A few years ago, a family moved in down the street. They have a daughter who I guess was around 7 years old at that time. While I didn’t meet the parents for quite some time, the little girl would come over occasionally and pet my dog Daisy. Her name was Sarah. She was sweet and we had a couple of nice conversations, after which she would skip home then disappear.
It’s now 3 years later. The family still lives there and I think she does too. I just never see her outside. It’s not a mystery you may someday see on “48 Hours” but it is curious. I casually met the father once and the mother twice. They are very friendly and always wave as they drive by, which seems to be many times a day. But I literally never see their daughter. She may be behind those darkened windows in the back seat, being chauffeured to an activity-I’m not sure. When I last saw the mother, we were trying to find the owner of a lost dog. Another neighbor, who also had not seen Sarah around, asked her whereabouts. The mother said she was competing at a horse show nearby. We learned that Sarah was very much into horses and had won many ribbons that day.
I was happy to hear Sarah was still ‘around’ but I didn’t pry any further. Earlier, I had learned that Sarah’s family had moved here from out of state so Sarah could go to a private school that her mom had attended. From talking to Sarah those times she came to pet Daisy, I could tell she was very bright. From all accounts, Sarah is doing quite well and obviously has very nurturing parents.
What I miss, as a neighbor, is seeing that little girl around and having her visit. I enjoyed Sarah coming over to say hello and pet my dog. I liked that she paid attention to my granddaughter, who was only 2 years old at the time. I thought I would have the privilege of watching Sarah grow, like I had many other neighborhood kids. But she is virtually invisible.
It isn’t just Sarah. There aren’t many little kids playing outside in my neighborhood any longer. For that matter, there aren’t many kids playing outside at all. When they do socialize outdoors, it’s oftentimes arranged playdates at parks or swimming pools. Otherwise, kids are busy doing things other than casual, unmonitored playing. Organized baseball and soccer, dance lessons, swim lessons, music lessons, girl scouts and boy scouts, these and other activities keep kids from doing what I did as a kid. That and the heightened fears that someone will snatch our kid if we aren’t watching them every second.
When I was a kid, we rode bikes, played catch, kick ball, tag, cowboys and Indians, army, etc. The last two activities are looked down upon these days because we pretended to have guns. I personally don’t think I was scarred by that. Besides, many of today’s video games are much more violent! Of course, when I was a child, we didn’t have computers, the internet, smart phones, cable TV, and the fear comes with the constant, 24-hour updates of every wrong doing that occurs among us 300+ million Americans.
While it may sound like I’m complaining, I really don’t know that we had it better when I was growing up. To be honest, there are advantages and disadvantages of today’s world versus the world of my youth. Kids are still social and probably much more diverse and accomplished in their skills. I’m certainly not against organized activities. It’s just that these activities are not as instinctive or unstructured. You don’t see many kids playing on their own in middle class neighborhoods any more. They are being escorted to the malls, or movie theaters, or in basements, challenging each other in the latest video game craze. Too many are busy shifting from their mom’s house to their dad’s house and back, innocent victims of their parents’ issues with each other. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that unstructured ‘Free Play’ is important for kids! Read here about their study.
Surely, not every neighborhood is void of kids playing outside. Where you live, it could very well be hectic with active kids having fun outdoors. I hope so. But I miss the sounds kids make when they are playing outside, chasing and yelling at each other. Sure, sometimes I wanted them to be quiet or to behave more civilly. But there is nothing like kids playing on their own, running around in the grass, forgetting time, rushing in for a glass of water then running out again. When I think back to summer days when I was around 6-12 years old, I was always busy, without a schedule, always wearing a hat. I wore a hat because I never combed my unruly hair. It simply took too much time and I had to get outside ASAP and play with my friends. Time stood still then, and went by fast!
When Girl Scout cookie time comes around, I’ll discover, or remember, that there are still some kids around and I’m surprised at how they have grown. It’s good when kids are busy. It keeps them out of trouble. But being busy in a very structured way can kill, not only imagination and creativity, but a lot of adult-free fun! Yes, sometimes I look around and wonder, “Where have all the children gone?”
I guess I know where they might be. Maybe I should ask, “Why are all the children gone?”
Michael Byron Smith is a retired USAF officer and civilian engineer. His interest in fatherhood came about from watching the struggles of his mother raising six children alone and the resultant struggles of his siblings. He has a blog entitled Helping Fathers to be Dads and is the author of “The Power of Dadhood: Be the Father Your Children Need”, published by Familius.com
Michael lives in St. Louis. MO with his wife of 40 years. He has three wonderful children and four beautiful grandchildren.