The Streets are Empty of Playing Children

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I drive around the streets where I live at 3:30 in the afternoon and I am surprised at what I don’t see: kids running around playing.

The streets seem devoid of children playing.

I do see clumps of middle and high school students getting off yellow school buses and walking sullenly to their houses. But they enter and do not seem to come back outside. Are they inside playing video games? Doing homework? On their cell phones? Social media? Trolling around youtube looking at random videos? Regardless, everyone seems to be inside. I don’t often see kids throwing a football around or riding their bikes all over the place. Where are the kids?

I do know that tons and tons of elementary schools kids go straight from class at 3:00 pm into organized after school daycare programs. Loads and loads of children are watched by other adults on school sites and off as parents finish their workday and then pick up their kids around 5 or 6 in the evening. I realize that American work patterns have changed, and that most households have two working parents, including the mom. In the past, the mother was most often at home when kids got out of school; she gave kids a snack and then sent them off to play in the neighborhood. This is what happened with me as a child. Now the mother is often working and the child is in daycare until the workday is over and parents can pick them up.

And the streets are deserted after school.

It makes me sad.

I am lucky enough to have a family friendly job and am able to pick my two daughters up from the bus stop daily at 2:46 pm. It is a delicate but important part of the day: my daughters are often tired, touchy, and hungry. It is not uncommon for one of them to be close to tears — or in tears — as they walk away from the school bus.

I take my daughters somewhere for a snack and we have the homework completed right then and there; we don’t wait until later in the day when everyone is exhausted. My daughters are at that time willing to tell me in detail about their day at school, and then they don’t want to talk about it again. If I were not present in this delicate time right after school, I would miss important information about their lives. This is the crucial importance of being there as a parent after school — the daily transition between school and the afternoon and evening. 

After the girls get their after school snack and a rest, they are re-charged and ready for the adventures of the afternoon. We are on the tennis court or the soccer pitch or whatever activity is going on that day.

But they generally aren’t riding their bikes with the neighboring kids, because there aren’t any kids riding around outside.

Who is their playmate?

Well, generally it is me.

And I find that a bit strange. I could not envision my mom playing with me after school. She would tell me to go find someone else to play basketball or to practice “bunny-hopping” street curbs on my bike — she was not my playmate.

But I seem to fulfill that role with my daughters. My daughters want to do “something fun” with me after school because there is nobody else around. They do spend hour after hour playing together, and few things bring me more joy than listening to my daughters create unique games to play from their imaginations. But there arrives a time when Julia and Elizabeth are done with each other. “Daddy? What can we do?”

What do we do? Well, it is this simple: I have played sports with my daughters and, more often than not, paid others to coach my daughters in sports or drama or some other organized after school activity. It seems as if the lack of general kid-directed play in my neighborhood has meant that I simply bought adult-directed play. Almost everything they have done has been directed by adults. I am not alone: most parents in the same social class as me (ie. middle class) spend serious amounts of money on after school extracurriculars. There are karate classes, soccer practice, chess tutorials, drama rehearsal, junior lifeguards, tutoring sessions, tennis tournaments, piano lessons, or the occasional parent-organized “playdates.” Parents spend all their time chauffeuring kids to and fro, and waiting around for these activities to conclude. Exhausting! The carousel of extracurricular activities seems never to end. Yet the only thing worse than too much going on is not enough: kids hanging around the house querulous and bored! Why can’t they just go outside and find neighborhood kids to play with?

It has been explained to me that kids don’t do that much anymore. Now they have “playdates.”

But still this idea of a “playdate” irritates me. A “playdate” organized by moms.

I don’t think my mom ever contacted another mom and scheduled a “playdate” for me and put it on the family calendar. I went over and asked other little boys in the neighborhood if they wanted to play.

What exactly has changed? Why are adults in charge of everything?

I know many high school students who literally have almost never been out of the supervision of adults for their entire lives. Adults run everything for them, drive them everywhere, control all activities, contact their teachers, etc. And the remaining time the kids are on their phones with social media or texting. They are not teenagers but “screenagers.”

It worries me.

