We Can't Just Send Our Kids Outside Anymore

by Megan Larkin
Originally Published: 
A blonde boy with water from a sprinkler over his face whose parents can't just send him out anymore

Because nothing quite makes you dial back your tendency towards guilt and micromanagement like a nostalgia-induced shaming urging you to reevaluate your whole parenting style.

While I take the point that overly child-centered helicopter parenting can be detrimental to both parent and child, I often find advice suggesting that life would be simpler if we only behaved like previous generations irritatingly flippant. That was then and this is now.

Take the latest “What Would My Mother Do?” article: “It never crossed my mom’s mind to ‘entertain us’ or ‘fund expensive summer endeavors’ or ‘create stimulating activities for our brain developments.’ She said get the hell outside and we did.”

Kids freely roaming the neighborhood unsupervised was an awesome part of being a parent and a kid in 1985, but that’s not reality in 2015. Do you know what would happen if I told my 7-year-old to go outside all day, drink from a hose if she got thirsty, and count on a neighborhood parent to feed her bologna sandwiches and Kool Aid? Someone would call the cops on me, partly because people are more paranoid about child safety now than they were 30 years ago and partly because randomly discovering a lone child drinking from your hose and expecting lunch is concerning. There just aren’t packs of playmates drifting around the streets anymore.

“Just tell your kid to go outside” is no longer a thing. We need to stop pretending that it is. The fact that I just can’t turn my kid loose in the neighborhood all day says no more about my attitude towards parenting than the fact that I can’t give her a nickel and send her down to the soda fountain.

Camps, daycares, clubs, pre-arranged playdates, and after school activities are the modern-day equivalent of “get out of the house and go play with the neighbor kids down the street.” I don’t sign my kid up for them out of a desire to coddle her; I sign her up because that’s where all the other kids are. That’s just a fact of life in 2015.

I understand the desire to give your kid the kind of childhood you had or any kind of familiar childhood of yore. I feel that way too, sometimes. Nostalgia is a potent drug and known quantities can be reassuring. If the past is something we really want to recreate and we have the time and resources, maybe we could set up a neighborhood meeting and talk to other families about our desires to make our street into the literal village that raises our kids, perhaps even figure out a way to liaise with the police and child-free neighbors to get their support, too. If any of the parents are actually home during the day and willing to forego all their planned activities in favor of free-ranging, maybe we could not only set up a wolf pack o’ kids, but even some kind of wolf pack feeding rotor.

Perhaps there is some idyllic neighborhood that time forgot, where epic community reorganization wouldn’t be necessary. But it’s not mine. Frankly, I’m more inclined to accept 2015’s parameters and roll with its punches than put my time and energy into re-creating the past. Seven-year-old me spent time riding my banana seat bike around the neighborhood without a helmet. My 7-year-old will spend that time at sports camp or the Boys and Girls Club, where someone will smack a helmet on her when she comes within 10 feet of a bike. Different time; different childhood. And I’m OK with that.

Let’s at least agree to stop pretending that simply locking your kid out of the house and telling her to come back at dinnertime is a readily available option today. Creating that context would take a lot of work and buy-in from everyone in the community, not just mom and dad.

And, honestly? If you’re putting that much effort into re-creating a 1985 childhood for your kid instead of letting them experience 2015’s, I’d ask you to consider who, in this scenario, is really overthinking their parenting.

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