This morning I watched as several children near my home boarded a school bus for a 45 second ride to the elementary school. A school that was clearly visible from their bus stop as the school was nearly across the street from where they lived. Approximately 1 parent for each child stood on the corner in this quiet relatively crime free neighborhood insuring the safety of their children. As I continued to observe I did note several apparently spontaneous high fives given to other parents (mostly mother to mother) as the bus moved off on its 45 second trip to school. Across the street I observed lines of parents many in their pajamas dropping students off at the designated morning entrance to the school. Not only dropping them off into the presence of a teacher or aid at the curb but then sitting and watching as traffic piled up behind them until the school’s doors had closed behind their child insulating them from the scary outside world. I watched this knowing that the same parents would be lined up in the afternoon some up to 45 minutes before school was out, some still in their pajamas, to pick their child up and chauffer them safely home to their video games and TV or more likely to music lessons, cheerleading practice, sports training or some other adult controlled activity.
I had noted several fathers with their children at the bus stop apparently leaving directly from the corner for work. Ahh, I thought more male parental involvement that must be good, but then I wondered did I miss anything by not having my father standing by the door or in the street when I left for school in the mornings? Thinking back I felt no sense of injustice, unfairness or injury because my father didn’t stand guard over me from the front door of my house to the bus stop 30 steps away or drop me off at the school’s front door other than in the most exceptional of circumstances. Times and issues were simpler back then, his job was to work, my mom’s job was the house and the children and my job was to get to school, do my school work, get home and then stay out of the way until dinner/bedtime.
I grew up in a 50’s sitcom neighborhood. My father was successful, my mother was smart, my life was good and everywhere outside the house from sun up till the street lights came on was the property of kids to patrol and use. There were trees for climbing, places to go on bikes, a toy store and drug store nearby where we could spend our 25 cent weekly allowance. We played hide and seek at night, football and baseball during the day and spent countless hours catching lightning bugs in the summer. We all had friends and as the country western song in perfect pitch with our mothers had said, “They were all outside.” And when it was raining we couldn’t wait until it stopped because everything we did was outside in the world of kids.
I have been teaching on and off in various situations since 1969 about 40 years. I started teaching when school bathrooms still had doors and everyone in elementary school walked to school on their own nearly every day, with plastic bags in their galoshes and mittens on a string wearing at least semi-appropriate clothing for the weather. My wife wants me to add here and girls were only allowed to wear pants/leggings during cold weather on the walk to school and the walk home but they had to come off at school because little girls did not wear pants.
When I started elementary school everyone walked home for lunch and there was someone there to fix it. It took special permission to stay at school over the lunch hour instead of special permission to leave school for lunch. And the lunch hour was actually an hour long. This meant that we made 4 trips a day often miles in length, starting in kindergarten and on our own through rain, sun and snow with the school’s expectations and our parent’s expectations that we could do it and indeed we made it happen nearly every day that school was in session. When we got to school in the morning we went to our own room and found something to do, helping, working or playing. We were not herded into the gym or the auditorium like some sort of raw commodity put in a storage warehouse of empty minds waiting for the bell to ring before learning could begin. And when the last bell rang we were dismissed into the world of kids getting our stuff and heading home with no adult supervision outside the room other than that requested because of a stuck zipper or balky boots in the winter. And I believe that because all of us came back the next day, we must have made it home in some cases miles away. Along the way crossing busy streets and 4 lane highways, having fights and getting over them or out of them, walking on walls, climbing trees, running, riding our bikes, often with no hands and never with helmets, all the way onto and off the school grounds. Building snow dams and racing toothpicks in the street gutter along busy streets in the spring when the snow melted. Pumping fists in the air at passing truckers hoping for an air horn blast and never cowering in fear of being kidnapped, We cut through stranger’s yards ( except for that one guy’s yard where it was rumored he cut up and ate little kids after his big dog caught them), had snowball fights( often slush or ice ball fights got hit, got hurt, and got back) and waded through waist deep snowdrifts laughing often, talking to each other without the benefit of