Huck Finn in the City

I often think about all the time I spent outside as a child by myself or with other kids, no adults, you know, "free-range" before it became a countercultural movement and it was just what everyone did. It's obviously insane to think about letting young kids run around by themselves in Manhattan, but it even seems that kids who are old enough to be on their own in a safe park are not, for the most part, allowed to be. Or maybe they're just too busy? And from everything I can glean anecdotally, kids are not outside by themselves in the suburban areas either. I've asked parents why not, and they say it just isn't safe. We know that's not statistically true, that violent crime has gone down since the 70s and 80s and that the number of children abducted by strangers every year in the country is the same number of people killed in car accidents every day. But the fear-mongering goes on--after all it keeps kids captive to marketing, inside, glued to computer screens and the TV, or in organized activities and camps (either way, cue the sound of the cash register going cha-ching). 

I have this conversation quite often:

Me: At what age would you allow your kid to roam the neighborhood and come back when it gets dark? 

Other parent: (panicky expression) I don't know. I...I dunno, maybe 15? I don't even know.

Me: Okay, so three years before he turns into a legal adult and--assuming he goes away to college--will be living on his own, he'll be allowed to walk around the neighborhood unsupervised.

Other parent: (confused, uncomfortable look). 

Then I ask what age the parent was allowed outside without grownups, even if it just meant walking to the bus stop or to school. The answer is inevitably from as early on as they can remember, certainly by 5. 

Same goes with babysitting. 

Me: Would you be okay with a 15-year-old sitter for your kids? 

Other parent: I don't think so. Probably not.

Me: How old were you when you first babysat?

Other parent, somewhat sheepishly, defensively: 12, maybe 13. 

Something has definitely changed, and in just one generation. 

And any mom or dad who would let their kids run around with the neighborhood gang reports that there is no neighborhood gang. Their kid --if allowed to roam free-- would be the only one out there...the last child in the neighborhood, so to speak, the suburban counterpart to Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods. No one's out there, so no one sends their kids out there, so no one's out there, so no one sends their kids out there....vicious cycle. And now it's simply "not done", even among parents whose best memories are making mud pies at age four in the local pond supervised by a neighbor friend who was a whopping six years old. 

So obviously it's got to start somewhere -- with some parent letting their kid be out there, and maybe another kid will see him through the window and join him brandishing sidewalk chalk and maybe more kids will come and and a game of capture the flag might even break out. 

Mike Lanza turned his family's property into a playspace for neighborhood kids, with great success, and wrote about families throughout the country (and Canada) engaging in similar community-building activities that encourage playing in his book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into A Place for Play. Though it may be a little less send your kids out the back door and tell them to come home for dinner and a little more neighborhood kids painting together in the backyard and the parents setting up the barbecue. But that's okay, too. Certainly better than isolated cyborg-families in silent houses staring at screens while the kids are considered hyperactive by teachers maybe just a tiny little bit because their schools cut out recess and they never play outside. Someone pointed out, I forgot who, that in my organized sports, there's a lot of sitting and waiting, less running around than in your standard game of flashlight tag or hour at the local playground. (Although somehow I can't imagine that being true for soccer. I remember that being a killer.) 

In our neighborhood, especially in the summer, the kids play late into the evening, scavenging for stuff to eat and treating squishy brown bananas someone digs out of a backpack like they're Magnolia cupcakes because they're so hungry at that point and it's so far past dinnertime but they would still rather stay out and play than go home and eat. (Just like how kids would rather stay in a pool purple-lip freezing than come out and warm up. Kids really have their priorities straight -- fun trumps most anything.) 

Last night watching this scene of kids scampering about throwing water balloons while parents ate pizza on the benches along the sides, it occurred to me that living a simple, natural childhood in the city is actually easier than you would think. 

We all know about learning tolerance and diversity and soaking in culture in the city and yadda yadda, but my argument goes beyond that. It really is possible to have something close to an old-fashioned, simple childhood in NYC, maybe even more possible than in the world of suburban sprawl because it's still operates on a village model. Here are the top ten reasons why it's easier to approximate that mythical carefree american childhood in the city than anywhere else. 

