Awhile ago I read Tom Sawyer in large part because I wanted a window into how kids, and boys in particular, used to live. I know it’s a work of fiction, but I figured it would still provide insight into what was expected of kids more then a century ago, and what they were capable of. I loved it, and now don’t feel so badly about giving my kids a bath only once a week, if we’re lucky. Now as Ollie and I read together, I’m struck by the world children used to inhabit.
In 1962’s The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Peter wakes up to a snowy morning and goes outside to explore, all by himself.
At the end he goes home and tells his mother about his adventures outside, but the key thing is that he’s had them unaccompanied, all by himself. And he’s pretty young, because he’s not able to join the big boys in a snowball fight. Maybe the whole thing’s supposed to be a fantasy. Maybe when it was written young boys didn’t go outside alone for snowy adventures, but I don’t think so.
In the 1972 book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day clearly things are different. There are obvious technology differences, like going to school in a car with no booster seats (and the mom’s not wearing a seat belt and there’s a child in the front seat, no air bags!!), but also Alexander and his brothers are left all alone, out on the street.
By the looks of the picture, they’re even in in the street. I don’t need to tell you the plot point is not that their mom is irresponsible and the children should be taken away. At school, Alexander’s friends have sweets and candy (“a Hershey bar with almonds”!! NUTS!!) for dessert. Do you see what kids climb on during recess?
And have you read The Tale of Peter Rabbit? Their mother leaves all the children alone to go off to the baker, even though the very farmer who killed her husband and baked him in a pie is close by! While the daughters eat blackberries, Peter gets in all kinds of trouble by himself and is almost captured by the very same farmer.
I don’t read many contemporary children’s books, so I can’t tell you if they’re filled with helicopter parents shuttling kids to music lessons and soccer practice, or if they tell the story of kids trapped inside watching videos instead of dragging sticks through snow. But the more stories I hear of kids living without the opportunity to explore and play and be kids, the sadder I get. Every time I read one of these books to my kids, I want them to experience more than just a Very Bad Day, or a snow day, or a garden adventure. I want them to see what kids used to do and to know they still can.