When I was a kid, we climbed really tall trees. We dug holes deep enough to bury us. I practiced welding my Matchbox cars with sparklers. My friend Joe and I would light batteries on fire to see what happens (they blow up). One time I wiped out on my bike and hit my head on the pavement, soaking my T-shirt in blood and going blind for about five minutes. By the time I was 11, my 9-year-old brother and I were driving around in the woods by ourselves in an old Subaru.
A 1980s childhood tended to feature a degree of independence that seems scarcely imaginable now. I mean, my parents sent me to France with people they barely knew. This is true: A French kid, Chris, moved down the road from me, and we became friends. The next summer he invited me to go to France with him for a month, and soon enough I was in the Rhône region playing pétanque and drinking Champagne at a neighborhood block party. I was 11. It was awesome. And my parents had no idea where I was. It’s not like I could drop a pin.
Childhood these days is considerably more managed, and I know this because I’m the manager. Parents are required at the bus stop. My kids own multiple helmets. When we watched July Fourth fireworks, we gave them each a Bluetooth Tile so we could electronically track them if they got lost in the crowd. And my kids will not be playing football. Have you seen those CTE studies?
It all feels kind of lame, especially in comparison to some cool parents who live up the street from us. Their boys are the same age as ours, but they’re way more free-range, ’80s-style kids. For example, last year I was doing a photo shoot with some electric cars in a field about halfway between our houses. At one point, this 4-year-old kid came screaming down the hill on his bike and I waited for the inevitable parent to appear. But none did. “Where’s your mom?” I asked the kid. He replied, “We drove past and saw you doing this so she said I could ride over and watch as long as I stay out of the way.” This blew my mind. My 4-year-old didn’t even know how to ride a bike, and this Wildling was crashing photo shoots by himself. When we were done, I gave him a ride back to his house, where his 6-year-old brother was wandering around with a bow and arrow and repeatedly shooting it into the lawn a few feet in front of him. I remarked that it was a cool bow and arrow, and he said, “My mom said I can shoot it, as long as I aim at the ground.” This seemed like a sensible policy for his Fisher Price My First Weaponry.
Now, do my kids have archery gear and carte blanche to roam the neighborhood? Not yet. But I am trying to loosen the reins. The older one has a Crazy Cart, which goes 12 mph and has no brakes. I’m encouraging some tree climbing. And we’re getting heavy into s’mores, which are definitely the most dangerous dessert. You’re handing a 5-year-old a sharp stick and encouraging him to thrust it into a roaring fire. For our kid, s’mores delivers his two favorite things, candy and open flames, simultaneously. And I get to whittle sticks with a Leatherman, which is a pretty badass dad thing to do. I haven’t tried throwing any batteries into the fire, but maybe we’ll work up to that.
I’ll surely never replicate the anything-goes experience of the pre-digital childhood, but I’m trying to avoid raising pallid little mush-drones who experience life through an iPad. And besides, kids find danger no matter what you do. The other day I heard our kids’ slightly older cousins discussing how one of them crawled into a storm drain to retrieve a lost ball, which meant I had to lecture them on Baby Jessica and evil clowns who live in the sewer. And last month I picked our kids up at camp to find the younger one blood-spattered, with a huge slash on his cheek. What kind of Ninja Warrior Lord of the Flies program am I sending them to, you ask? Golf camp. His brother hit him in the face with a 7-iron.
But at least they were outside doing something. Golf is good that way, so we’ve started playing a little 9-hole course where you can use gas- powered carts. One day I was about 100 yards from both my ball and the cart, where my kid was waiting. Since I was too lazy to walk back, I yelled over to him to pull up the cart. He hunched over the wheel, stretched his legs as far as he could and started driving down the fairway. We were alone on the course, but I hadn’t noticed a couple sitting on their back patio adjacent to the green. “Hey!” the guy said. “Is that little kid driving the golf cart?” Damn right he is. ◆
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