One of the joys of childhood is the freedom to swing high enough to touch the sky. I wonder, though, just how often kids are allowed this kind of freedom when I see articles about Helicopter parents who have traumatized their now college-age children. Do we let children risk a fall and deny them this joy, or do we keep them safe, and provide only sanitized experiences?
When I read a short story called “Creature Features” with my summer school class last week, I was reminded of the freedom, and inherent risks, of my own childhood. The story, a lovely gem by John McNally, in his collection Ghosts of Chicago, is told by an 8-year old boy, who loves the old Channel 9 TV show, Creature Features, and whose mom is having a baby. The boy rides around the city on his bike, unsupervised, and collects large slabs of chalk thrown to him by railroad engineers from the many trains passing overhead on the viaducts that he climbs. He is left alone overnight by his parents when they are called away to help a neighbor, and he frequently stays up late watching the show, while his parents call it a night. His life is joyous, exuberant, and filled with adventure.
My students laughed, reacted with ohs and ahs, and clearly enjoyed this story, but as we talked, they expressed concern and amazement. How could an 8 year old be left alone? How could he navigate his neighborhood alone on his bike? How could he take his dog for a walk alone each day? These are not things that have happened in their lives.
I’m nostalgic for this freedom, and McNally’s description reminded me of my own childhood filled with freedom to explore, and the risk to get hurt. Perhaps I was a little older than this protagonist, but I vividly recall building (or at least claiming) a “fort” between the back-to-back billboards that overlooked the Cicero Avenue Bridge. We climbed dizzying heights, and somehow populated the fort with old scraps of carpet, and various discarded junk that we found near the tracks below.
My sister often claims that all of us should have been far more injured than we were — and the cliche, of course, is prevalent among my generation that we survived against the odds. But as my 8-year-olds, GG and MM, experience risk, embrace adventure, and play with the full tilt and dizzying joy of childhood, I hope I can ignore my protective instincts enough to allow them to take steps toward independence. I will try to keep the lung-filling joy of swinging high in mind when my impulse to protect limits not only their opportunity for joy, but also the small bruises that will teach them much about healing.