I’m a bit sad my daughter won’t have the kind of carefree childhood I recall. There was a certain magic to being a kid in a world where everything wasn’t served with a side of warning, and one wasn’t tethered to some form of electronic device at all times. Moms felt comfortable yelling from the back porch out into the wilderness, knowing their kids would come home, worried less about organic foods, or the latest rise in Lyme’s Disease.
A summer day in my childhood went something like this:
Mom makes pancakes and scrambled eggs while my brother and I watch cartoons in the morning. After a while she tells us to go play, and we head out into the woods behind our backyard. It’s a forest to our young eyes. Our sunscreen-free skin lightly toasted in the light, exposed to ticks, poison ivy, and other dangers, but we don’t think about it at all. We wander further back through the trees and find a few kids from the neighborhood, excitedly banging rusty nails through soft pieces of plywood with the hammer they found in an open box in one of their parent’s garages. We spend an unsupervised hour testing out the sturdiness of our new creation before heading to the nearby cul-de-sac for a game of kickball. The grumpy lady in one of the houses screams at us every time the ball bounces in her yard, and we half-heartedly tell her we are sorry despite our failure to put a stop to her grievances.
After a long while, we hear our mom’s voice echoing through the neighborhood from the backdoor of our house as she yells our names loudly until we come running home. Mom cleans up our scuffed knees, slapping on Band-Aids to stop the bleeding. We sit at the kitchen table while she cooks up spam in a pan, melting cheese on top before sliding the sizzling slabs onto white bread for lunch. We wolf down our spamwiches, secretly hoping there are Chocodiles in the cupboard waiting for us afterward.
After lunch we take our bikes into town with a few of the neighborhood kids, helmetless, jelly-shoes cutting into our feet to get the new Nintendo game we’d placed on hold over a week ago. By the time we reach home everyone is hot and sticky. Mom sets up the Slip N Slide in the front yard with a plate of peanut butter crackers and packets of Capri-Sun for a snack. We all take turns belly flopping onto the thin sheet of yellow plastic, flying down the hill into the pool of mud accumulating at the bottom, destroying the grass with every turn taken. Soon everyone is red-bellied, bruised, and covered in mud. Soaking wet, the neighborhood kids hop on their bikes, ready to head home to parents I’d never met.
When Dad gets home he promises to take us to the playground after dinner. We wolf down our hot dogs as fast as we can, excited to fly down the 12 foot metal double slide that seemed as tall as a skyscraper. Our shins are bruised as we climb up the steel ladder to the top, our legs burning as we slip down the shiny sheet metal, which spent the day rising to cookie-baking temperatures in the unobstructed summer sun. The heavy see-saw waits for us afterward, the very one my future husband broke his leg on as a kid. As my brother and I rise and fall, our father sits on the bench smoking cigarettes, watching intently to ensure our hands don’t get crushed in between the thick metal poles. When we return home, we run through the backyard catching fireflies until mom calls us inside to get ready for bed.
Standing at my mother’s kitchen window I watch my toddler running around outside, playing in the same yard my brother and I spent so many days exploring, and think about how different things are going to be once she turns eleven or twelve. She will be coated in mommy-approved sunscreen and tick repellent before venturing into the woods, now less than half the woodland world they once were. It’s doubtful she will be allowed to venture out for hours without means of communication. Gone are the days of calling out into the world in order to bring one’s child home. These days she will receive a text message, or a worried phone call checking up on where she is and when she’s arriving. These days a spam sandwich is more likely to incur a nastygram from school about “healthy eating” than considered a viable lunch option. Forget about giving peanuts to children one barely knows as the allergies appear to have progressed in the past two decades. The metal slides were torn down long ago, and the see-saw along with it, replaced by thick plastic gym sets, much safer, and far less exciting. The plastic nothing child car seats are now fortresses of security. Nintendo is now vintage, and video stores are nearly extinct. Things may return: jelly shoes, console replicas, favorite outdoor water play toys, but it isn’t the same, and it’s going to keep changing.
Though I do find myself comforted by new standards of safety, as things must adjust for the latest hazards, I miss those times. Now I can’t imagine not checking my child head to toe for ticks, slathering her in the highest SPF there is, letting her join a squad of neighborhood children without a cell phone tucked in her pocket, or offering a sweet snack without thought of causing outrage in another parent. I’m sure my parents felt the same way when I was growing up; reminiscing about how simple things once were, back when things seemed easy, fearless, and lighthearted.