Metal swings that burned pudgy little thighs. Monkey bars that were way too high. Wooden blocks climbing to the sky, full of splinters, chewed gum, and who knows what else lodged in their crevices. Actual tire swings with chain links perfect for little fingers to get caught in. Wooden seesaws where if you jumped off, the other person went flying. The graffiti lining the concrete walls. The basketball court with chain nets – if nets at all. The smell of marijuana wafting from the handball court as men in short shorts and sweat bands grunted. This was the park of my childhood. It was grimy, crowded, and dangerous. And I loved it.
Nestled on the side of a busy thoroughfare, we saw it as a milestone when we were able to be trusted to cross the street by ourselves and walk to the park. We searched in garbage cans for half eaten strawberry shortcakes, hoping to find a lucky stick (free ice cream!) from Louie, the Ice Cream man. If we couldn’t find a lucky stick, we bought candy cigarettes and chewed them for 5 seconds until they became hard and tasteless. We put two of us on each swing since there was always a line, one standing and pumping with her knees to bring us to towering heights and one sitting, going along for the ride. We ran through the sprinkler barefoot, unconcerned about the glass from empty 40s and Hennessy bottles scattered about. We dared each other to do flips on the 7 foot bar dangling above even our parents’ heads. We snuck into the woods behind the park that were full of stories and legends–the gang that carved their names into the tree. The keg parties hosted by the older kids. The Woodsman who came back from Vietnam and couldn’t handle living in a house so he lived in the woods. The cowboy who grew psychedelic mushrooms somewhere back in the brush. This was my childhood.
Now, when I walk by a park full of yoga pants-wearing women, baby carrier-wearing men, plastic, colorful equipment, and fences, I can’t help but get a little sad. My children may never know the heart-pumping fear of perching themselves precariously at the top of the monkey bars wondering how on Earth they are going to get down. They’ll most likely never burn their legs on metal slides while racing friends to the bottom. They probably won’t get splinters in their delicate little fingers. They won’t hurt their bottoms when their friend jumps off the seesaw. I highly doubt they’ll dig in open metal garbage cans hunting through bees and grime for half-eaten Popsicles. They won’t come away with that distinct city-in-the-summer stench. Is this progress?
Have we made things too safe? Have we, as a society, lost our edge? I see both sides. Now that I have kids of my own, I look at these innocuous plastic playgrounds with their super slow, staticky slides and all I see all the ways my kids could fall off through the various openings. I look at the busy street through the fence and try to figure out ways my kids could run out into traffic so I can be one step ahead. I see the other kids at the playground, the bigger kids, who are all rough and tumble and might shove my small children out of the way during a game of tag. Yet, on the other hand, I wonder how my children will learn to overcome their fears. How they will learn to deal with conflict on their own? Will they skin their knees the way I did? All the time? Will they make bad decisions and climb too high and get stuck? Will they need me and I won’t be there? And then I wonder, how much of this depends on me and my fears? Will I let them walk to the park across the busy street? Will I freak out if they bruise themselves playing? Will I let them grow, learn, and discover on their own?
As a child, I don’t think I cherished my independence as much as I do now. I always thought my parents, especially my mom, were extremely overbearing. Looking back, I am beginning to think they were a lot more brave than I ever gave them credit for. Because of them, I wasn’t afraid to go places by myself. I knew how to handle myself in tough situations. I built up street smarts. I became more confident. And I’m so grateful for these skills because they have shaped me into the person I am today.
I want to be the parent who lets her children run wild. Run free. Play. Discover. Make choices without me. But will I be? And will I be allowed to by others? Will you judge me if I let my kids walk to the park without me? Will you judge me if my kids have skinned knees? Will I judge myself?