Lance Mannion has a really nice contrast between childhood now and back in the 1970′s that doesn’t go in the usual decline-of-society direction. He grew up not too far from where I now live, and after describing his free-ranging youth, points out some of the key factors distinguishing it from today, that need to be accounted for before lamenting the lack of kids running around outside:
– A lot of the houses in “the old neighborhood” are still owned by the people who owned them back in the day, so the only kids around are visiting grandkids,
– Those homes that are occupied by families with kids are usually occupied by families with fewer kids than back in the day, so there are fewer older siblings to keep tabs on younger kids and that kind of thing,
– Most importantly, back in the day, there were fewer two-career families. Those kids running around out in the neighborhood were always within shouting distance of multiple parents.
I’m a bit younger than Lance, and grew up way out in the country, but this rings pretty true to my experience. And as I said, we live in a neighborhood not all that far from the one he talks about, and the changes he describes also ring true. Our neighborhood is great, but it’s split between families with kids and empty-nesters. The “with kids” fraction is increasing, but there are probably two childless houses for every one with kids, and most of the families are on the smaller side compared to the 70′s– I can’t think of anyone in the immediate neighborhood with more than three kids.
So a lot of things have changed to make it less likely that you’ll see kids running around outside. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t kids running around outside– my computer sits in front of a window that faces the street, and when I’m home during the day, I regularly see kids running and playing outside. But the overall numbers are reduced to a point where it’s fairly likely that people driving through the neighborhood could reasonably be clucking their tongues and talking about how sad it is that no kids play outside any more. You have to live here to know that there are kids around, because the density is lower than it used to be.
And the lack of kids is more apparent during the day, for the economic reasons Lance notes. Basically all of the families with kids in the area are two-career families, which means that during work hours, the number of kids around drops to nearly zero. They’re all in day care, even in the summer. Not because parents are overly controlling, or afraid to let their kids roam, but because they’re at work, because they have to be to live in this neighborhood. This also feeds some of the “never away from parents” thing that people talk about, because the time parents get to spend with their kids is more limited and thus more valuable.
But there are pockets that seem a lot like the old days– down the block from us, there’s a cluster of three families all with kids about SteelyKid’s age (including one of her kindergarten classmates). Those kids are in and out of each others’ houses and yards all day long, often with no visible adult supervision. SteelyKid had a friend over yesterday, and we wandered down there after lunch, where the kids ran around a lot like it was back in the day. It’s a little too far to just send a six-year-old off there on her own (and none of the houses between here and there are families with kids), but within a few years, I can easily imagine pointing SteelyKid in their direction after school and on weekends, and having the kids from down there show up in our yard.
Anyway, it’s worth reading Lance’s post, because it’s a cut above most of the hand-wringing you see about the way we raise kids these days. It’s really not as dire a situation as a lot of cultural critics make out, if you look carefully at what’s changed from the “good old days.”