80’s Free Range Childhood Was Not the Same as 50’s Childhood

80’s Free Range Childhood Was Not the Same as 50’s Childhood April 23, 2015

I’ve had a recurring thought lately, that I should be a school bus driver, because every day, I follow the school bus all around town, doing exactly what it does at the exact same time. School bus drivers I’ve known have all been good people, even “Bert” the grouchy bus driver of my youth with her giant mug-a-lug on the dash, and the little black rat-tail hanging from the back of her short haircut. All she ever really said was “Shut up,” but there was always a weird sadness on the last day of school when she dropped us off and said goodbye with an uncharacteristic smile. It seemed as if under her veneer of absolute contempt, she might secretly like us. She was probably just glad for vacation.

Following the school bus all over town is my nod to concerned parenthood. My kids are in public school, but I can at least spare them the perils of the school bus–the swear words, the wedgies, the learning how to spit, and the handsy behavior of unchaperoned children. This is an ironic concession, since I am mildly in favor of free-range parenting, but I helicopter the kids to school rather than letting them take advantage of the best free public transportation that America has on offer. The bus is literally, door to door service, for free, and yet the line of parents dropping their children off at school rather than putting them on the bus gets a little longer every year.

This year, our school is totally renovating their parking lot to accommodate “car riders”–a class of students that was virtually non-existent in my youth–with a convenient car-to-school pathway that doesn’t cross any lanes of bus or vehicle traffic. It’s a long overdue renovation, eliminating what has appeared to be a far more dangerous dynamic of cars backing into parking spaces and children and parents wandering to the school doors as if in a Target parking lot, only with far more children and cars, all descending on the place at once.

We are technically a family within walking distance of the school, but I don’t let my children walk either, because of the glaring lack of sidewalks on the roads that abut the school– yet another reason why I am free-range in theory but not in practice. The world is not amenable to pedestrian traffic, when elementary schools are dropped in the middle of isolated fields on two-lane highways. More and more brick school buildings in the center of town are converted to apartments or civic buildings, while sprawling, school-scapes on the outskirts collect our children each day, claiming the amenities of playground space, and sporting facilities and parking lots. I get it. There’s a trade-off for every good thing, and I’m game.

Am I allowed to be a little tired of the rosy nostalgia pieces about our sunlit youth, roaming the neighborhoods on our bikes from dawn to sunset, watched over by benevolent aunties who only intervened when someone was in physical danger? Did this idealized childhood really exist, where kids learned conflict resolution and problem solving with hands-on experience in the totally really real world of the suburban boulevard and the drainage ditch?

And if it did, may I posit that the strongest parties were the primary beneficiaries of infant justice? I keep wracking my memory for a golden age of children forming utopian societies in the neighborhood, but what I actually remember is casual cruelty, kissing games, and few adults that gave a crap as opposed to many adult eyes on the street.

Dare I recall sneaking in the back door of the dark and tobacco infused W home to peruse the Spenser’s catalog, which featured, among other delights, a virtual smorgasbord of edible underwear? And Mr. and Mrs. W? They were at work.

Two doors down, Mrs. L was usually at home, but she was the not-so-generous homeowner possessed of the neighborhood’s only swimming pool. People were always trying to get invited to play with the L kids, but she usually said no, because kids who can’t swim are a liability, and she wanted to watch Tootsie. Incidentally, Mrs. L told anyone who would listen that the eight-year-old son of the B-family who lived around the block tried to touch her son’s privates, and that’s why she doesn’t allow the B kids to come over anymore.

Speaking of privates, out on the county roads within biking riding distance, there was actually a bonafide penis flasher, who was reported to have given thanks for receiving directions from a twelve-year-old girl in our neighborhood with a glimpse of his glory stick.

Oh, of course, there were good times too. The drainage ditch really was the only science lesson of my childhood that stuck–catching tadpoles, wading after a storm, lifting the green scrim of algae with a stick to find a toad, and the awesome time we looked at ditchwater under a microscope and saw all the little squiggly moving things in it. Never drank that water again. But all that happened when my parents were around. They were the ones who knew how to use the microscope.

Maybe if you grew up in the fifties the free-range scene was more alluring, but in the eighties, we went to school. We were given a key for our return. It wasn’t that our parents were benevolently neglecting us because we lived in a safer world. They were at work, out of necessity, and after-school care was not yet a widespread offering. The truth is, sometimes bad things really did happen in those limbo hours, even in the midst of the good. But most of the time, we were sitting in our dens watching TV, because our parents were gone and we could get away with it. Often, the hours were packed to the gills with Oprah and Robotech.

My friend, Jenny says, “In our culture’s rush to free women from the home, we forgot that someone still needs to raise the children. I think our generation was the guinea pig in the grand experiment. Thus the rise of helicoptering after us.”

I helicopter certain parts of my children’s lives now (like the school bus), because of my own somewhat “free-range” experiences, but I think it’s OK to be both ways, to be protective and to encourage independence. I certainly don’t micromanage the kids’ free time at home, or keep them cooped up indoors. They play outside a lot, independently, and they’re quite good at it. I’m also fine with letting my kids be mentored by other adults, like sports coaches and teachers in a structured environment. I’m looking for a balance.

My favorite memories of childhood are ones in which we were provided with both structure and freedom, both supervision and independence, like when our family got together with another family in the neighborhood for a cookout. The parents sat on the porch talking, within sight and available, but still totally ignoring us. The kids played organized games, because we were all being ignored together, and that’s what they told us to do–thus we played hide and seek long after dark, but we never left the yard.

Don’t get me wrong–I also have very warm feelings for the time my cousin and I drove the station wagon to Osco when we were eleven* *(Free Range!). It’s just not something I want my kids to do.

IMG_8220Children today do actually still know how to play, even the ones who also play video games. But on the whole, they’re playing in safer, more structured and supervised environments. I think this is a pro, even while it’s also a con, that kids get to try out many different activities with less concern of being felt up by the neighbor boy, or crushed by mean girls.

Surely we’ve learned something from the scandals in the church and all the conversations about rape culture and bullies–that abuse thrives where there’s silence and lack of supervision, where popularity is currency, where might is right, where blackmail keeps what happens on the playground on the playground. Children really can be quite naughty left to their own devices. Almost as naughty as grownups.

Someday, I would like to see a nostalgia piece about depression era childhood*, where children were turned out of their families once they were old enough to earn a wage. Or what about a glowing history of Regency childhood in the golden cage–nannied and chaperoned to marriage?

Until then, the world turns, quite literally, with bulldozers and pavers, to accommodate the helicopter parents in the pick-up line. Most communities don’t have viable alternatives, if they ever did. And the helicopter parents increase, even if helicoptering is not their preference.




*A happier depression era memoir.

** No, our parents did not know about our underage driving until a year or so ago.

Related links:


Seven Reasons We Can’t Stand Free Range Parenting

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