I asked a friend I particularly respect if she ever let her kids go anywhere to play where she could not see them. “No,” she replied. I asked her why. Was she worried her kids would be kidnapped? Do drugs? Be molested? No, she said. “I just want to know what they are doing.”

“What are kids doing with all this time when at home?” you might ask. My students tell me they are most often on their cell phones. One girl told me she spent so much time on her bed looking at her phone that the shape of her body was permanently imprinted into the bed. People get “Netflix neck” — pain in their neck because of poor posture in looking down at their phones hour after hour after hour.

I have read numerous studies that indicate that the more a young person is on their phone, the less happy they are. Colleges have remarked that the anxiety and depression among students is off the charts compared to even a few years ago. This increase in mental health challenges seems to correlate with the time when almost every American teenager gained access to their own cell phone.

Dr. Jean Twenge has claimed that young people nowadays are often more sheltered by parents and cloistered away from each other by technology — there is less face to face, and more communicating at a distance through screens (texting, social media). They hold the outside world more at arm’s length. As a result, they are growing up slower rather than faster compared to earlier generations, Twenge claims. So a typical 17 year old might have the emotional maturity of a 14 year old in decades past. I think there is truth in this. It is not all bad. Teen drinking, drug use, and pregnancy is down compared to the past. But I also notice teenagers don’t get their driver’s licenses right when they turn 16, as was the case with my generation. It is almost as if they are putting off the usual markers of adult life. They are delaying all sorts of activities that are part of “growing up.”

Now I have to admit I was slow to grow up in many areas of my life. I did not have my first real romantic relationship until I was 20 years old, for example. A  young person can definitely be harmed by being exposed to too much too soon. You want to protect the young. Supervise them. I get that.

But you can also lose out on valuable learning experiences with other people when you are at home viewing the world from behind a screen, which is often the default activity at home. This I think explained the activity of “sexting” — sending naked pictures to others via cell phone. “Why does anyone do this?” I ask this to my students because I cannot imagine it. They tell me pretty much that for people so comfortable interacting via technology from a distance this is natural. “Some things are better done in person,” I reply. I think they think I just don’t understand their generation.

And I guess I don’t.

I have talked with young men from “Generation Phone Zombie” about the protocol for dating: you don’t ask a girl out via text — you screw up your courage and ask them face to face. And you definitely don’t break up with a girl over a text message: you sit down and have that talk in person. One kid told me, “If I asked a girl out and she rejected me, the whole school would know about it over social media in fifteen minutes. That is terrifying!” I told him every grown man within 400 yards of him in our school had asked someone out on a date and been rejected. One survives it; life goes on. It might go better next time. It probably will.

Let me be clear: I think a little dirt is good for a kid. Sneaking some booze from your parent’s liquor cabinet and making out with the girl across the block is not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t recommend it, but for many such is a stage one undergoes and grows out of. I engaged in such activity exactly zero times in high school, but I think maybe I should have. Every misstep is an opportunity to learn: a young person takes their first awkward steps into an adult activity, they mature and learn (hopefully), and then they move on. They grow up. Hopefully nobody does anything too stupid. But teenagers learn face-to-face and act outside the purview of their parents: they have agency.

I worry some young people today are so overprotected by their “concerned” parents, and so retarded in their social skills and people smarts by technology, that they are retreating from messy human interactions, the “real world,” and imminent adult life. They are 20 going on 16 emotionally. They go off to college and are poorly prepared to operate as budding “adults.”

Well, I hope like hell not to have this happen with my daughters.

I sometimes tell my wife, “We are trying to raise our daughters so that they can eventually live successfully without us.” But my daughters don’t do much independent of us.

But I am actively trying to change that.

Three months ago I took Julia on a bike ride some half an hour away from our house. It was a bit of an adventure: we traveled major streets and crossed a freeway, saw the house where Julia’s friend lives, and then returned. I asked ten year old Julia if she could make this trip without me. She replied, “Yes.” I then told her that whenever she wanted, she could come and visit her friend without parents involved.

But months later she still has not done so, much to my frustration. Ostensibly, the problem is that the mother of Julia’s friend keeps a tight leash on the daughter, not giving much free time to play. I think also arriving by bike for a playdate violates protocol: girls arrive by automobile with their mothers, after a playdate has been decided on by mothers. There seems to be no freedom for kids to arrange these things themselves.

