Come Home Dirty and Bruised

Babies smell wonderful.  And they have the added virtue of being there, right where you put them down, when you’re ready to pick them up again and take another whiff.  But eventually, babies grow up. They have to, no matter how much you wish they didn’t.

In a New York Times op-ed, John Beckman, an English prof at Annapolis, writes that all children should be delinquents.

By making things, breaking things and taking real risks, by becoming citizens in our ad hoc community, we used the fallow days of summer to put our Catholic-school education, and our parents’ parenting, to the test. Trial and error often proved that they were right. But in discovering what we enjoyed most — not what we were taught to enjoy — we also discovered new parts of ourselves: artists, engineers, combatants, daredevils, explorers, criminals, comedians and more. Our summer fun was a field study in life, which is the last thing we would have thought at the time.

We were typical of our era. Throughout the 1970s in America, much of the adult world was losing its grip — economically, politically, socially. But that didn’t stop kids from having fun in groundbreaking ways. If anything, it left kids freer to experiment and reboot a moribund popular culture; this was the decade that spawned hip-hop, skaters and punks.

Dr. SJ and I were talking about this yesterday, sitting around the pool sipping piña coladas from unbreakable plastic cups, as we don’t allow glass wear so that no shard accidentally touches a tender toe.  Our parents would have been convicted felons had they been rearing us today, whether for their benign neglect or the brutality of their punishments for our misbehavior.  Can you imagine anyone saying, “children should be seen and not heard” today? They would be thrown in the hole for such abusiveness.

But we got to play.  We left the house as soon as we could pretend the last morsel of breakfast was eaten, jumped on our Schwinn Sting Rays and were off in search of the world.  The only admonition was to be home by supper.

A key component of all this fun, from the wholesome to the ugly, was that we sought it out on our own. Many parents (like mine) were actually quite strict and culturally conservative, but their prohibitions only inspired us to find rowdier and more independent diversions. But many other parents — most, it seemed — were just checked out; they were either exhausted by broods of seven to 12 kids (at one point we counted five such clans in a one-block radius from our house) or simply invisible.

There were no brood clans in my neighborhood, so Beckman’s explanation for why parents “checked out” strikes me as post-hoc. Independence was just the way it was. Parents did not get embroiled in their children’s lives. There was no phrase “play dates.” It didn’t exist. You went outside and played. There was no phone call, no planning. The very notion of it is absurd. Every day was an adventure, with no clue what one would find outside the screen door.

On a really good day, there would be construction going on somewhere that was left idle. Few things were more fun than scrap wood, sharp objects and heavy equipment.

Another summer, we spent weeks hunting down lumber and scrap metal for the purpose of building a teetering three-story tree fort, complete with ladders and secret trap doors, that overlooked a boarded-up coffin factory.

There were a million ways we could hurt ourselves. And we often did.  I tended to break a lot of bones as a kid, none of which carry any unpleasant memories today. In fact, a few make for great stories, and there’s a perverse pride in some of the more insanely dangerous things I did in search of adventure.  I had a great time.  And I survived.

During the summer after my sixth-grade year, on the thrilling afternoons when, for mysterious reasons, he let my friends hang out with his circle, I saw a Bottle Caps wrapper filled with cocaine, sat for a few minutes in a hot-wired car and held a loaded handgun. My parents were off in a different galaxy, and I felt it.

As we got older, our toys changed.  We were faced with temptations.  Bad things were our shiny iToys, beckoning us to give it a whirl, see if it was as evil as everyone said it was.  No one was watching. No one would know.

By making things, breaking things and taking real risks, by becoming citizens in our ad hoc community, we used the fallow days of summer to put our Catholic-school education, and our parents’ parenting, to the test. Trial and error often proved that they were right. But in discovering what we enjoyed most — not what we were taught to enjoy — we also discovered new parts of ourselves: artists, engineers, combatants, daredevils, explorers, criminals, comedians and more. Our summer fun was a field study in life, which is the last thing we would have thought at the time.

