I was watching “The Goonies” with my 8-year-old son recently. It was an old VHS copy that my wife found at a yard sale, and luckily we still had a VCR, the same one I’d gotten from my mother when I was 8.
Tristan’s blue eyes were glossy, his body was limp; everything about him seemed to be in love with the movie.
I’d seen “The Goonies” a million times, but this was the first time I’d watched it in 10 years. I couldn’t believe how much I remembered. Tristan laughed at the Truffle Shuffle, and he giggled at Mouth and his … well … mouth. But then, right before the young boys followed the pirate’s treasure map into the abandoned summer restaurant — the place where the criminals were hiding out — Tristan said, “Where are their parents?”
I sat there for a moment, taking in the question. He wanted to know why a group of preteens was allowed to travel so far without parental supervision. This was something that seemed so natural to me as a child that I never gave it any notice, but Tristan, a boy being raised in 2016, didn’t know that wandering the neighborhood with friends was an option.
“That’s just the way it was back then,” I said with a shrug.
“That’s scary,” Tristan said.
His comment made me think of an article by Michael Chabon that in the New York Review of Books a few years ago, “The Wilderness of Childhood.” In it, Chabon asks, “What is the impact of the closing down of the wilderness on the development of children’s imaginations?”
We live on a loop, and when we moved into our neighborhood in suburban Oregon, it seemed safe. It seemed like the kind of neighborhood I always wanted to be in, where kids could freely ride their bikes from place to place. I grew up in a rural part of Utah and had to travel a good mile to get to my nearest neighbors with kids. But by the time I was 9, I was allowed to do that on my own. In fact, learning how to ride a bike was a rite of passage. It felt like my parents were saying, “You can now travel without me, so go on and do it. Be home before the street lights come on.”
But that isn’t the case with Tristan. We don’t let him wander alone. Mel and I arrange everything for him. We have a system: He asks to play with a friend; we call the friend’s parents; a play date is arranged. When I was a child there was no such thing as a play date. It was more of a “wander the streets until you find someone to play with” sort of thing. And then, once I found someone, we went off, sometimes to the Provo River, sometimes to another friend’s house. We were wanderers, looking for adventure, just like the Goonies. We got into trouble — mostly simple things like falling off a bike, or getting stuck in a tree — and we found ways to get out of it. I learned a lot about independence.
When we moved into this neighborhood, I assumed that it would be like that, that we’d have children knocking at the door all the time. When we first moved in, that happened a little bit. But it was mostly just the family next door. The parents could see into our yard, and we could see into theirs. And then there was Brandon, from the next street over, and one of nine children. He was 10, and he wandered the streets like all children did when I was a child, but he mostly did it alone, and most of our neighbors worried about him. They saw his parents as neglectful, and most viewed him as either irritating for knocking on the door without an appointment, or a troublemaker.
Eventually both of these families moved, and there was nothing. It’s a ghost town. Not that there aren’t children in our neighborhood — there are. Lots of them. But I have to assume they are all scheduled for play dates, because they don’t ride their bikes around the loop.
All of it is just like Tristan said: Scary.
I’m scared to let my kids wander the neighborhood because they might get hurt, or kidnapped, or who knows what. And I’m scared that someone might accuse me of neglect for allowing my children to wander unaccompanied, the way I did as a child. Obviously my neighbors are too. It feels like we all agreed to some unwritten social contract that tells us to keep our children from wandering the streets, in an attempt to keep them safe. And I’m not sure what that means.
Perhaps this is only my neighborhood. Perhaps this is a middle-class thing. After my father left, my mother struggled to make ends meet, and I became a latchkey kid. Suddenly my curfew wasn’t the streetlights anymore; it was much later. I had to be home before my mother got off her second job. Perhaps that was the real reason for my freedom to wander. I don’t know.
But what I do know is that I learned how to make my own friendships by wandering. I learned how to get in and out of trouble. I learned how to skip a rock. I learned how to fall down and get back up without help from an adult. I learned how to make decisions on my own, sometimes on the fly. And like the Goonies, I found a lot of treasures. None of them were valuable in the tangible sense, like a pirate ship full of gold. They were new friendships and life skills that really can only be learned from being unsupervised as a child.
I thought about that as I looked at my son watching a movie about a group of children searching for a long-lost pirate ship in Oregon, and I wondered what hidden treasures he isn’t finding.
Clint Edwards is the author of No Idea What I’m Doing: A Daddy Blog and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (Parenting. Marriage. Madness).” His work has been featured on Good Morning America, and he is a parenting contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Today Parents, Scary Mommy, Babble, and elsewhere. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @byclintedwards.