Thursday, February 25, 2010

Children, Freedom, Manners

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?


  1. I went everywhere - in the school holidays we were expected to keep ourselves amused in the parks for hours on end, nobody seemed worried. My children didn't have the same freedom - I saw potential abductors behind every tree, and dangers everywhere, and I was not unusual in this. My sense is that things actually are more dangerous, but I may be wrong.

  2. Unfortunately, this is not a uniquely American phenomenon. I grew up in 60S/70s Scotland in a semi-rural environment and ran free most of the time. Now I live in a large town in France where it's rare to see a child alone in the street. I sometimes feel that I'm raising my children like battery hens and that they are developing all of the corresponding fears and apprehensions of animals that don't know anything of the real world. I'm hoping that they will break free from our overprotectiveness as soon as they're ready.

  3. I had a lot of freedom in the 50s and 60s. I was taking the bus downtown by myself with my violin for lessons when I was 9. I was on my own by the time I was 13 in I lived in a dangerous world. This was 1966. I was molested as a child and approached by strangers and hurt. The world is no worse now than it was then. We just hear more about it we have that pipeline of information. We have CPS and stranger danger and more awareness. This has to be better. But humans will harm their children. They will no matter.

  4. Yes, Radish, no matter, terrible things happen. I'm sorry you suffered at the hands of strangers.

    At lunch today for our grandson's 5th birthday, I mentioned this blog post. Our daughter-in-law said she would not let our Matthew wander unsupervised. Things are different today. Our son agreed.

  5. I too had a lot of freedom as a child in the fifties/sixties, too much I think.

    As an aside, I have also noticed that we never see dogs on the street, not dogs without owners and leashes.

    That too seems a good thing , given the number of dead dogs I saw as a child.

    As for children, I see an awful lot of adolescents loose but no one under twelve unaccompanied by an adult and that is sad, though preventative, I suppose.

    Thanks, Mim.

  6. I'm not so sure the world is so unsafe. But we perpetuate this sense of fear, and it has had a domino effect.
    Many parents might actually be happy to send their children to buy some milk or bread from the shop, but they're worried about other parents disapproving.
    Should I become a parent, I will do my utmost to make sure my children have the freedom to spend all day outdoors should they so wish. But the Wii of the future might keep them indoors anyway...

  7. PS You can now see the red lycra, should you still wish!

  8. Lewis you are very trim in red lycra. Pearly feet!

    Lewis's blog is:

    I enjoyed his post about pub work-outs.

  9. Mim, I suffered most at the hands of my family which is usually the case. Lewis, I think when you have children, you might view the world differently.

    Hurray for more live and lively dogs!

  10. i played alone and with neighborhood kids in the woods for hours, just had to be home by 5:30...
    i raised my son on the Bowery in NYC, and he walked home from school to an empty apartment starting at age 10. he was supposed to call me at my job the minute he got home, but half the time he forgot. he was a dreamy boy; i was a nervous wreck most of the time...

  11. Where I currently live, in the 'burbs, one not only doesn't see children, one never sees human life in any form, except through car windows. This seems to wrong to me. I finally gave up my attempts at neighborliness. It's a very stifling environment. I miss the city.

  12. Over here in Athens, most kids until the age of 15 are indeed taken to the school, to their sport in the afternoon, to extra classes as well, even while visiting friends - well, probably to all what's inside of their life.
    Mostly due to the rather dangerous traffic, to which I am still not used to after five years, making it also hard to leave your child on his own, walking to the playground near by.
    Yes, I do miss "home". Thank you for the memories. A wonderful start into the weekend of yours.

  13. I'm so glad we can at least wander in our dreams.

    Goodnight, all.