Our kids today, and many parents too, have never known a childhood that includes playing on the street.
By Ben Bull
Published September 20, 2006
In a recent episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano is sitting in his Psychiatrists office, reflecting on his near death experience and contemplating his on-going battle with boredom.
"I treat every day as a gift," he tells her, "but does it always have to be socks?"
Boredom has been my nemesis ever since I was a kid. As a youngster growing up with three older sisters and a younger brother, I would do almost anything to get a reaction.
When I was nine, I pulled the chair out from under my brother, who just happened to be standing on it at the time. He broke his tailbone in the ensuing fall and couldn't sit down for a week.
Despite my omnipresent boredom, my early childhood experiences were full of exciting adventures. Most of them were played out on the streets of my childhood home. I forget how many times I came home after dark, dirty, exhausted, bloodied - and content.
We don't get that anymore, do we? It seems that in the 30 years or so since I was biting ankles and breaking tailbones, our kids have all become tethered to their tellys, coerced into the comfort of their own homes ? stolen from the street.
If you, like me, are anything over 30 you will probably recall trotting down the road, knocking on your friend's front door and asking that immortal question: "Wanna play?"
Why don't our kids play outdoors anymore? What has changed in 30 years to make us so uptight about our little charges?
First, let me clarify this observation. It's true that some kids still play on the street. I'm quite certain that if you drive around Hamilton or Toronto long enough, you will find the odd waif or stray bouncing a ball around a sub-division cul-de-sac somewhere.
You'll also find their parents in close attendance, and you can be sure they'll know exactly where they are. Our kiddy comfort zone is definitely shrinking.
So, what's changed?
As usual, I have a theory. I believe there are two main reasons our kids don't go out alone anymore:
Pedophiles - In 2006, we are accustomed to the perception that our kids are in imminent danger of being kidnapped every time they run around the corner without an escort.
Is this true? Probably not. In fact, I have heard no evidence to suggest that pedophilia is any worse today than it was 30 years ago. But the perception exists, and thus, so does our reality.
Cars - The threat from cars is undoubtedly real. First, there are many more of them; second, they are driven with less care and attention than ever before.
Whenever I encountered a car on my childhood streets I would invariably get a happy honk and a friendly wave as I moved out of the way. Residential streets were treated with caution because a driver knew there was just about a 100 percent chance they would encounter a wayward child along the way. Caution was the key.
These days, with such "distractions" out of the equation, residential streets are traversed like any other - as quickly as possible. So it is that with more cars, and faster cars, and less attentive drivers we have a very real and present danger to our offspring.
So if this is how we got here, then how do we go back?
That's a tougher question. For myself, I try to give my kids room to roam. I sit with them outdoors whenever I have the time.
Another thing we can all do (again) is insist on better street design. There's nothing like a dead end street to bring a bit of youthful exuberance to the tarmac, and back laneways with parking can do wonders for easing the traffic flow.
Beyond this I don't really know, and deep down I worry our streets will never again know the wonderful sounds of kids at play.
My greatest fear is that our kids today, and many parents too, have never known a childhood like mine. In the same way that we struggle to "sell" vibrant neighbourhoods to generations of suburbanites, it's hard to want what you never had.
My eight-year-old boy, Jack, keeps bugging me for a GameCube. His reason?
As I hurry him home from school, lock the front door and warn him once again to stay inside, it makes me sad to know that he's right.
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