A personal essay by Judy Clement Wall
I grew up on a small suburban street of tract homes. Everyone lived in one of three models. We had lawns and backyards and well-established trees. For five dollars, Boy Scouts stenciled addresses on the curb, and everyone, every house, had kids.
My parents, like most of the parents on the block, moved in when their children were babies. We grew up together – the neighborhood kids, my brothers and me. The elementary and middle schools were walking distance from our street; we walked to and from school en masse.
I remember summers most of all, when up and down the block, parents would send their children out each morning, saying, “Come home when the street lights come on.” We – this enormous family of neighborhood children – spent our summer days climbing, building, exploring, experimenting. As little kids, we played Red Rover and street dodge ball, traveled fence lines like tightrope walkers, fought, made up, formed ever-shifting alliances. We learned under fire, and with varying degrees of success, how to maneuver our social world.
We got older and mastered the art of hanging out, spontaneously congregating on lawns and between houses, in the park at the end of our street where we smoked cigarettes and pretended we were sure of ourselves. We fell in and out of love, chose sides, friends, dreams, then changed our minds. We grew up together, all of us testing the limits of our suburban landscape almost completely unsupervised. We came home when the streetlights came on.
You would think that when I had children of my own and we moved onto a street not unlike the one I grew up on, I’d have set my boys loose to discover themselves and their world as I had. But I didn’t.
Our street was not full of young families. Only the house next to us had children the same age as mine and, anyway, by the time I had kids of my own, I knew that in America, children get abducted every day – an oversized fear I now realize, far bigger, far more consuming, than reality warranted.
When my children played outside, I worked near the window or out in the yard. I kept them in my sight. We climbed and built and explored and experimented together. The three of us. When they were old enough, my boys attended a private school in the next town over. Parents ride-shared. Play dates were arranged. Our next door neighbors with children moved away. Over the years, new ones came, but children never swarmed the street of my adulthood like they had thirty years before. I never told my boys to come back when the streetlights came on.
I didn’t think about it at the time, but in many ways, I made my boys’ world smaller. Though the street they grew up on and the street I grew up on were more similar than different, my street was limited only by my imagination. As I grew older, I wandered off it all the time. I kept an eye on the streetlights; there was only one rule.
My boys had only one rule too. It was “Stay where you can see me.” That leaves only a tiny world to explore.
I see the trend continuing. It seems to me that parents now schedule so much of their children’s waking lives, monitor with grave concern everything they eat, who they play with, the number of allergens in the air they breathe. Even as the internet breaks down geographical boundaries, the physical worlds of our children are getting smaller. Instead of venturing out to the edges of their imagination, they run headlong into the barriers of our fears.
My boys are older now. One is in high school (locally) and one is in college. They are smart, savvy even. They know what’s going on in the world. They navigate their lives with far more confidence than I had at their age, which leaves me awed, and a little suspicious. Maybe I never exercised the control over them I thought I did. Maybe (thankfully) children come equipped with an internal compass that points them toward adventure, toward the edges of our comfort and beyond.
I like the idea of that. An internal compass… and internal streetlights so they know when to come back home.
“Then And Now” was originally published on iWalkiWrite in May, 2010.