I was born on August 10, 1961, at the tail end of the population tsunami that was the baby boom. Women were popping out an average of 3.7 kids every year during this period, as opposed to an average of 1.7 in the ensuing years. Needless to say, this meant there were a lot of kids in my neighbourhood. So many, in fact, that every little street and boulevard had its own road hockey team, with subs and everything. There was a tournament held every fall to choose the neighbourhood champion, although I can’t for the life of me imagine who organized it. Either kids were more on the ball in those days or someone’s dad was very gung-ho on hockey.
Every day after school, on weekends, and during breaks, hordes of us would hit the streets for games of British bulldog, red rover, tag, mother may I, and my favourite, hide-and-seek. For me there was nothing quite so thrilling as being hidden, poking my head out, and seeing whoever was it getting closer and closer. I’d try to stay perfectly still and breathe as quietly as possible, and once they got really close I’d quickly calculate all the variables that would determine whether I could get home before them. Am I a faster runner than them, and if not, would the element of surprise be enough to get me there first? Is there a shortcut I could take that would give me an advantage, for example could I really jump over that hedge and land on my feet? I revelled in the excitement of going over these scenarios in my mind, even though deep down I always knew where I would end up. “Who am I kidding? I’m a terrible athlete. I’ll just hide here until he is far enough past me that I’ll have an enormous lead.” And that’s inevitably what I would do: make a beeline for home as soon as it was feasible, and yell “home free” before my pursuer even knew I was on my way there. And don’t get me started on playing hide-and-seek at dusk – pure heaven!
I was the youngest of five children and remember being taken aback at the strangeness of my friend Andrea having only one sibling. Weird. We lived in Scarborough, a sleeper suburb of Toronto, packed with new houses occupied by even newer families. It was a time of plenty, with moms at home and dads working 9 to 5. At least that was the norm – my parents were anomalies. My father was a musician who worked all hours of the day and night – jingles, recordings, and lessons during the day, then gigs in the evening. I remember kids asking me what my dad did for a living, and I would tell them he was a musician. Then they would kindly ask again, as though I had not understood their initial question, and I would repeat, “He’s a musician.” “No,” they’d say, taking on the tone one adopts with a small child or a mentally challenged adult, “what does he do for money?” At which point I would assume that maybe they were a little slow, and therefore would match their plodding and precise tone as I again responded, “He is a musician,” miming the action of strumming a guitar to doubly ensure that they understood. There was no place in their universe where a man could support a family if he didn’t work in an office or a factory.
My mother was even more atypical. She would be the first to admit that hanging out with children was not her bag, so you can imagine how discontented she was staying at home with the five of us and all our annoying little friends. It’s consequently no great surprise that she got her license and went to nursing school as soon as I was in kindergarten, having spent 15 long years breeding and rearing children while surrounded by women with whom she had nothing in common. Finally, some adult conversation and professional stimulation! My dad hired a housekeeper and my peers couldn’t understand why a woman who was not my mother was cleaning my house and serving me lunch every day. A woman who worked was abnormal, but a mother who worked was downright scandalous.
My parents’ jobs made them unlike the adults around them, but they were completely in step with our neighbours when it came to their philosophy and practice of child rearing. Everyone’s kids were allowed to play outside without adult supervision. I wore dresses and tights to school, but as soon as I got home I would put on my “hack” clothes and go outside until it was time to eat. After dinner I’d immediately head out again and stay out until the streetlights came on. Sometimes everyone who was out would play a massive game all together, and at other times we would split up into smaller groups. There were myriad possible combinations because there were so many of us, and I don’t remember ever being bored. Being outside was endlessly diverting, and we had all kinds of toys, board games, and jigsaw puzzles to play with inside when the weather was bad.
