Below is Chapter 21 of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.
Every Tuesday, Beach Metro News will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://www.beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy.
To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/
Hard copies of the book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s are now available locally at Book City on Queen Street East and Danforth Avenue and at The Great Escape Book Store on Kingston Road. For more information on the book or to order a copy, please contact Black at email@example.com
BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s
CHAPTER 21: ‘I just saw some kids playing outside!’
By KEITH BLACK
In the summer of 2019, my wife and I were quietly driving in the small town in which we live and weren’t particularly paying attention to our surroundings. Some movement caught my eye and I glanced to one side. It was simply four or five boys and girls running and playing with a soccer ball or basketball in a field. We drove on in silence for a few seconds but then I turned to look at my wife just as she was turning to look at me. It was if we had both simultaneously seen an apparition. And then we both blurted out the same comment; “I just saw some kids playing outside!”
As we drove on, we talked about it and came to the realization that we couldn’t remember the last time that we had seen such a sight.
Oh sure, we had driven past soccer fields and seen kids playing soccer while their parents and the coaching staffs stood on the sidelines and a young referee scurried about trying to look authoritarian. And we had seen them playing in school yards during recess as a bevy of teachers circled them like a band of coyotes.
But children playing out of doors unsupervised? No, it was a strange sight.
It wasn’t because there are few kids in our town; we regularly see large clusters of them walking to or being taken to the local elementary and middle schools. There is no shortage of them.
The conversation continued that evening at dinner and we talked about what we had seen and our realization that, to us, it was such a strange and unexpected sight. This led us to question the ramifications. Were kids not playing outside because someone didn’t want them to go out? Perhaps they weren’t outside because they didn’t want to go; they preferred to watch TV or play video games. Maybe they wanted to read. Was there possibly a fear factor involved and, if so, whose and of what?
It was an intriguing subject and it got me to thinking about my own childhood and questioning the difference between it and those of the 21st century.
And what is the biggest difference? It all comes down to one word, radius.
How far is a youngster, say of eight or nine, allowed to roam from home unattended. You may recall that my radius of operation was about three quarters of a mile. That radius has been gradually shrinking and has now reached the point where some children are not allowed to venture out of their own yards.
It’s called “helicopter parenting”, a term that I had not heard until recently. Helicopter parenting; parents constantly hovering over their children. I guess that is why we so rarely see children playing outside.
It also explains a sight that I have seen regularly when driving early in the morning; children waiting for the school bus at the end of their farm’s driveway while a parent sits in a vehicle next to them, having driven them down the 100 or 150 yard length of the drive. It also explains the proliferation of organized sports. Whether it be soccer, hockey, or swimming, there is always an abundance of adult supervision present.
Why is this? Why has parenting changed so much over the years?
The principal suspect, I believe, is cable news; the 24-hour, seven-days a week news cycle. In the past, abductions, murders or assaults of children in far-off places might warrant a few lines buried inside a Toronto newspaper but wouldn’t be mentioned at all on radio or television. But now, with so much air time to fill, the news channels regularly report such events and, finding them to be ratings generators, often dwell on them offering graphic details, analyses, and endless speculation.
Bad news sells. As they used to say in the newspaper business, “If it bleeds, it leads”.
The world has become a very dangerous place. But has it? Just how dangerous is it? What is it that frightens us?
When asked what they fear most, the parents of young children (under 12) generally cite crimes committed by strangers as being the biggest danger. But is this fear warranted?
Since the end of the Fifties, the murder rate and the rate of other violent crimes in Canada gradually increased throughout the Seventies and Eighties but have since declined until they have re-attained a level about equal to those of 1962.
At the time that I am writing this, the most recent complete statistics available are for the year 2017. In that year, there were two children under the age of 12 who were murdered.…in all of Canada. There were also 129 incidents of sexual violation of children and 15 cases of kidnapping or abduction.
But, of all of these 146 situations, about 55 per cent of the perpetrators were family members and another 36 per cent were figures of authority (teachers, coaches, etc.), family friends and acquaintances, or neighbours.
And where did these attacks occur? Almost 88 per cent of them occurred at home, at school, in churches, or at community centres; in other words, at places where you would expect kids to be safe. Strangers committed about nine per cent of these crimes; a dozen or so events in all of Canada.