1. In the city you run into neighbors by chance all the time because you live so damn close to each other and there are so damn many of you that you all converge on the same playgrounds all the time (in Manhattan; my sister hasn't found this to be true in Brooklyn--less dense, bigger apartments, sometimes even private yards). Here in the concrete jungle though for the most part you don't need playdates. You can go out and play (unfortunately with parents nearby). 

2. You don't have a garage, attic or basement so you can't collect a bunch of sh*t you don't need. Instead you have fewer books (go to the library more), fewer toys (get more excited when you visit a kid who owns a Q train!) and fewer clothes (easier to clean your room).

3. Since no one else has any room to store anything either they're always giving you clothes and books and toys. 

4. Going along with the lack of space, people are out and about interacting with the community all the time because there just aren't that many places to be inside. Plus there are so many great public spaces a stone's throw away. And unlike in the empty suburban yards and streets, people are actually at these public spaces. (In fact so many people perhaps they fall prey to the Yogi Berra dilemma: "It's so crowded, no one ever goes there.")

5. With all the free concerts, free movies, free drum circles, free garden adventures for kids, river walks and nature games outside in the parks, along the river, on Governor's Island and other places, summer evenings are spent outside and you get that lovely, protracted, expansive, wide open shapeless summer evening feeling that you used to have as a kid as you drift from one place to the next and dig around for squishy bananas.

6. Shuttling kids around is done just as much as anywhere, but in a more eco-friendly way--subway or bus rather than an idling minivan. So you're exposed to a lot of culture (Gospel singers in Union Square station/Jews for Jesus handing out pamphlets (if you can call that culture--it is, if nothing else, a topic for discussion)) rather than a DVD player to keep you entertained.

7. Kids get used to shared resources -- sand toys, rides on the slide, turns at the water fountain -- because they have to. Kids taking turns on the swings --> adults who understand one country can't use 1/4 of the world's total energy.

8. Instead of collecting stuff, kids collect experiences. Another plastic truck? Why not a trip to visit the sea lions instead. Forget one more Barbie doll--no where to put it anyway. How about splashing paint at the Children's Museum of the Arts or taking a picnic lunch to the creative little garden instead? 

9. Kids are free at an earlier age to get around by themselves. Maybe most affluent parents with another option won't follow Lenore Skenazy's suit and let their 9-year-olds ride the subway, but certainly most reasonable parents will let junior high kids walk to school and back alone. I've seen it!! 

10. Kids don't have to prove they are cool by watching violent movies aimed at teenagers or wearing cool brands (What are the cool brands by the way? I'm so clueless I don't even know. Like is Gap still considered cool? Abercrombie? DKNY? Someone cooler than I am, let me know). But anyway, city kids don't have to prove they are cool because they know they inherently are. They live in New York City for crying out loud. They see Sarah Jessica Parker and her kids at the playground and they say goodnight to The Empire State Building every night. (Substitute whatever urban environment you live in, unless it's Chicago. Just kidding! I like Chicago.) And when they go to college, they can authentically channel Jay-Z and Alicia Keys and say they're from (sing this part) "New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of/there's nothing you can't do".

All this is not meant to sound smug or superior to non-city dwellers. If you have a backyard or communal space like we had in the apartment then condo where I grew up, if your kids can run around with paper airplanes and water balloons, digging for worms, spitting watermelon seeds and chasing the ice cream man, then you've already got it made and you can ignore what I've written here. Or write it off as rationalization for not giving Wally the kind of childhood I had. As long as your kids do actually play outside. And you don't buy them too much stuff. Or spend too much time schlepping kids around and waiting for them in idling minivan. And come visit us sometime--the big lights will inspire you.

*Empire State of Mind
Jay-Z & Alicia Keyes


  1. For what it's worth, we started letting Timothy roam the neighbor around 10, and all the kids play outside in the yard alone except Morgan (who can't be trusted not to just leave), and we leave the kids home alone with Timothy babysitting (mostly at night after bed since otherwise the fighting can get bad, but not always).

