Child’s Play for Free-Range Children

In last week’s article, “Child’s Play is About More Than Games,” Peter Gray and Lenore Skenazy argue that today’s children are losing out in a big way as their lives become more regimented and scheduled. They spend more time in front of screens than in the outdoors, and are constantly supervised instead of working things out among themselves.

Free-Range Children

young wolves playing

Young Wolves Playing

This is all true and it’s encouraging to see an author and a research professor of child psychology come out and say it in The Wall Street Journal. People of a certain age—mostly the Baby Boomers—post items like this on Facebook frequently.  We remember what it was like to have the freedom of the open range on which to run and play. Our posts may seem self-congratulatory but, really, we feel sorry for today’s kids.

For anyone having anything approximating a normal childhood, it’s easy to see it through rose-colored glasses. After all, when you’re a kid your only responsibilities are to (1) go to school, (2) finish your homework, and (3) avoid doing anything so egregiously stupid it puts you in the hospital. During summer recess, you can forget about the first two.

Growing up as a Boomer kid in Somerset, MA during the fifties meant that we were the original free-range children. We not only had a lot of freedom but a crowd of friends to roam the range with. The Baby Boom provided us with multiple siblings and neighborhoods full of kids of both genders and all ages.  Running in packs offered us a fair amount of safety that doesn’t attach to solitary kids or just a pair.

Well-grounded Parents

Our parents were well-grounded, the opposite of today’s helicopter parents. Their idea of “hands-on parenting” was giving us a smack on the butt if we didn’t mind or if we did anything that approached being egregiously stupid (see above). They would have laughed at much of today’s accepted parenting wisdom, such as:

  1. A parent should be a kid’s best friend: Fifties parents put their kids in the same category as young wolves; intelligent and trainable but requiring strong discipline before they could join polite society. They were not wrong.
  2. Parents are responsible for entertaining their children:  Our parents worked hard and left entertainment up to their kids.Their idea of alleviating our boredom was to say, “Go play outside.” In a pinch, they might add, “Why don’t you go up to the playground?” That ended their involvement in our summer activities unless we required first aid.
  3. Spanking is child abuse:  What? Are you kidding? How else do you get young wolves to learn what’s right and wrong and make them pay attention to the lesson so they don’t repeat the mistake?
  4. Somerset, American Legion Hall, Gibbs Cemetery, free-range children

    The Old Neighborhood

    Parents should set up play dates:  What’s a play date? We had two versions of play dates. One was to run next door, knock, then ask, “Can Pauline come out and play?” Or Liz or Caroline, etc. The other was to find a pack of kids on the corner, up at the playground, or sitting on the steps of the American Legion Hall across the street (our auxiliary playground along with Gibbs Cemetery behind it) and join up with them. Next came the negotiations about what game we wanted to play. They we started playing.

  5. Do you know where your children are?  Heck, no. In the summer we went out after breakfast and didn’t come home until lunch. After lunch we went back out again until dinner. After dinner we played outside until we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces or our parents called us in, whichever came first. Then our parents knew where we were.
  1. Parents should support their children in any conflict with teachers: We all went to parochial school for the first six grades and lived in fear of Mother Superior calling our parents to report misbehavior on our part. The swat we received in school from our teacher would have been followed swiftly by a spanking from our parents. We had no opportunity to play one against the other because they presented a unified trinity that was made up of teacher, parent, and God. We knew that God was not on our side.

Two Separate Worlds

In many ways we occupied the same space as our parents but lived in completely separate worlds. Our job was to play, to learn, to figure out what we liked or not, to decide who our friends were, to not bother our parents, and to avoid going to the hospital. Their jobs were to make money, run the house, and train us to be suitable candidates to enter polite society. They put a roof over our heads, food on the table and clean clothes on our backs. They—OK, Mom—cleaned scrapes and cuts and painted us with Mercurochrome and slapped on bandages. They swatted our behinds when they deemed it necessary. We stayed out of their hair and they gave us the freedom to play.

Of course Baby Boomers are sentimental about childhood, especially in the summer: it was mostly fun and games for free-range children. Today’s kids are missing out on a lot. A baseball videogame is not the same as playing baseball, and a play date is not remotely like playing hide and seek in the backyard. I wish more of today’s kids had the same kind of freedom we did. They’re still young wolves — only they live in a zoo.

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