Today, we provide our children with tutors to teach them the things that schools can’t find the time or inclination to do, because they are so busy protecting them from all manner of harm and invoking zero tolerance rules to both the things, words and ideas that exist everywhere else.  When little Billy gets a bruise on his knee, we kiss it even though he’s 17, and then call the principal to excoriate him for damaging our property.  After all, little Billy is never outside of our field of vision except at school, and those bastards better not let anything bad happen to him.

No parent wants anything bad to happen to their child.  Every parent wants their child to become successful and happy.  These two statements are in conflict, as no child can mature to adulthood without having something bad happen to them, or at the very least, to be tempted to do something bad.

No child matures without getting dirty and the occasional bruise.  If we deny our children the ability to do that, we deprive them of their childhood. And impair their adulthood.  We have failed as parents.

22 comments on “Come Home Dirty and Bruised

  1. Alice Harris

    Such great memories were stirred by this piece. My older brother and I took hours-long walks in the woods behind our rural house. We explored the “canyon” eroded by runoff from the fields, we tested lightning-killed pines and tried rocking them until they fell, we searched through an old barn and speculated about the purpose of the tools and equipment. Friends from school sometimes joined in and taught us how to find flying squirrel nests and to capture the young ones. We packed a lunch so we could spend the day and make it all the way to the lake, where we waded and swam in the hot, Florida summer. I spent hours alone with my horse, riding bareback and bare-headed through woods and pastures. Surely my parents would be charged with child neglect if this had happened in recent times. What a fine childhood we had. Lucky me.

  2. Victor Medina

    There were no fences up when I was a boy. We’d walk through one yard (not giving a thought that we were walking on another’s property – it was just the way to the creek with the elusive bullfrog), or enter the woods via my backyard and continue down the trail until we came to the big hill with the roots that we could use as grappling ropes.

    Those days are over, though I’ve begun to take my boys down the walking trails sponsored by my town. Never alone, of course, because reasons. Maybe when they’re 23, I’ll be okay with them going down those trails with their friends. They ought to be bigger than me by then.

    Oh, and go get a damn iPhone. The one they give out for free – cuz that’s how you roll.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve begun to take my boys down the walking trails sponsored by my town. Never alone, of course, because reasons.

      Such sad and horrible words. And you want to me to take your advice and get an iPhone?

  3. John Burgess

    I grew up in the shadow of WWII and the Korean War. As a result, there was a lot of ‘surplus’ around to play with, including Japanese, German, and Chinese weaponry. A city-cop uncle gave me my first leather-bound sap and brass knuckles. Firecrackers like cherry bombs and M-80s were illegal, but hey, so too were condoms.

    There’s no doubt that had I been caught in some of my (mis)adventures, I’d have been put into a home for delinquent children. Then, my parents wouldn’t have been jailed, just shamed. Ducking familial surveillance was not a trivial task. If I didn’t have a relative on every block, I had a friend of a relative. It was only slight exaggeration to say that when one sneezed uptown, our mothers were waiting at the door with Kleenex.

    Growing up in western MA at that time meant that, once loose from the house, a vast world of wonder was within reach of my feet or at least my bike. The Connecticut River, abandoned farms and mills, lakes and reservoirs, actual forests and actual dinosaur footprints were waiting to be discovered and pondered.

    Even knowing that this kind of growing up was no longer available for my son, I regret that he grew up in major urban areas, where the only things unpaved were occasional city parks and playgrounds.

    1. SHG Post author

      Had I come of age today, doing what I did back then, I would be far more likely a felon than a criminal defense lawyer. Who wouldn’t?

  4. Wheeze the People™

    Hey, I thought I had the copyright on this “The Misadventures of a Misspent Youth” story . . .

    There was good; there was bad; there was ugly; from the time I turned age five, when I learned to ride a bike, I was a free-range kid . . .

    The elementary school was about a half-mile away from my house and I rode my bike to kindergarten everyday — being only dropped off and picked up by mom on the first day of school. After that, I was on my own. And it was no big deal. I figured it out . . .