    Timothy is 14. We've never actually had a non-relative babysitter, but I would certainly leave all but Morgan with a teenager.

    So anyway, some of us still have 80s standards :)

  2. I love how you write. You make me want to read your posts right to the end.

  3. Rhonda - that is awesome! I LOVE hearing that you still have 80s standards. You are one of very few people who has said they'd feel comfortable with a teenager babysitting (and who lets the kids play alone in the yard). Especially because I was just reading a blog where one mom wrote that she wants to be next to her kid every single second until adulthood. Hello - creepy! Reminds me of that bizarre book "Love You Forever" where the mom sneaks into her adult son's house and takes him out of bed while he's sleeping and rocks him....(searching for it...) Here it is Love You Forever (Robert Munsch). Someone named Jana Llewellyn included it in a post called The 10 Oddest Toddler Books last December. She wrote this: "To show her son that he will always be her baby, the mother in this book rocks him when he’s an infant, a brazen ten-year-old, and a distant teenager. When he becomes a man and moves across town, she even drives to his house in the dead of night. I hear his wife is currently writing a book called How to Survive Marriage When Your Mother-in-Law Is a Stalker."

    Vanessa - Thank you! You made my day. People down in Australia ("other side of the world" as you refer to it) seem much more open to simple living. (Or maybe the ones I find out about are the ones who are more open to it. Hmm...There just seem to be a lot of you, proportion-wise.

  4. ready for a comment novel? I have SO many thoughts on this subject. I have always suspected it was much easier to have children in the city, and then proved my theory right when I moved. I had one son in NYC and lived there until he was one. Then we moved to another great city (austin, tx) and moved downtown to be as close to the cultural center as possible. We have been holding on to the urban lifestyle for dear life, though it doesn't have the same urban/city feel. We're often the only people walking down the street, and very few families live downtown. It's mostly single thirty-somethings. Our friends are all confused by our decision to live in an apartment, when we could have a sprawling mcmansion complete with yard in the 'burbs for less than what we pay. We are dependent on a car to live here, as the public transportation is lacking. I have spent our entire time living here battling with my 3 year old everytime we get in the car (he never rode in one for his first year, and so he hates it, gets carsick, etc.) Then I had another baby, and found his first year to be much harder. From his birth (I walked to the hospital to deliver my older one, so it was much easier than being confined to the car!) And then, from the time we brought him home I fould naptime to be difficult as I constantly had to shuttle him in and out of the car instead of just carrying him continuously as I would have done in the city. I also prefer shopping for a few days worth of items than frequenting big box stores, prefer parks and playgrounds to an isolated backyard, love walking everywhere and having constant human interaction, and my list could go on for DAYS.
    I felt when I first found your blog you were wishing you lived out in the country (my own perception, maybe not truly what you felt) but I was so happy to read this post to see how much you appreciate living in the city! We are entertaining the idea of moving back in the spring, with an exploratory visit this september to see how I can handle it with 2 kids. Though I'm sure it will be great- last time we visited involved an incident on a bus with my 3 year old melting down and me having a not-so-nice "discussion" with a stranger because of said melt down, and I still preferred it!

  5. love comment novels...

    wow - that is so fascinating to me to hear your perspective, having lived in NYC with a baby then austin but in a car-dependent area (or is the whole city?) and how you guys are holding out even while friends move to mcmansions...

    you have so many good points to add...about what makes life easier in teh city. carrying around definitely easier here...such freedom, rather than shuttling into car...and out ..and in again. also - big box stores are terrible in so many ways (tho convenient, for sure)

    you are right.. i did wish i lived out in the country...and it's been this process of really thinking about it (too much ) and realizing much of what I idealize or wish /long for I actually have the closest version of right where i live....i'm going to write more about it soon, hopefully, but it was this visit to a little bungalow colony upstate that really clarified it for me. the day to day reality of country life for many people (so much time in the car, time spent on home repair, lawn care), etc vs. the freedom and village feel of city life

    move back! !!!


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