When I was a child, we moved a lot. From a suburb of Chicago, to a short stop in Eugene, Ore., and finally to the Spokane area in eastern Washington where my immediate family still lives today. A common theme in each of these stops was the freedom I enjoyed after school, on weekends and during the summer.
If my room was clean and my chores complete, I could explore wherever my BMX or skateboard took me. There was no phone in my pocket that allowed my parents to track me. Often, they had no idea where I was or what I was doing.
I was expected to stay relatively close to home unless I told them otherwise and the prevailing two rules of my childhood were simple: Be home for dinner and, after that, before dark. In a household considered at once conservative and strict, my parents even went a step further. If I lounged around the house for too long taking up couch space, especially on the weekends, they would order me outside.
That’s right, kids. I was kicked out of my home because it annoyed my parents that I was wasting a sunny Saturday watching television. So, off I went to find entertainment among my peers or, more often, by myself. Yes, I had friends when I was kid, but I also didn’t need them for entertainment.
In Illinois I would wander around the neighborhood at dusk and capture fireflies. I kept the insects in jar with plants to sustain them and holes poked in the lid so they could breathe. In hindsight, this was inhumane, and a bad idea and I regret the decision. But I was young and considered them short-lived pets.
Near my home in Oregon, I had free run of the place. My older brother and I had a long paper route that required us to walk the streets under the cover of darkness. We did this without the ability to communicate with an adult if something went wrong. But I was only nervous when I had to deliver newspapers to especially poorly lit doorways or when there were barking dogs.
In Spokane, I was lucky enough to live in a house with a series of dirt trails in one direction and a massive church parking lot in the other. I would ride on trails and skate on the asphalt for hours at a time, making up different scenarios in my head about why I was the best at whatever I was doing. I obviously wasn’t, but that’s what imaginations are for.
During all those unsupervised hours of my childhood, I was rarely, if ever, in danger. My parents raised me right and told me to be wary of strangers and respect my elders. When I did something stupid, I paid the consequences. But they always encouraged me to explore the small corners of the world we lived in. And I did.
I grew up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, a time when the violent crime rate in the U.S. was setting records. It was much higher than today, although you wouldn’t know it. One consequence of a constant flood of information is a skewed perspective.
To be sure, we should do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities. But as kids watch adults react to all the recent horribleness in the headlines, I hope they don’t stop being kids. I hope they know that, while there are risks in life, they’re growing up in a safer time than many of us did. They can still go outside and explore.
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