching it. I promise to keep watch if the rest of you do too…

    Reply
  8. charlotte and m make good points that echo your concern Carrie. when my children were smaller they had oodles of “parentless” time at the cottage – unless any of the beach kids were going swimming, they’d all group together and explore the lake environment, invent games and generally live in their imaginations. If they were swimming, a parent would watch them. If you are in a mixed neighbourhood it is often difficult to find families with children the ages of your own (whatever they are) on your street. I remember as a child my mother loved to ensure that we were always outside (didn’t want kids underfoot, this wasn’t about giving independence!). I’m not sure that all the parentless cottage time made my children more independent – they are in fact very independent now (but lots of other relationships with children can foster independence – giving them the right to choose in certain dimensions of their lives etc) but they *loved* being able to roam alone – it was their favorite time of the year. And I do wish more kids could have that kind of fun together
    simone

    Reply

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