One of my earliest memories of playing with friends involves an accident I had when I was 6 years old. I was with several other kids in a driveway just around the corner from my house. We decided to play Red Light, Green Light. One of the times that the person who was it turned around and said “Green Light”, I lunged forward. I was a less than graceful kid, and somehow in my haste I tripped over my own foot and fell forward. My hands were in my pockets and I couldn’t get them out fast enough, so my face broke my fall when it hit the bumper of the car parked in the driveway. I blacked out for a bit, and when I came to I had blood and pieces of tooth in my mouth. All the other kids were standing over me, staring down with their mouths agape and eyes wide. I realized I needed my mother, and as no one standing over me seemed inclined to move I yelled out, “Get my mum!”
I had chipped a few baby teeth and broken my nose in the fall, and both of my eyes blackened over the next couple days. Mum decided I should see the doctor just to make sure I wasn’t concussed, and we had to take the bus since she had not yet received her license at the time. She told me years later that all the adults on the bus would first look at my bruised and tender face, and then look at her with scorn in their eyes. She wanted to tell them that she hadn’t hurt me, but realized that protesting her innocence might well make her seem more guilty.
Luckily I wasn’t concussed, but something was put awry in my nose which led to me having periodic nosebleeds for the next several years. I once had a gusher in the middle of the night and woke up with the whole left side of my face encased in dried blood. I had slept through the entire thing and was very alarmed when I awoke and couldn’t get my left eye open. I ran into the hall screaming and my dad came running to see what was the matter. I must have interrupted him while he was dressing because all he had on were his boxers and a partially buttoned shirt. Imagine his alarm when he saw me standing there in hysterics with a hand partially covering my blood-encrusted face.
He pulled me into the bathroom and began washing the blood off with a facecloth. It wasn’t long before it was all gone and it became clear that neither my eye, nor anything else for that matter, was bleeding. My dad brought me into the living room and sat me on the couch to calm down. He then called my mum at the hospital. He explained what had happened and Mum told him that it was probably just one of my regular nosebleeds, to which dad replied, “What nosebleeds?” It’s a testament to how rarely my dad was home, and how little he was involved in the day-to-day of his children’s lives, that he didn’t know anything about my condition until he found out that morning in the most traumatic of ways.
The way I incurred that injury has stayed with me, and I am always very careful to keep my hands out of my pockets while walking. One of my duties as an elementary school teacher/librarian was to escort classes to and from the library, and I always reminded them to take their hands out of their pockets before we began. For several years I taught a cadre of boys that delighted in flouting this rule. They would jam their hands as deeply as possible into their pockets whenever we walked, and then revel in bringing their defiance to my attention. I tried to remain cool, but it did freak me out a bit that their hands weren’t free, especially if we were taking stairs. I wish one of those little shits had fallen just once and gotten injured. Not badly, but just enough that I could smugly walk past them with a “told ya so!” look on my face.
There are so many things which are unclear when you are a child. Names, for instance. When I was about 11 a new family with three kids moved in up the street. Attila was my nearest brother’s age, Elizabeth was my age, and then there was a baby whose name I didn’t know. I wasn’t told their last name, but assumed that it must be Thehun because I’d only ever heard of one Attila. As I got older I realized my mistake, but it wasn’t until years later that I learned their actual surname. My mum and I were watching figure skating when Elvis Stoyko took to the ice. Mum asked me if I remembered the Stoykos, and I said I didn’t. She then said, “Sure you do. I’m sure you and Elizabeth were friends.” So she was Elizabeth Stoyko and her baby brother was Elvis. I still like Elizabeth Thehun better.
We also lived near a family named the Hazels. Clint Hazel was a very tough guy. He was about 3 years older than me and seemed to constantly be in fights which he invariably won. I had his younger brother Witter in my class. Witter was an unbelievable brat. He knew that he could get away with anything he wanted on the schoolyard because kids were terrified of his older brother. The Hazel boys also had a younger sister. I never learned her first name but always referred to her as “Witch”. Witch hazel was the astringent my father used after shaving, and witches are female, so it made sense in my young mind that the little sister’s name had to be Witch Hazel. I never did learn her real name.
