Now that June is almost over, schools across the nation are out, and kids everywhere are enjoying their summer vacations. Or are they? It seems to me that children don’t have as much summer freedom as past generations had. They may have the world at their fingertips through the internet, but they don’t know their neighborhoods as well as their parents and grandparents knew theirs.
My dad talked about taking the bus all over the Los Angeles area when he was a kid. His family lived in Pasadena from the time he was six or so until he was thirteen or fourteen. He told me he and a buddy would each bring a dime for their excursions—a nickel to travel outbound as far they could travel using bus transfers, and the other nickel to get them back home. From Pasadena in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, they rode to downtown Los Angeles and beyond. I wish I could remember his stories about all the places they went.
It didn’t seem to bother his parents that he was roaming the streets of a large metropolis in the years after World War II. (L.A. was the fifth largest city in the U.S. in 1940 and the fourth largest in 1950.) He made it sound perfectly normal for a preteen boy to be out on his own anywhere he could travel on public transportation.
A Kansas City-born friend of the same generation as my parents talks about similar bus trips in her hometown. “My mother never knew where I was,” she told me. Kansas City was much smaller than L.A., but in the 1940s the municipality was annexing land for expansion, and it had its own share of crime. I’m not sure I would have let my preteen kids take the bus by themselves, though they did once they reached high school.
By contrast, I grew up in a small town without any public transportation. I could only go where I could walk or ride my bike (and there weren’t many places in town worth pedaling to in the summer heat). In my grade school years, I mostly roamed the fields around our house with my brother or stayed inside and read a book.
When I was in high school, some friends and I did go tubing in the Columbia River on hot summer afternoons. We took our inner tubes to an access point on the old ferry road and floated to a boat ramp maybe a mile or so downstream. The river was cold but the sun was hot, and the water felt great in the dry desert air. Then we’d walk with our tubes back to the ferry access and do it again.
I look back on those times now and realize floating the river was probably less safe than riding the bus in L.A. in 1947. The current was fast, and I was not a strong swimmer. But there was only one time we didn’t maneuver ourselves to shore at the boat ramp. We floated on past as we paddled furiously and reached the riverbank a few hundred feet further on. Then we had to scramble through the rock and brush back to the boat ramp. A little scary, but we all survived, unscathed except for a few bug bites.
Friends my age talk of being shooed out of the house on summer days until dinner time, whether they lived in the country, in towns, or in cities. So freedom was still a part of summer for my generation.
But my kids’ generation had a different experience, at least those who were in day care. I can remember making sure my children were enrolled in summer programs during their grade-school years. Their school had a summer program with weekly activities that seemed quite adequate in the primary grade years. But as they got older, they wanted more variety. They went to Scout camps and YMCA camps. They visited grandparents. But I made sure they had scheduled group activities every week. I didn’t want them home alone.
When my son reached middle school, I let him stay home by himself a day or two a week. But I thought a whole week at home by himself was just asking for trouble. When my daughter reached middle school, she refused to go to the school’s summer program any longer. I let her stay home with her older brother—who was in high school by then. They had strict instructions on what they could and could not do, where they could and could not go. They were allowed to walk to the YMCA swimming pool a mile from our house, but they were also cautioned about crossing the four-lane roads and the freeway entrance and exit ramps that lay between our neighborhood and the pool.
So my children had less freedom in the summers than I had, and far less than my father who had all of Los Angeles as his playground. I think it’s one of the disadvantages of having two parents who work jobs with little flexibility.
What do you remember of your summers? Were you free or scheduled?
Theresa is the award-winning author of historical fiction about settling the American West. Before she turned to writing, Theresa was an attorney, mediator, and human resources executive.
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