A couple months ago, the 24 hour news cycle glommed onto a story about “free range kids.” Turns out, there are parents who don’t believe their kids need to be scheduled 24-7, and that, in fact, they think kids can benefit by learning a measure of self-reliance.
This is not an easy road for parents to take in this day and age of abject fear of just about everything, including the seeming rash of child abductions. Which turn out to be another artifact of modern fear and refusal to credit facts. Because actual facts would prove that random child abductions are extremely rare—and always have been—those faces on the milk cartons included. Most child abductions are by parents or other relatives, not random child molesters prowling the streets. Actually, according to government statistics, little kids are far more likely to be killed by a family member or an acquaintance.
In addition, violent crime of all kinds has been sharply decreasing for a couple decades now, although people’s worry about crime have been increasing. Violent crime of all kinds in the U.S. decreased by 48 percent between 1995 and 2013. But during the same era, our fear of crime skyrocketed, something we have to credit that 24-hour news cycle noted above, plus right wing hate radio and FOX News, both groups which have a vested interest in stoking unreasoning fear. They could be citing the, you know, actual facts, but that wouldn’t play well with their audience or their sponsors and donors. As Upton Sinclair put it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
The fact is that crime probably isn’t a whole lot more prevalent when our increased population is taken into account than it was when I was a kid. And back then, in the 1950s, the current fixation on scheduling kids 24/7 wasn’t even possible, at least not in our small Illinois town. Turns out, I was a free range kid.
There simply wasn’t much to do, so we made our own entertainment. Both my folks worked, my dad selling and delivering livestock feed and my mother working at a series of bookkeeping jobs. As a result, my summers from third grade on were the sort of carefree times you read about in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We were corrupted by reading books by the aforementioned Twain, as well as the Penrod books by Booth Tarkington and—one of our particular, all-time favorites—Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy. Yes, Tarkington’s books on reading 50 years on are remarkably racist and Aldrich was a nativist of the worst stripe. But in those innocent days, the books were mostly useful for introducing the kinds of devilment our ancestors developed, and which we aimed to perfect.
We spent hours every day on the river in our flatbottomed scows, poling up and down the stream because it was far to shallow for oars. Sometimes we fished, although in those years, the fish were pitiful things, since the river was so polluted. It was so polluted, in fact, that we knew enough to never wade barefoot for fear of getting a cut or scrape. Chemical companies upstream figured the river was their own private disposal. One of them dumped cyanide in the river one fine day, killing all the fish—and almost every other aquatic creature, for that matter—for a 10 mile stretch of stream. We counted more than 500 dead fish along my folks’ 132 feet of shoreline. Along with the stunted bullheads and bluegills that we usually caught and the giant carp that infested the river were big bass, large catfish, and even a northern pike or two, fish we had no idea could even survive in our dirty stream (thanks for the allusion, Pete).
Even so, we were fascinated with exploring the river’s islands, looking for this and that, or just drifting along on a sunny afternoon. I bought my scow from a young fellow up river, but most of us built our own. Most were lightly built, but not mine, which was built of 1″ lumber throughout and was so heavy—and stable—that I could jump up and down on one of the gunwales and it would barely rock.
When we got tired of playing on the river, we’d repair to the woods across the street from my house where we cleared bicycle trails connecting “towns” we’d built with windfallen sticks we harvested from under the trees. Our houses sported gabled, thatched roofs thanks to the tall grasses that grew on some of the islands that were fairly rainproof.
In the evening, after supper, we’d head up to town to sit on the corner of Main Street and Route 34 and look for out-of-state license plates in those years when Ike’s Interstate system was under construction and U.S. highways were major transportation corridors, or play games of ditch-em on our bikes that taught us every nook, cranny, and back alley of our little village.
There were the pick-up games of baseball, First Bounce or Fly, and 500, and sometimes we’d even attend the park district’s youth programming—but that was very much a last resort. We didn’t much care for organized “fun,” and most of us still don’t. I suppose it was good training for the 1960s, attitudes that even the military service so many of us contributed didn’t, as far as I can tell, have much of an impact.
It was pretty much as idyllic a childhood as anyone could imagine. Boring? Sometimes, you bet it was, but it turns out boredom is a creative force, one that too many modern kids are not given the opportunity to enjoy along with the unstructured, creative play we enjoyed growing up in plenty.