Argghhh!

I hope that when Julia and Elizabeth have summer days with no school, they can leave the house in the morning on their bikes to go have adventures and then be back later for dinner. Go outside and enjoy the day! Use your freedom!

I suspect what is going to happen is that I will set up expensive, all-day camps: acting at a summer theater production, California junior lifeguards, athletic camps of various flavors, writers’ workshops, etc. This is what we have been doing so far. It is not bad. Julia and Elizabeth have learned much and grown athletically and intellectually from these summer endeavors. It is much better than what happens with so many other kids: they sit at home most of the summer, watch TV or some other screen, and they regress in their intellectual and physical growth. But expensive summer camps led by trained adults is still childhood time directly by the adult world. Kids have little freedom.

Hell, I almost never had anything scheduled during summers when I was a kid. I did have baseball games and football practice at the beginning and end of summer, but I rode my bike to those without parents and was free as a bird all day long besides that. My family would also go on summer vacation for a week or two. But what I remember was going to this hilly area off MacArthur Blvd. and San Joaquin Rd. where we could catch little snakes and then sell them for a quarter each to Russo’s Pet Store where they would feed them to the larger snakes they had for sale. Then we would play a half hour of Space Invaders or Missile Command video games at a store nearby with that money. Then we were off on our bikes again to do something else. Sometimes our activities were stupid ones I regret. But I appreciated the ability to have agency in terms of who I was, the choices I make, the friends I chose, etc.

What I did not do was complain to my parents that I was “bored.” Again, my daughters whine about being “bored,” as if it is my job to entertain them. “Can we do something fun?” they ask. I do my best. But is it my job to relieve my children’s “boredom”? How can one be bored when there are so many things to learn, books to read, etc. I want to tell my daughters that if anyone is “bored,” they have only themselves to blame!

On the other hand, if parents literally don’t let their children out of their sight then can we blame young people if they grow restless and bored? If they feel the parameters of their world are too constrained? If adolescents send nude pictures of themselves to each other via cell phone, since they don’t have the opportunity to be naked face-to-face?

Once in a while I complain to my wife about about kids who lack the freedom to roam, and she is pretty much unsympathetic. “It is different now than it used to be,” she claims. She makes it sound simple, as if the new reality needs no explanation or defense.

But why? Does it have to be this way?

I hope to take direct action to give my daughters more freedom than seems to be the case nowadays. I hope to consciously foster their independence in numerous ways. I hope to respect their sense of self, so that they can see themselves not only in terms of their place in our family but as individuals who can make their own decisions and take responsibility for themselves.

In Brazil or Mexico the impoverished neighborhood kids supposedly spend much of their time outside playing soccer games organized by themselves. In the United States more affluent parents pay huge amounts to club soccer teams to play in practices and tournaments organized by coaches. Which country has better soccer teams?

Maybe it is just, as in so many other areas, trying to find Aristotle’s “Golden Mean.” Not enough unsupervised free time? Or too little adult support and supervision? Not enough time to bond and act like a kid without nosy adults poking around? Or too little enrichment invested by interested adults who can provide specific skills and assistance?

All I know right now is that next August my oldest daughter Julia (11 years old) will start middle school. I will drop her off about half an hour before the school bus arrives, and she will have some time to kill by herself. For the first time I will give her an allowance, and she can walk unsupervised over to the grocery store to buy a snack or to the coffee shop and buy a hot chocolate. Knowing her, Julia will sit somewhere and read a book until the bus arrives. She will have her own cell phone (also for the first time) to communicate with me, if need be, during the school day. Then she will take the bus home. She will have much more freedom than ever before, as well as the responsibility to get on the bus and back unaided.

I am a little nervous for her. But I am more excited. I will let Julia take care of her own business in middle school. Baby steps, maybe. But it is time for her to grow up. Just a bit. I think Julia will enjoy the sensation of flying with her own wings, without the parental units hovering around. We will be around, if needed — but fly, Julia, fly!

Freedom, daughter Julia. Freedom.

We are raising you to be your own woman.