    Today’s society has engineered out as much risk as it can identify, and each new occurrence of risk found will be dealt with forthwith, I assure you. But our shared sense of childhood adventure?? That’s been eliminated too . . .

    Though life will go on, as it always does, until it doesn’t. So there’s that . . .

  5. Kathleen Casey

    Rock wars. Building our forts. The tarzan swing. Crouched and quiet, hiding in the bushes from the security cops at the Haz (hospital grounds). Ellen at the top of that tree, 30 feet up or more, her arms and legs around the skinny trunk and swinging it in an arc whoosh, one way, then the other. “I can see Niagara Falls!”
    I have in mind the branch of a tree that broke my fall, 20 feet above the ground and I hung there. Both arms crooked behind my back and around that branch. Safe. That was a miracle I guess. I blacked out as I flailed down. I was by myself. When would anyone have found me?

    A vacant school and three vacant houses within three city blocks of home. When we had off for some Holy Day of Obligation or other we would, sometimes, head over to the vacant lot behind the public school and hoot at them, stuck inside.

    We hardly ever used our backyards, except in the winter in one, with cardboard for an ingenious snow slide. Some of the kids among the nine in that family made it.

    We could not have bikes and only one friend of mine had one. She would let me use it and I’d book. Around the side streets and main streets and once over to the waterfront. Mom would have locked me in my room until I was on my own for that.

    My brothers grabbed my only doll, a Raggedy Anne, and threw it out the attic window multiple times laughing hysterically. They took turns running down and up the stairs to threw her out the window again. Older brothers. Old bu0t dumb. That summons up something else. Playing caterpillar. Oh and the one, as a teen, geez, would oblige us on another game. A tight squeeze around the ribs with both arms until it knocked you out. Coming around a few seconds later was a high.

    We usually had scabs and bruises on our knees and shins.

    Kids now have no idea.

  6. Mike G.

    Living in San Diego in the 60’s, me and my brothers and friends would ride our bikes through the canyon behind our house, ( The same canyon I set fire to when I was seven, playing ‘fireman’ with a book of matches and the small fire I set got out of control and burned 64 acres.). Or we would ride in the flood control channels and go through the ‘tunnels’ for miles, climbing the ladders at any gutter down spouts we came to to see where we were. The tunnels had little nooks where we hid the cigarettes and booze we pilfered from our folks.

  7. Max Kennerly

    “I recall my childhood decades ago to have been a golden age and thus the present should confirm itself to my recollection!”

    Seems he’s been a self-absorbed asshat his whole life. What kind of a jerk lobs golfballs at cars, then faults us all fifty years later for not doing the same?

    1. SHG Post author

      But Max, everyone is a self-absorbed asshat but you, so that’s hardly a fair bar for measurement.

  8. George B

    Further, at a younger age…. I’ve been reading where Immunologists and other doctors w/kids have been *forcing* them to go outside, and get down & dirty. The reason is the well-founded belief that to develop vigorous & resilient immune systems, such needs to be exercised and challenged in childhood.

    Are we instead raising a generation of “Boy in the Bubble” kids; while meanwhile we see the miracle of antibiotics fading from overuse in humans and feed animals?

    1. SHG Post author

      You raise the “antiseptic” issue, that our children are not gaining a tolerance for the ordinary bacteria that is all around us, and that more harmful bacteria are mutating into antibiotic resistant strains (superbugs) because of the pervasive efforts to cleanse our children’s world. It’s a huge problem.

      1. Fubar

        ‘Twas ever thus. Ancient authority for citation:

        Strictly Germ-proof (1906)
        Arthur Guiterman (1871 -1943)

        The Antiseptic Baby and the Prophylactic Pup
        Were playing in the garden when the Bunny gamboled up;
        They looked upon the Creature with a loathing undisguised;—
        It wasn’t Disinfected and it wasn’t Sterilized.

        They said it was a Microbe and a Hotbed of Disease;
        They steamed it in a vapor of a thousand-odd degrees;
        They froze it in a freezer that was cold as Banished Hope
        And washed it in permanganate with carbolated soap.