technology and sometimes crying when things got rough. In general the only supervision after and before school outside of the school grounds when I was in elementary school was provided by 5th grade safety patrol kids. Some of whom were in charge of getting kids across Federal Highway 6 (the main northern states east west route) before the interstate highway system was developed. The safety patrol worked before and after school (without reporting to school first in the morning and leaving 15 minutes early from class in the afternoon and in all kinds of weather) some patrol boys (there were girls too but we were all patrol boys, often working out of sight and supervision over ¼ mile from the school building. Not a kid was lost and the members took their jobs seriously we knew we had responsibility because we had “badges and belts” and we knew that those symbols of trust could be and would be taken away if we failed in our responsibility. Today we need to start identifying our student leaders and giving them responsibilities while teaching trust by trusting all of our kids more than we do. I know that the media has taught us that we need to, as Sarge on Hill Street Blues said, “Be careful out there.” But I believe because of overbearing media coverage of everything bad we have become hypersensitive to the dangers of our world when in fact if anything our world and the world of our children is probably a lot less dangerous on a day to day basis now than it has ever been in the past. We and our children learn responsibility by having responsibility and at times seeing the results and bearing the consequences of our irresponsibility learning along the way like a Timex to, “take a licking and keep on ticking.”
Today as I watched kids living less than a block from school getting on the bus for a 45 second ride. I wondered have we really gained anything in the last 40 years by taking nearly all of the responsibility for themselves away from kids? Along with the lack of responsibility our children now, too often never suffer the consequences that used to naturally follow ill thought-out actions. Did we and our kids lose something when we started totally insulating our kids from the reality of their mistakes and stopped teaching kids and their friends through our actions that we trusted and expected them to get the job done on their own.
I truly believe that on rides to school in the family car and school buses kids learn nothing about handling their own problems with their peers. There is now almost always an adult or a parent nearby to intervene and control the situation when things get tense. I don’t believe that adults can teach everything a child needs to know, I believe that they must learn some of it themselves. Perhaps they need time when there is no higher authority present to control and mediate. I fear that the future will find our children acting like our congressmen and congresswomen who now seem to spend most of their time fighting because one of them has a ball and is going to take it home if the other ones don’t like or follow their rules. Apparently never having learned the rules of sandlot baseball where negotiation was almost as important as a strong arm and a good eye for the ball.
Now that we have little league everything; Soccer, Football, baseball, cheerleading, dance, karate, dodgeball and whatever. The one consistent factor is that now ” play” which is the work of kids and an integral part of the world of kids is now all governed by the rules of and overseen by adults. The neighborhood in the past, at least outside, was governed by the fairly hard edged rule of children and in many cases those rules were highly effective rules gained through experience and hard lessons, passed down from kid to kid and not often found in the adult play book. In fact when you look closely the rules of children were often the very same rules that govern the adult world only phrased and enforced quite differently. The “it’s my ball, and I’m leaving” problem never comes up on a little league diamond. It’s never handled by the kids. There was and is a wealth of social knowledge to be gained by walking home from school and playing with other kids unsupervised, having problems, solving them on your own and moving on.
I also believe that there are many positives in climbing trees getting up to the top thinking that you can’t get down sitting on a branch thinking about it for 30 minutes yelling for help for 30 minutes and then getting down on your own anyway. My tree was a red maple across the street from 3832 41st street in Des Moines Iowa and I still remember quite clearly the day that I got back down after yelling for help for ½ and hour and no one came. Yes some kids will break their arms but most won’t and just perhaps the self-confidence and self-reliance that I see missing in too many kids today might grow again in our children.
Is there time to replace the growing social mantras of, reliance on others, blaming everyone except ourselves, and the almost constant appeal to written rules and higher authority? Can we replace these weaknesses with self-reliance, peer cooperation, and thoughtful understanding? I don’t know but I’m willing to try, are you? I know that the kids can do it if we just get out of their way and let them suffer the small hurts early in life that are the lessons that are required to avoid a lifetime of social dysfunction.