We just returned from two weeks in the Catskills.
“What was your favorite thing about our vacation?” I heard my husband ask our six-year-old the morning after we got back.
“We could go wherever we wanted!”
By “we”, he meant his three-year-old sister and himself. It was true—they’d been able to wander Croc-less in the grass, collecting pine cones, picking clover flowers, and climbing neighboring stoops to call through the screen doors of kids they had newly befriended.
We’d rented a cottage at the Lake Huntington Summer Community, a bungalow colony established in—and still retaining a strong flavor of—the 1970s. As well as the lake, the community offers a swimming pool (with life guard), tennis courts, and a community hall racily named the Casino, furnished with a ping-pong table, stacks of dusty old picture books—a faded Disney Peter Pan inscribed “from Grandma, Christmas 1975,”—and—most excitingly for my son—foosball.
What really makes Lake Huntington special for kids like mine though (and for the generations who grew up summering there) is that within the confines of the community, there’s no car traffic. They can run freely from one bungalow to another along grassy paths, fearing nothing more than the occasional mosquito bite.
It’s a hugely appealing idea—and, as I discovered, emotionally challenging for an urban parent like me whose eagle eyes are used to darting between two kids as we cross roads or navigate the subway.
When we first visited Lake Huntington last summer, my friend Chana announced: “I’ve sent the boys off. I told them, ‘Go explore!’”
“Great!” I answered, and my heart lurched into my mouth.
I found myself sneaking off (not wishing to reveal my cowardice to Chana) to prowl in the underbrush, peering through foliage for a glimpse of my son’s bright t-shirt. My internal radar, set on “acute,” had not yet switched itself off.
Over the following days it did, and I loved the way my children eased into comradeship with other kids around the community. I grew used to the declaration, “I’m off to X’s house!”—an unthinkable sentence in our Prospect Heights lives—and by the end of the vacation I realized that my kids had experienced a freedom that my husband and I both took for granted in our own childhoods (he during summers spent running barefoot on Fire Island, me in an enclave of London flats surrounding a huge garden, where my mother used to simply lean out of the window at dinner time and call our names).
The limiting of kids’ freedom has been much written about, most lyrically by Michael Chabon, who mourns a lost “wilderness of childhood,” a landscape where children’s imaginative lives flourished as they ran riot in their neighborhoods, negotiating dangers, forging bonds and experiencing the “great original adventure” of childhood.
Chabon blames the loss partly on our modern “Consumer Reports” mentality, but mostly on our fears of child abduction. Here in Prospect Heights, in August 2011, we have every reason to be hyper-sensitive on this point, living as we do just a bus ride away from a story so sad and so fresh in our consciousness that no amount of reassuring statistics are likely to mute its echoes.
However I think the real cause is far more complicated.
I once saw a diagram comparing two city blocks: one with heavy car traffic, one with light. The diagram showed, in criss-crossing lines, the number of interactions people had with their neighbors. Every time they crossed the road to chat, or walked a few houses down to hang out on a stoop, or to pop in to the corner store, the journey was marked by a skinny line.
In the “less traffic” diagram, the criss-crossing lines were like a mass of spaghetti; in the "more traffic" one, there were just a few lonely strands. The truth is our neighborhoods have changed as car traffic has transformed our blocks.
This sense is underpinned by some photos I once saw of Brooklyn in the 1930s and ‘40s. Kids chased hoops down the streets, tobogganed down Fourth Avenue after a snowfall, and in one that struck me more than any, an old-fashioned perambulator stood out alone on a stoop, in a block that might have been Prospect, between Underhill and Carlton, or any like it.
I marveled over that long-ago mother, wheeling her baby out to the street for fresh air, confidently leaving her there while she got on with cooking dinner or hanging up laundry in the backyard.
When people lived in that spaghetti-bowl world of interaction, they knew a great deal about their blocks, who their neighbors were, their foibles and quirks and whose bell their children could ring if they got into trouble a little distance from home. Even in a kid-intensive, friendly community like Prospect Heights, where my son goes to the local school and we often run into his friends on the streets, I cannot say the same.
I sometimes think there’s a self-flagellating quality to the discussions about children’s freedom that implies parents have simply become over-fussy or mother-hen-like. Phrases like “helicopter mom” have become easy epithets with which to reassure ourselves (thank God I’m not one of those!), when in fact no one today—not even the most laissez-faire parent—is letting their eight-year-old zoom unhelmeted into the blue on his Chopper as the boys in my neighborhood used to do.
In reality, I think parents have changed as our environment has altered—we’ve attuned ourselves to the reality of our landscapes just as all generations do and must. It just so happens that we live in a more mechanized world than ever before and that our communities, however beloved, are more fractured and less knowable.
In some European cities—Amsterdam, for instance, and Copenhagen—there are movements afoot to reclaim the spaghetti bowl, to get people out onto the streets and interacting. I don’t see that happening any time soon in New York. But, places like Lake Huntington remind us that the wilderness of childhood still hasn’t altogether vanished. We can still visit, if only for brief periods.