My mom took the parental path of least resistance. Not that she neglected us — far from it. But she never over-supervised. She let us have our freedom — freedom to bike, freedom to play, freedom to gash our heels open and leave a trail of blood up the sidewalk. This wasn’t seen as particularly dire, by the way; she just bandaged me up and I went back outside, blood darkening multiple bandaids. We had at least a square mile to play in, a mile full of sidewalks and trees and a creek and high curbs and other children. She let us go — and without sunscreen, too! — and we thrived.
Mom let us bike as far as the farthest avenue, where it turned down into the big road, all the way to the far edge, past my grandparent’s house and the park towards the drugstore. We had bikes as soon as we could ride them. And we rode them — fast, alone, in the middle of the road, and on the sidewalks. We waved to our grandparents on their porch as we sped by, legs out, feet off the pedals, before screaming to a halt at the stop sign.
If I gave an 8-year-old this kind of freedom, someone would call social services. My children will never have the luxury of dreaming alone on their bicycles as they pedal slowly down the sidewalk, bumping over curbs.
Mom let us roam. We didn’t have an air conditioner, and on hot days, the coolest place to be was outside. If we didn’t feel like biking, we’d walk several blocks to the park, where we’d swing on the swings and hang upside down on the monkey bars. They removed the bright metal slide when I was 4, but old spring-riding horses remained, along with a seesaw and an old merry-go-round that regularly dragged kids through the mud. Sometimes we’d go down and climb the eight- foot rock retaining walls for fun, shimmying under the metal railing at the top.
Now, well-meaning adults would ask where our parents were. After all, every other child at the park would have a parent, pushing their kids on the swing, or sitting on the seesaw, or slowly turning the merry-go-round with dire warnings to “Hold on!” If they saw us, they’d mutter behind their hands and debate whether or not to call the police. Most likely they’d deputize someone to watch us, to tell us what to do and warn us off the “dangerous” parts.
Our favorite place to play in our neighborhood wasn’t the park, however. It was the small creek that ran perpendicular to our street, under the road on two ends. You could swing around a fence post and climb down to the water, where all the neighborhood kids played. We dammed it. We looked for crawfish. We splashed upstream to investigate the echoes under the bridge, to stand under the road while cars drove above us. We skipped rocks. Once I found a live baby crow and took it home, riding on my shoulder. My mom made me take it back to the creek.
Now the property owners have fenced the creek off for insurance reasons. We have a stream down the road from our house, only a block away. It floods with the rains and I know all sorts of animals probably live there, from frogs to crawfish to minnows to snakes. But I don’t dare let my sons go down to play in it. The owner would chase us off, probably for the same insurance reasons that fenced off my beloved creek, and threaten us with trespassing. If I sent my kids alone, they’d get an additional lecture about “Where are your parents?” and I’d find myself talking to social services.
And speaking of water, we were members of a public pool. At 8, I was trusted to go to the bathroom alone, to buy snacks from the snack stand, and to generally stay out of my mother’s sight and hearing while she read a book and ignored us all. Or visited with her mom friends, because there were always a substantial number of unattended moms reading books on towels and trying to get a tan.
Now, I must escort my child everywhere. An 8-year-old buying Cheetos would be eyed with some suspicion, and despite the lifeguards, at a pool, you must have your eyes on your children at all times. My mom probably glanced up every once in awhile to see what we were doing. Now, it’s staring or nothing; you don’t dare check your phone.
I want to parent like my mom could. I want to let my children roam, and bike, and splash in strange creeks. I want them to see snakes, not know if they’re venomous, and run screaming. I want them to peel all the skin off their knee when they hit a mailbox on their bicycle. And yes, I want them to slash their heel, and scrape their elbows, and pee in the pool when no one is looking. My mother could give us marvelous freedoms; I only wish I could give the same to my children this summer.