Freda Dudley Ward with Her Children, 1918
New York, 1940, by Helen Levitt
In her poem, "Manners," for a child of 1918, Elizabeth Bishop writes:
My grandfather said to me
as we sat on the wagon seat,
"Be sure to remember to always
speak to everyone you meet."
Now we say to children: "Never speak to strangers."
We also don't let children go anywhere by themselves. We drive them to school. Back home in Massachusetts, spring, summer, winter fall, when I look out the living room window, which gives me a long view of the street, I almost never see children.
J. tells me he took the bus and the streetcar to Boston when he was ten years old. I walked to school and went downtown by myself. I'm not going to blab on about the "good old days." There's a lot about the past that is not good, but children did have more freedom. We went off by ourselves for hours. Tell me, were you allowed to wander, to walk to school by yourself, to take a bus, a subway?
Why are we so frightened for our children? The rapidly cycling news brings us stories of murder and molestation. World-wide. Is there more evil afoot? I don't know. Chris Patten in the recent NYRB describes Americans: "You guzzle more gas and shoot one another with guns whose purchase is apparently guaranteed by your constitution. You tolerate greater degrees of social inequity . . . " If we narrowed the gap between the rich and the poor, would we be less afraid of strangers? Would we give our children more freedom?