There is a magical street in North Austin that wakes up at 5 p.m. every weekday. Moms (and some Dads and Grandmothers) plant their camping chairs outside in the street and set their kids of all ages loose. Recently, I was lucky to take part in this daily ritual. My kids gorged themselves on their temporary neighbors’ sidewalk chalk, three-wheelers, and tree-swings.
This routine recreated what The Wonder Years taught me about free-range parenting, but without the 1960’s expectation that the mothers would be inside pot-roasting. This group of Austinites skipped the pre-dinner scotch on ice in favor of something more suitable for lawn chair cupholders. The few days we spent as a family in that micro-Mayberry were memorable, not least of all because on the other side of town a man was leaving package-bombs on doorsteps identical to ours.
The threat of danger keeps our children inside.
Last year, while walking into the McAllen Public Library, a kindly-looking man softly reproached me for allowing my kids to walk twenty feet behind me on the sidewalk. He said something to the effect of there being bad people in the world. To correct for this new information, I would have to cut my kids’ freedom in half: no straying from the path, no staring at ants. I would have to keep them indoors. But I don’t want to live as though headlines report what is most common instead of most sensational.
In Austin I worried about bombs, but my husband reminded me that you are more likely to die in a car than from opening a UPS package. I put my kids into cars every day. Life will hurt them eventually, but I refuse to believe that life outside is more dangerous than life inside.
Like the car we don’t fear since we’re too busy avoiding the bogeyman, the realistic danger to our kids lurks closer to home — on their screens. We know enough about social-media bullying, violence on TV, movies, and video games. We can’t continue to turn a blind eye to what we are inadvertently teaching our kids. They are seeing violence too young, and it’s tacitly becoming their answer to conflict.
Sherry Turkle’s research shows that children who use a lot of technology don’t learn to have face-to-face conversations. Studies show that, perhaps because they are not conversing anymore, heavy technology use is correlated to a lower level of empathy among children. A recent article by Anastasia Basil, the self-proclaimed “Town Prude,” asks us if we have ever considered that our child might be the cyber-bully instead of the cyber-bullied.
It is becoming clear to me that keeping them inside doesn’t equal keeping them safe.
Let’s sit outside for two reasons. First, let’s learn to be neighbors: let’s look up into the faces of other human beings instead of down at the phone in our hand. Let’s ask one another for a cup of sugar when we need one. Recently a neighbor asked to borrow my ladder, and this act brought me more joy than I’d have predicted. We needn’t all have ladders in a community, and lending one feels so neighborly, so close, so friendly. We should be talking to one another, connecting, sharing down-time, creating it.
Can we start a revolution to bring back downtime? If it can happen anywhere, it’s in the RGV. When I moved here I felt as though I’d landed in paradise, because I saw (primarily) Mexican-American extended families barbecuing, napping, and listening to music at the park. But I see my UTRGV students being pulled to the dark side by busyness.
Our revolution would mean prioritizing rest and community over efficiency and ambition.
But let’s also sit outside to let our children run loose. Free-range parenting has been enjoying a comeback in the past few years. I think that this is in the best interest of the children. Sure, someone’s eyes will be on them, but not mine necessarily. We should grow to feel responsible for one another’s children. As Glennon Doyle Wambach writes, “there is no such thing as other people’s children.”
We should model face-to-face conversations for our kids and give them ample opportunities to practice looking one another in the eye. By getting into and out of non-virtual conflicts, they will acquire the social skills that are currently facing extinction. We can’t let our kids miss out on vital skills like listening, resilience, and empathy. And we’ll polish our rusty ones.