I love my morning walks to coffee. Thanks to vacations and other complicating factors I hadn’t been to my favorite coffee shop for three weeks. This June morning was the perfect time to get back into the routine of walking the trails along Cascade Creek. A family of ducks swam among the rocks looking for breakfast. Bikers (always looking so healthy) smiled and greeted me warmly. The temperature hovered in the mid-sixties, with the clear sun promising a warm day.
Since the last time I’d been along the creek the wildflowers and naturalized areas on the bank had fully grown, the flowers overwhelmed me with beauty and fragrance. I couldn’t count the varieties of grasses and flowers.
What’s to be afraid of? Everything seemed so clean and well planned. The parks department maintains the edge of the trail, keeping the weeds at bay. In one flower bed they were half way through clearing overgrowth from around the milkweed. No wonder so many people get out early on a summer morning to enjoy the path.
I love taking my grand children over to the park, along the same trail, to the playground. There are usually several other little kids with moms or dads playing on the equipment. Their happy smiles remind me of when I played in Klaus Park in Jamestown, North Dakota. But something has changed.
As a six-year-old boy I walked the two blocks to the park to play on the swings, get a game of croquet going with my friends, and generally run around until it was time for lunch. Dozens of kids played games, threw balls, and settled differences on the playground. We thought the park was huge, and it is; well over twenty acres. We could play under the bridge, find hidden places, literally walk across the James River on rocks, and be completely away from our parents for hours.
I have yet to see a child alone in Kutzky park. A recent episode of The Simpsons illustrated what could happen to an unsupervised child in a city park. Police Chief Wiggum arrested Marge Simpson (the mother) and she was sentenced to 90 days in jail for child endangerment, letting Bart play alone in the park. Something changed from the time I was six until my grandson turned six.
Fear. Jacob Wetterling. Twenty-four hour cable news. The relentless drumbeat that someone could take your child. Forever.
Walking along the trail this morning reminded me of the joy of touching wild grass, figuring out how to make it whistle, then discovering that stinging nettle is not something to mess with. My little boys don’t discover those things. They hear about them. I physically know what itch weed does to me. They have heard about it. There’s a difference.
Our children play differently today. The way we learn has changed. The fabric of society has changed. We don’t send the kids out to play, reminding them to come in when the street lights turn on. Now we take them to soccer tournaments, a hundred miles away, necessitating a motel stay. There’s not one unsupervised moment.
The kids aren’t encouraged to discover things. Parents helicopter around them, ready to pull them back when the child approaches a stinging nettle, ready to help negotiate when another child makes an unreasonable demand. These kids don’t experience the pain of losing an argument on the playground. They learn that an authority figure is ready to jump in and make it right. The independence I experienced is missing. My mother and grandmother trusted me to do the right thing, and usually I did. That trust has been replaced by the illusion of security.
I’m part of that change, hovering around the playground equipment, checking the slide to be sure it’s ok, or ready to lend a hand on the rope ladder. I let the kids roam, but when they get close to the wildflowers along the riverbank, I move in, scanning for the dreaded itch weed. “Don’t touch that!”
How will this method of raising children change the next generation of adults? Will it be good or ill? My instinct is to worry. The way we did it was good enough for me. I survived, but worry doesn’t do me well.
What a beautiful morning. Sun shining. Birds singing. Ducks foraging near the shore. Maybe I need to get the grand children and head for the park again. I’ll take them to the playground to the west. There’s stinging nettle to the east.
Join me for coffee next week?