I grew up in an apartment building in Little Ferry, New Jersey. Four rooms for the five of us in a featureless, rectangular block of a building that was, frankly, kind of a community eyesore. My father labored nights and overtime for years to get us out of it. Which he did, in 1972, when I was 10.
I can still remember the powerful smell in the halls of that building, an odor comprised of institutional floor cleaner, cooking grease, and the ineradicable olfactory wallop of coal dust from the cellar. The building had been heated by a coal furnace until at least the mid-to-late ’60s and I can remember the excitement of a coal delivery, the coal truck arriving in the rear courtyard and extending a chute into a cellar window at the side of the house, the roar of the coal as it rumbled down the chute into the dark bowels of the building. That cellar was off-limits to us kids, so of course we were obsessed with it and were forever devising new sneaky ways to gain access to it. The identical apartment building next door to ours, occupied entirely by elderly people without kids, was another frequent target of our trespassing schemes.
Us kids. That’s another thing I remember. The tenants in the other apartments were all families with kids. When you were banished from the apartment (“Go out and play! And stay out of trouble!”), you went out to the back steps or the front stoop and found your friends from the other apartments already there, loitering, trying to come up with a plan of action. “Whaddeya wanna do?” “I dunno, whadda YOU wanna do?”
When we weren’t daring each other to sneak into the cellar or the building next door, we were playing “stoop ball,” a game that involved bouncing a Spaldeen off the brick steps and into the street, where fielders were forever calling “Time out!” to let cars pass. We also played “running bases” in the alley between the apartment buildings, a game that was exactly what it sounds like: two bases and two kids throwing a ball back and forth while runners attempted to steal bases by eluding rundowns.
By the time I was eight, I was pretty much free to roam the streets of Little Ferry. There was a small municipal strip of grass up the street that we used for football, and a parking lot one block over where we’d play “box ball” or whiffle ball. Around this time, too, the tiny borough was constructing a new school and municipal hall, both of which provided endless opportunity for exploring and carting away cast-off building materials. When we were older, we rode our bikes around the streets of town. I spent a lot of time across town at the Little Ferry Public Library. Mostly though, we sat around and kept up the endless call and response: “Whaddeya wanna do?” “I dunno, whadda YOU wanna do?”
Very little of our day was supervised or organized by our parents. We had school, we had Little League in the spring, and some of us were Cub Scouts. Otherwise, we were left to our own devices. There was no notion at all of our parents structuring our activities or keeping us entertained. We were expected to “Go out and play.” At dinnertime, my mother would go out to the second floor porch of our building and call us home. On summer weekends, my father would pack us up into the family station wagon and take us west to Shepherd Lake or to Lake Hopatcong, where we owned a plot of land on which he would eventually build our house.
Forty years later, my children are eight and eleven and neither has permission to leave our property unattended. This state of affairs is absolutely fine with them. There’s very little time for wandering around and nowhere to go, anyway. In our neighborhood, young kids aren’t roaming the streets unsupervised. They aren’t showing up at other peoples’ doors, uninvited. “Go out and play” has been largely replaced by “scheduled play dates.” My son Owen, who is eight, cannot ride a two-wheel bike. It isn’t that he doesn’t have the aptitude or opportunity (he’s already had three bikes). It’s just that there’s little utility in being able to ride a bike. Where would he go on it?
My daughter, eleven years old, has had her own stable circle of friends since pre-school daycare days. Her days are a constant parade of scheduled activities, lessons, play dates, summer camp. She has her cellphone (texting, but no Internet access). She has a facility for forming friendships within the context of her activities, and those friendships seem to last over time. Owen’s relationships with kids his own age seem less fully formed to me. He seems to get on fairly well with the kids he’s placed in social situations with (his basketball team, summer camp, his therapy groups), but those relationships are very compartmentalized. They don’t exist outside the context of that specific group or activity. It occurs to me that Owen depends, to a very large extent, on his parents for entertainment, for social interaction, for simply having something to do. Abby does, too, though she’s older and has more options.
I don’t know that all of this is a bad thing. When I was a kid, we had a lot of empty time on our hands. We got into a lot of trouble. We broke things. We fought with each other. We bullied others and were bullied back. We experimented with things (playing with fire, trespassing, stealing) that would merit full-scale teacher/parent/coach/therapist interventions these days. But we were also cast, unguided and unobserved, into situations that we had to make sense of ourselves. It was understood that there were certain things we would have to learn on our own.
There’s less of that now. Sometimes when I see Abby or Owen loitering around the house, clearly waiting for me or my wife to entertain them—to tell them what to do next—I wonder if they’re worse off for it.
Related: Oak and Acorn