I was born in Detroit and lived in Royal Oak before it was expensive and full of art galleries and good restaurants. Saunders Ice Cream shop and a good Jewish bakery met every requirement a little kid could have for a city. Aside from my family, I remember Mrs. Finzel, an old lady who made candy, my best friend Patrice and his older brother, LaMonte.
My stint there was short lived, though. I figured out how to unlatch the gate and let myself out of the yard. I wandered down to a very busy intersection and not only scared my parents to death – I inadvertently convinced them to move from the little neighborhood I loved. I was three when we moved to… Mayberry. I remember the day vividly. I rode with my grandparents. Booster seat? Ha! Seat belt? Ha! Ha! I sat on the console between them, drinking a Coke out of a glass bottle as we flew East on I-96.
We had Nice Old Ladies next door and across the street, and shared a driveway with our babysitters. My first best friend, Pam lived in the house behind us and two other kids, Jamie and Richie lived across the street. We all went to the same school, and we all walked. On the way we picked up Robbie, Gandolf, Joel, and Amy. By the time we had covered the four blocks to Holbrook Elementary, there was a pack of us. We had a post office, library, theater, grocery store, and two restaurants within walking distance to our house – and at a pretty young age were allowed to walk or ride bikes to them without supervision.
The other day, A.P. wanted ‘some kids’ to play with, but they are in other schools and have different dismissal times, or are in daycare. I felt badly for him; all of his play experiences are planned and involve phone calls and driving.
I suggested he get his bike, and when he asked if he was old enough to ride his bike around the block I said that in fact, I thought he was. After all, at his age I had been walking to school for a year and a half. We talked for a long time about how to handle different situations he might encounter, and I let him go. When he came back around the corner, we were both elated. Then I did something I don’t do often as a parent – I second guessed myself. I pictured all of the awful things that could have happened to him. What had I done?
I asked Facebook Friends if they allowed their kids to ride out of sight. The majority said that while they had been able to while they were growing up, they did not allow their children to. Are we all really living in neighborhoods that are dramatically worse than when we grew up? Or is it just, as people say, “Times have changed”. I struggled for a C in physics but I do know that time is a constant – so something else has changed. Are we more aware of dangers that have always been present – or are there new ones?
I don’t know if I am right to let A.P. ride his bike around the block alone. I feel silly for how much time I have spent pondering it; but not for the greater question that has arisen in my mind: how much wandering is possible in a modern childhood? Think back to your own childhood. If you take ‘wandering’ out of the equation, how much different would you be?