When we were 12 years old, my pal Gene Lab discovered he could use his father’s lawnmower to cut down trees. Removing an old apple tree was essential to our plan to expand our softball field.
Gene accomplished this by turning the mower on its side and setting the spinning blade against the tree trunk. Gene’s father, not for the first time, found himself unimpressed by his son’s genius with tools. He threatened dark punishments.
Gene knew the answer. “It’s your own fault. You won’t let me buy a chainsaw.”
Where’s the sense in having a newspaper route, Gene went on to point out, if a guy can’t use his own money to buy a chainsaw when he needs one?
There you have it. An echo from a time when we understood that there was not just one world, but two. There was the World of Grown-Ups. And there was Kid World.
Kid World was run by unspoken agreement of all parties. It was necessary to the pursuit of happiness. Families tended to be large. It was impossible for adults to keep track of the comings and goings of everybody. And really, why would they want to? If you had asked one of the fathers in my neighborhood how many kids he had, he probably would have paused. Give it some thought. “Do you mean just kids, or counting babies, too? I’ll check with my wife and get back to you.”
A bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Adults enjoyed being adults. After a long day in the factory or the office they wanted to put up their feet, read the paper, have a beer. This was Grown-Up World and it had its own rules. One of the principal ones was, “Do not come in here while I am relaxing and tell me something I don’t need to know. Handle it. If you force me to put down this paper and deal with whatever it is, you might wish you hadn’t.”
Our dads figured they had not slept in drafty barracks or miserable holes in the ground to win World War II only to come home and have to lay on the floor to play Lincoln Logs. Our moms figured they had not worried and struggled on the home front through the war years just to make a big deal out of how the pricker-bush made that little cut on your arm.
We did not have Helicopter Moms. We had “Can’t You See I’m Busy” Moms. Each of them had every confidence that their kids could manage most things quite nicely by themselves. Their core message was not so much, “Tell me more about your day.” It was, “Stop that noise and go outside right now!”
Message received. Grown-Up World mostly operated indoors. So unless we were sick, or had a weird hobby like reading, we were out in Kid World. We would acknowledge parents’ legitimate concerns by telling them where we were going. Which was “out.” We would let them know when we would be back. Which was “for dinner.” Then, out the door.
There are many pleasures in life reserved for adults. But for a feeling of pure, delicious freedom, it is hard to beat setting off on your bike into a shining morning with the whole day in front of you to make up as you go along.
No society can operate without rules, and Kid World had a full set. First and foremost: Keep the Grown-ups on a Need-to-Know Basis. This prevented any number of bad things. For example, my sister Alice and I convinced our mother that it was perfectly fine for us to sit on the shelf at the grocery store and read the store’s stock of new comic books. One day the store owner made it clear that it was not part of his marketing plan to operate a reading room for people who never bought anything. We understood this to be proprietary information, not to be shared with our mother. It would be catastrophic if we were forced to march through the store with her while she shopped.
Another key rule was Always Have a Project. It might be catching an injured bird inside the fence of the gasoline storage facility. It might be attaching roller skates and a lawnmower engine to a big wooden box. Nothing really happened until someone came up with a project. It might be a sweltering day, everybody bored, irritable and making up rude things: “You have a freckle on your nose that looks just like a booger. I wouldn’t have a booger-freckle like that for a hundred dollars. Two hundred.” But it wouldn’t be long before a project would be submitted. “Hey, let’s catch all these ants and put them in the jar with the big beetle and see what happens.” And everything would be in balance again.
It was a firm rule to Maintain the Boundary Between the Two Worlds. Kids were excluded from the mysteries of the grown-ups. We expected no less in return. Most grown-ups understood this. But occasionally there would be a hideous violation of the rule. My own father once took leave of his senses and asked me to play my fluto-o-phone (don’t ask) for him, my mom and their guests. It was a known fact among us kids that fluto-o-phones had their place, and that place was in the school. I didn’t ask him to share his cigarettes with me and my friends, did I? So why this transgression?
I learned a hard lesson that day. Sure, you did everything you could to bring your parents along on the right path. But given their age, you had to expect lapses in their judgment.
Kid World as we knew it is no more. It has merged with Grown-Up World. Families today are smaller. Neighborhoods somehow seem more dangerous. Parents are willing, even eager, to get down on the rug and play along. There are few woods, creeks, or empty fields around for kids to explore. Instead of learning to avoid the local bully, kids are taught to report him so he can be put into therapy. The casual cruelties that children inflict on each other are now all observed by vigilant moms and dads and used as a teaching moment.
Many of these changes are for the good. But I think we should still leave room in our supervision for kids to create their own culture with their own rules, language and projects.
But probably without chainsaws.
Steve Van Auken has now lived in Akron long enough to give directions according to where things used to be