        In sulphurated hydrogen they steeped its wiggly ears;
        They trimmed its frisky whiskers with a pair of hard-boiled shears;
        They donned their rubber mittens and they took it by the hand
        And elected it a member of the Fumigated Band.

        There’s not a Micrococcus in the garden where they play;
        They bathe in pure iodoform a dozen times a day;
        And each imbibes his rations from a Hygienic Cup—
        The Bunny and the Baby and the Prophylactic Pup.

  9. EH

    Without violating the linkspam rule, there’s a blog “free range kids” which is basically all about this same theme. And although we are handicapped by the growing legalese and “enforcement” of safety, there are still groups of parents who do things in a fairly old-style “cuts and bruises are signs of an active life” fashion.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m very familiar with Lenore Skenazy’s blog and movement, and have referred to free range kids in the past. She’s does great work.

  10. Chris Ryan

    As the stay at home dad to three young kids (4,7,9), its been an interesting ride. I grew up in Wisconsin and lived similar to a lot of the stories above (somehow without breaking anything until i got to college).

    Its interesting raising kids now as statistically, its safer then when I was a kid, but most of the parents are so “CNN’d” out that they fear the world is ending. What happened to simple pleasures?

    Case in point, we took our kids, and some good friends from Minnesota, to Lake Tahoe last week and the number of kids with smart phones on the beach was just sad. put down the phone and skip rocks. When i dunked my wife in the lake (in retaliation for her splashing me), a parent actually felt the need to lecture me on setting a good example for my boys in how to treat women.

    dont even get me started on Bodega Bay and how your children should never play near the ocean….

    Thankfully, I can always call my mom to get reassurance that I am not actually on the wrong path in raising my kids. I do admit I laugh when asked what my mother who think and I reply by asking who they thought taught me how to raise my kids.

    1. SHG Post author

      a parent actually felt the need to lecture me on setting a good example for my boys in how to treat women.

      Unreal. I hope you felt the need to explain to the parent that he was an asshole and should mind his own business lest you teach your children how to kick an asshole in the nuts.

      What’s extraordinary is not merely the micromanagement of children by those inclined to do so, government included, but the brazenness of some to “lecture” others on how to rear children their way, which is, of course, the only safe and proper way. My head would explode.

      1. Chris Ryan

        I had a similar incident about six months ago, I wont bore you with the details, but after the guy got done lecturing me, my nine year old looked at me and asked “is that guy an asshole?”

        I had to try my hardest not to laugh in the man’s face, enough people nearby were laughing to make him more angry and embarassed, and explain to my son that he really shouldn’t go around calling adults assholes, but in fact yes, that man is an asshole.

    2. EH

      It is surprisingly hard not to give in.

      I let my kids swim off of the dock, and out to the raft, unsupervised (as in “I’m a mile away.”) They’re good swimmers, all of them on swim team. But they’re young: 8, 10, and 12.

      They could get in trouble. They could drown. They could die. And if they did, everyone would instantly conclude that the choice to let them swim was a bad one.

      But it isn’t. The choice to let them swim is my conclusion that the overall benefits outweigh the overall risks.

      The risks of swimming in flat water over short distances are very small. But the benefits of constant swimming are large. Safety wise, with every hour in the water they become an even stronger swimmer (I live on the coast, and it’s valuable in waves, cold water, wearing clothes, etc.) And of course there’s the question of what else they would be doing if not swimming: Crossing the street? Biking down the sidewalk? And last but not least, it gives them immense pleasure and I am willing to risk a tiny statistical issue for their happiness, just as I am willing to let them completely stuff their face on candy, sled down steep hills, poke the bonfire with a stick, cook on the stovetop, learn to whittle, etc.

      The hard part isn’t setting them free. The hard part is knowing two things: (a) that even a wise choice is not always problem free; and (b) that I will not get any support if things go wrong, even if I made a wise choice. Whether it is distant family, friends, or (god help us) the public, there are vanishingly few people who would be willing to say “you know, that was a reasonable decision and it was just shitty luck that things turned out badly.”

      And that is some scary shit.

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