I grew up in the 40s without television to distract me or CNN to scare me. News didn’t travel as fast back then, so my parents and I were not traumatized by horrendous tales of kids being murdered or kidnapped when allowed outside unattended.
Thinking back to when I was nine, I can’t remember what the furniture in my room looked like but I do have vivid memories of our quirky neighbours and the small five and dime shops on our street. Reading, colouring and listening to stories on the radio were for rainy days only. Every free moment we had, we begged our moms for permission to go outside to play with friends. We were taught not to speak to strangers and then set free to run with ‘the pack.’ This thinking was in line with the way I raised my own kids.
Today, most youngsters need to be coaxed outside. Unlike their grandparents’ generation, they have the lure of video games and computers to captivate their imaginations and keep them wanting more of the same. I recently came across Nature Valley’s "Three Generations" video that illustrates this point so beautifully. These kids seem to be addicted to cyber-stuff in the same way my childhood gang couldn’t get enough of being outdoors, free to explore.
I have wonderful memories of riding my bike and roller skating spring through fall. It mattered little if we fell and skinned our knees on the pavement. We simply spit on our fingers and used the moisture to wash the dirt off our minor wounds. Going back inside only meant less time racing up and down the sidewalks. Winter meant pulling your pal on a toboggan, sliding down snow banks and building huge snowmen (at least we thought they were huge). By the time we came in for supper, our cheeks were rosy and numb with cold, our woolen mittens soaked and hung on the radiators to dry.
However when it comes to childhood memories, summertime at the cottage produced the most glorious times ever. For two carefree months we kids were up with the birds and came indoors only for meals. Invariably there were bitter complaints when we were called in again after the sun went down. How could our parents be so mean? There were still small frogs to capture in tin cans, bright pebbles to collect and big, juicy worms to find for fishing. Swimming and rowing our old boat down the lazy country river was the only time our parents supervised us. We were allowed to do ’the dog paddle' but never in water that went ‘over our heads.’
If you ask what I absolutely loved to do as a kid, it would be to go completely unsupervised on a picnic to Rock Island Number One. Don’t bother checking; Rock Island Number One doesn’t appear on any maps. It was simply a name we gave to the boulder that could be approached only via a field and up a hill no more than fifteen minutes from home. Oh, the preparations for those explorations.
Mom would wrap soggy chopped egg sandwiches in wax paper, fill an empty glass jam jar with chocolate milk, add cookies to the mix, and put all those goodies into a brown paper bag for each one of us. At high noon under the direct sun we trudged up the hill, scaled the huge rock (at least we thought it was huge) and sat at the top to eat our lunch. In retrospect, enjoying our picnic probably took no more than ten minutes. Then with nothing else one can do on a boulder top we simply turned around, scaled the rock in reverse, climbed all the way down the hill and went back home clutching the empty jam jar for the next time. I still remember the fantastic sense of accomplishment we felt on completion of our huge expedition.
Now looking back I realize our mothers never once worried they were sending their kids to climb a potentially dangerous rock while carrying a glass jar in our lunch bags. Without household help, they were probably too busy washing dishes by hand, scrubbing floors, or cooking dinner from scratch to consider it. They were happy to have us out of their hair. And guess what? We all survived.
If truth be told, I’m sure that my mom’s benign neglect informed the ways that years later I parented my own children.
There are comical books written about naive city slickers who buy property in the country and the huge learning curve they have to face. That was me and my husband. The children’s camp we bought in the 60's, Camp Kennebec, was four hours away. That meant each weekend, we shlepped a dog and two young children so that we could do the necessary repairs so we could open for business. Naturally, the kids hated being imprisoned in the car but once we arrived and let them loose they thrived on the freedom. While we adults painted swimming docks and mowed fields, the little ones caught minnows by the shoreline and picked bouquets of wild flowers for us. They learned first-hand about nature, became brown as berries and came back for meals hungry as little bears. I like to think that those camp weekends were my children’s version of Rock Island Number One. In fact, you can get a first hand glimpse into what Erica thought of her own free range childhood here.