For the core years of my childhood,I had as much freedom as one could reasonably request. My friends and I would wander from one kid’s house to another, from one park or playground to the downtown two miles away or to the lake, coming and going as we pleased. The collective impression of all of our parents was that the town was safe and that our own development, academically and morally, was, if not of low stakes, at least requiring only intermittent monitoring.
As a result, I had a phenomenally happy childhood, the memories of which are disproportionately of dangerous and stupid things we did when no one was watching- street hockey games played with tennis balls doused in gasoline and lit afire, duck eggs we stole from their mother’s nest and incubated to hatching in a friend’s garage, a frayed rope swing over a sixty-foot rocky gorge, dislocating my shoulder when sledding with five kids in a single sled and knocking into a tree at the bottom of a ravine, spray painting our nicknames onto the underside of an overpass, sneaking out from a friend’s sleepover and buying gyros at three in the morning when we were 10, and other hours and hours of unattended adventure.
2016 is, no doubt, at an extreme of overprotectiveness in childrearing, but that doesn’t mean that 80s permissiveness was some kind of historical norm. It’s probably not surprising that many or most of the kids I grew up with were underachievers, not just expressing the downward regression to the mean that you expect from upper-middle-class kids but underperforming their own measurable abilities, ending up in semi-major trouble with the law or not finishing high school and substituting a GED a few years later.
My own innate dorkiness shielded me from the more dire risks, along with moving away partway through high school. And when I check in with childhood friends who did take wrong turns they have, by and large, recovered in part if not in full; they’re not in jail at any rate. The allegation that wealthier and whiter kids can sustain greater waywardness and risk than their poorer classmates is not groundless.
But, at a selfish level, I wouldn’t trade the freedom I had from age six through fourteen for the world. If I can’t- because times have changed, because an East Coast suburb is not a Midwestern college town, and because I suspect their risks would be greater than my own- deliver the same freedom to my own kids, I certainly would wish something close for them.
Maybe childhood is preparation for a stable adulthood, but then again maybe a stable adulthood has as its justification that it allows for carefree kids.