“Go outside and play” was perhaps the number one parental command. So, we did. Children who didn’t do this were talked about behind their backs, worried about by other parents. The cultural norm at that time was to get as much fresh air as possible while giving our stay-at-home moms some space and time away from children.
My mother had a large brass bell hanging on our back porch. When she rang it hard, I could hear it throughout my acceptable play range in the neighborhood. The bell’s signal was clear – “Robbin, come home NOW.” I never disobeyed, for to do so would have limited my freedom. In summers I’d go home for lunch or dinner and then be right back out there.
My neighborhood of tract houses meandered up a long hill, with two main roads in a V shape which came together at the bottom of the hill and connected by side streets of increasing width as you traveled up the hillside. I lived about a third of the way up the hill on the left side of the V. We had a side street in front of our house, and that’s where we spent a lot of time playing larger organized games like dodgeball, kickball, or softball. There was a large field at the bottom that had been cleared and dumped with fill dirt when our homes were constructed. It was the place to play if you wanted to do something outside of any parental eyes. I generally left it to the older kids smoking and drinking down there. I preferred traveling up the to the top of the hill and going to Foxwood pond. I spent many hours there watching the turtles, ducks and fish. It was full of abandoned turtles of all kinds, exotic greens from Asia, painted turtles, and even snappers. The pond was surrounded by a pretty wood where we liked to play. My friends and I jumped on skunk cabbage just to smell the acrid smells. We picked wildflowers and chased each other through the woods. We’d get home eventually. No one worried. In the winter our dads would drive us up there to ice skate when the flag was up to show it was safe.
Somehow, during my lifetime the cultural norms about safety have swung to the far opposite side of the pendulum. I know that a lot of bad things happened to kids, even back then, but they were the exception rather than the rule. What I mourn now is the overarching lack of trust in the fundamental goodness of all people. Children count on this to feel safe.