In our town there is group of nomadic boys who peddle on trick bikes, oversized baseball caps shadowing their eyes. They’re a collective of 7 or 8 ten to twelve year olds, mostly scrawny and unkempt, foul-mouthed and loud. I went to school with their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and in a couple of cases, their moms, and while I don’t doubt every single one of them is loved, no one is wondering where they are when they’re speeding down 117 in the break-down lane on their bikes, no helmets, pushing against the traffic of the evening commute, as they head to the lake for pre-dinner swim (assuming it’s ever served).
No, these boys are loved by some body, in some hard way or in a way as unkept as their clothes and hair, but they are also given a freedom that is both glorious and so heart-wrenchingly dangerous. I know that they will go to the lake and jump in the cold water with absolute joy and abandon. I know they will lie in the sun and return home deliciously sun-kissed. I know they will push and tackle each other, using up all that childish energy they are usually sent to the principal for between the hours of 8 and 3. They will have something precious, something that their counterparts who live under their parents’ so caring but ever so watchful eye do not have.
As I watch these boys carouse about town, always outside, always moving, I hold two diametrically opposed thoughts in my head at the same time – first, is my worry for them, a worry that they will be hit by a car or accidentally drowned or that some other ill-fated event will befall them. Second is jealousy. My children have a mother who worries about them as they play in the yard. I let them, but I also fear that a stranger may come and snatch them away, or that a dead tree trunk will fall on them, or a rabid fox with bite them. I watch them from every window, throw open the door and call out. I won’t let my eight year old ride her bike on the road or down to her friend’s house, in part because worry, but also because I fear what neighbors or passersby might think. I feel I afford my children a great amount of freedom compared to many of their peers, but never, I don’t think, will they have the freedom of those boys, freedom that many children and generations past had been given.
I think we live in a world with much worry and fear – we worry for our children, we fear our fellow humans, even those who live and work in our very communities. Because of this, many of us keep our children close and give a narrow-eyed look to those who let their children wander off for huge portions of the day, discouraging others who might be inclined to do the same. I understand this worry and fear, because I have it, too, but I also remember my own nomadic childhood (though perhaps not quite as free as those townie boys) and stories my parents told of days spent disappearing into their perspective towns and forests and beaches, with no way for their parents to reach them (though, of course, the locals who knew them would be sure to phone their mothers should any mischief occurred – which it occasionally did).
I wonder what things might be like if we could let go of the worry and the fear, at least just a bit. At least just enough to allow our children to be outside unsupervised, to ride their bikes to a friend’s house, to go deep into the woods where our shouts are but a scant echo – still audible, but a reminder that they are in their own world, only just at the fingertips of the adults. If we, mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all those good-hearted caretakers of children, could commit to give this gift to our children, we might collectively alleviate those worries, fears, and social anxieties of appearing as irresponsible parents. Then we can give our children the sweetest gift of childhood.