07. December 2004 · Comments Off on Kids Living Dangerously · Categories: Domestic

This post last week attracted a long and amusing thread of comments, with many and varied accounts of juvenile risk-taking, and experimentation with speed, height, bodies of water and devices of an incendiary or explosive nature, along with much marveling on how little comment all this attracted from parental units and other authority figures at the time… in sad contrast to the interest such activities would arouse today.

By and by large the activities and amusements cited fell into two rough categories; assorted juvenile hell-raising, and deeds of derring-do, over which the parental units would probably have come completely unglued if they had only known about them. The other category covers the casual unconcern by parents in an era not to terribly long ago, of certain practices which now are almost mandatory, yea, even enforced by fear of accusations of child endangerment. Surely the world was not any more or less dangerous thirty or forty years ago than now, but my parents were remarkably insouciant about all of us— JP and I, Pippy and Sander— walking several miles to and from school, alone or with other children, but no adult accompaniment.

We hiked around the deserted chaparral hills for hours, outside parental supervision, climbing trees and rock slopes, rode bikes and horses without helmets or anything remotely resembling safety gear. We were expected back at a particular time, and to confine our wanderings within certain bounds— anything from the back yard, to a good few square acres or miles. If there were seatbelts in the back seat of the Plymouth station wagon, I don’t recall them ever in use. As for infant car seats? No such thing; baby and toddler, Sander traveled in my lap or in my mothers’. Mom and Dad were careful, responsible parents, but the common practice of that time seems like the rankest kind of carelessness compared what is now required. (And of which I approve most strongly!)

Ah, but the other sort of adventure, of the unstructured, free-form sort! Our father trapped live snakes, and allowed us to handle them, and hung a length of rope from a tall, leaning tree to make a Tarzan swing, and taught us some wilderness craft, but a lot of the experimentation with explosive and/or flammable substances related by other commenters—other than bashing coils of caps (for cap pistols) between two rocks to make them pop, or scorching leaves with the suns’ rays focused through a magnifying glass— were absolutely forbidden to us. The risk of setting the hills on fire was all too great, and in fact we were uninvolved witnesses when a neighbor boy did indeed start a brush fire with a mis-aimed firework; a fire that could have engulfed three or four houses on our street.

We did indulge in a lot of wheeled recklessness, though, starting with JP and me attempting to ride a go-cart down a rocky hillside trail with a slope more nearly vertical than horizontal. The wipeout was instantaneous and most spectacular, and I was washing dirt and grit out of my ears and nose for days. The roads around Redwood house, paved and not—undulated like a the slopes on a roller coaster ride, best appreciated when ventured in a self-steered little red wagon… especially on that final steep slope which abruptly terminated in four busy lanes of vehicle traffic on Foothill Boulevard. It was, on the whole, a good thing that Mom never actually witnessed us— JP on the bicycle, Pippy in the wagon, and me pushing Sander’s stroller, a cavalcade of kids and wheels and dust, racing downhill at top speed, bouncing over the ruts and rocks, and letting the stroller coast when I took my hands away. Well, that was really reckless… but anyway I could run faster than the stroller could coast, so never mind that there was another block of bumpy road and then a lot of traffic. No, I could grab the stroller before there was ever the least danger to our baby brother. It was just exciting, all of us barreling down the road…. Or climbing trees and rock faces, or letting go the rope swing at exactly the right moment to fall into a tall pile of raked-up pine needles, and I wonder, reading the other comments, if this sort of risk taking didn’t serve a deep purpose, and never mind the scrapes and bumps, and bruises, the occasional stitch and sprain and fracture.

On the day that I took the training wheels off Blondie’s bicycle, I spent the afternoon pushing her on the bike up and down the yard, until we went out on the road in front of our house and—gaining in confidence, she performed increasingly less-wobbly figure eights. On the second day, she challenged her best friend to a race, in the alley behind the apartment building at Chalet San Lamberto, and hit a bit of broken pottery, and went flying over the handlebars— scraped elbows and knees and nose, bruises and blood everywhere, followed by a quick trip to the Clinica Montpelier for an x-ray. But on the third day, she was careful and judicious about the need for speed, and I wonder now if that was the most salutary way of learning it. Better perhaps to chance it on skateboards and bicycles, and risk scrapes and cuts as a kid, than to be swaddled around with parental supervision and safety gear, only to cut loose later with motor vehicles and other dangerous adult toys and amusements when one hasn’t developed a sense of risks and consequences.

Keeping them safe may not be the main thing; it may be better in the long run to teach them —somehow!– skills at living dangerously.
Not that it makes it any easier to watch…

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