Allowing kids to roam freely leaves room for lots of injuries. My future brother-in-law Robert was hyperactive, and on two separate occasions his rash actions resulted in a kid getting his arm broken. We had a wire fence in our backyard, and a friend of my eldest sister’s named Lou Bartoni once sliced open his calf while trying to leap over it. The gash was long and deep enough that we could see the bone, and Lou needed numerous stitches. Parents regularly came to our school in the winter to flood the ice rink in the yard and then would spray water down the hill in the playground to make it extra slippery. Kids fell all the time, cracking their heads and breaking bones, yet in none of these cases was anyone sued. Everyone understood that not only do accidents happen, but they also happen most often to children. It was all just part of growing up.
I remember one winter when we had several large storms in a row. The snow which had been shovelled off the driveway formed a huge mound beside our front porch. One day my brother Michael and I had the bright idea of somersaulting off the porch railing into the snow pile, figuring it would make a soft landing pad. We did this for a bit but realized before too long that we needed to jump from a greater height to make the experience really fun. At first we considered the roof, but figured it would be too difficult to get up there. Eventually one of us had the bright idea of setting up Dad’s ladder on the porch, so that’s what we did. We were now high enough that we could fully rotate in the air after take-off before landing perfectly on our backs. We were blithely doing this when our mother arrived home from work. She’d barely turned the car off before quickly getting out and yelling “What the hell are you doing? Are you trying to break your backs?!” So that was the end of that game. Mums can be such a bummer!
My mother worked in emergency and regularly told us that they saw as many serious injuries from sledding as from skiing. She therefore banned us from tobogganing, meaning we only did it when she wasn’t around. On one occasion Michael, his friend Brent and I decided to go sledding. Mum wouldn’t be home from work for a couple of hours and that gave us plenty of time. We took our long wooden sled to a really good hill about a fifteen minute walk away, and hadn’t been sledding for long when Michael was thrown off. He landed awkwardly on his neck and was crying out in pain when Brent and I went over to see if we could help. It was clear from the look on Michael’s face that he was badly injured and couldn’t possibly walk all the way home. Brent suggested we leave him and run for help, but both Michael and I immediately dismissed that idea. Mum would find out if another adult was involved, and neither of us wanted to face her anger.
We finally decided to put Michael on the sled and pull him home. I’ll never forget the piteous noise he made every time we hit a bump. We got to the house just before Mum came home from work. I didn’t see how we could keep the injury from her, fearing Michael wouldn’t be able to hide his extreme pain, but he admirably managed to act normal whenever Mum was around even though he may very well have broken his collar bone. He only showed his considerable discomfort when securely out of her sight. It’s amazing what a powerful motivator fear is. I will be forever grateful for his inspiring stoicism.
My childhood was markedly different from those of children today. I had absolute freedom to do as I wished in my many hours of unsupervised play, as did all of my peers. We learned important life skills in the process, such as how to negotiate, conciliate, share, and compromise. We took chances, tested our skills, and learned when to pull back. Children now are highly scheduled and almost constantly scrutinized by adults. We used to talk about “helicopter parents” in education – individuals who hovered and swooped in to save their children from every problem or difficulty, no matter how small. About five years ago the term morphed into “bulldozer parents” because they had become much more aggressive in the constant coddling of their kids and general interference in their lives. Most recently educators coined the phrase “concierge parents” to fit a new cohort who are not only ridiculously involved in the minutia of their children’s lives, but also anticipate obstacles they might have to face in the future and pre-emptively move them out of their way.
I fear that this model of parenting is leaving an entire generation woefully unprepared for adulthood in the real world, as do many experts. I also know that I had a lot more fun than these kids are having and was much less anxious than they are. I recently read about a mom in New York City who has started a group called “Free Range Children.” The aim of her organization is to get parents to lighten up and let their children have more freedom. Many people have joined so far, and their numbers continue to grow. I wish them luck and hope that their cause spurs a resurgence of old-fashioned, hands-off parenting. Everyone – parents, children, and society in general – would benefit from such an outcome.