The number of road accidents has also been decreasing regularly, primarily because of better road and signal designs, and better cars with hi-tech warning gizmos and better brakes, as well as fewer incidents of dangerous driving habits (i.e. alcohol and drugs). Collisions are fewer, as are pedestrian injuries. In 1955 when I was eight years old, there were 64 traffic deaths in Toronto. In 2017 when Toronto was more than twice the size and there were far more than twice the number of vehicles, the number of road deaths was….63.
When I attended Williamson Road Public School, one of the things that I learned were fractions although I confess that I had to look it up to confirm that the number on the top is the numerator and the number on the bottom is the denominator. Parents have an understandable tendency to concentrate on the numerator, the number of victims, while totally forgetting the denominator, the number of all of the kids who arrive home safely every day.
About 50 or 60 years ago, slightly more than six children from ages one to 19 out of every 10,000 died from all causes. Now, that number is about two. In all of modern history, now is the safest time to be a kid. But one fact remains unchanged; by far, the most dangerous thing that any child can do is get into a car with his or her parents or another driver.
So why are parents hovering over their children? What does it mean for those kids?
A recent study by the American Psychological Association determined that helicopter parenting can be detrimental and that “kids need space to learn and grow on their own” and that “over-controlling parenting can negatively affect a child’s ability to manage his or her emotions and behavior”.
There is an abundance of scholarly articles on the internet discussing the rise of anxiety disorders in children and the various reasons. But one doesn’t need a PhD to understand what is happening; the exaggerated fears of the parents are being transferred to the kids.
While children are being led to believe that the world is a dangerous place, they are not being allowed the means to gain confidence and to learn how to respond and how to cope. It’s like the kids have been physically bubble-wrapped.
And emotionally as well; everyone is awarded a trophy so no one “feels bad” and no one is allowed to strike out. What is that teaching them.
But it’s worse than that. There has not just been a change in parenting, there has also been a societal change. During the Fifties, it was not uncommon, rightly or wrongly, for folks to discipline other people’s children. Now, it is the parents who are being disciplined.
There have been numerous cases where parents have received visits from the police or child welfare workers and being warned about being “overly permissive” because a report had been filed by a neighbour or teacher. Many jurisdictions have laws on the books outlining what parents can and cannot allow their children to do unsupervised. And some of them are draconian.
Fortunately, there has been some push-back with the growth of a “free-range parenting” movement which advocates a partial return to the “good old days”. In the U.S. the effort is being led by the Let Grow project which was founded by Lenore Skenazy, author of the book Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry.
But the free range and let grow movements have an uphill battle ahead of them. If one parent in a neighbourhood releases a child into the world on his or her own, and none of the other parents in that area do the same, that kid will be alone and will have no one to play with and will soon be home. The change must be done collectively which requires time, capable organization, extensive communication and a lot of reasoned persuasion.
In an earlier chapter, I discussed the great times that my friends and I had at playgrounds before they were wrapped in padding, denuded of the really fun stuff and generally child-proofed.
In 2014 on Governors Island in New York City, a group created a playground that looks like a set for an old Our Gang movie. The place is littered with a great collection of junk: pieces of wood, discarded tires, broken shopping carts, old furniture and plastic boxes and wooden crates. There is even an assortment of old rusty tools including hammers and saws as well as boxes of various nails, bolts, nuts and screws.
In short, it’s a paradise. There are staff roaming the premises loosely supervising the mayhem, but parents are not allowed in; they can watch from afar with their two good friends, Fear and Trepidation. It’s called play:groundNYC. It seems like a good idea; every neighbourhood should have one.
There were a couple of small vacant lots like that in the Beach in the Fifties, but without the superfluous inconvenience of staff. They were fun.
I also talked in earlier chapters about the games and sports that we played. You may have noticed at the time that I did not mention organized sports at all. Other than participating in some school track and field events, I was never involved in any organized sports.
This was not at all unusual; very few of we boys and even fewer girls did so in the 1950s. My hockey playing was restricted to shinny at Glen Manor Park. The only equipment I had was a pair of hockey gloves; we used magazines for shin pads and absolutely none of us had helmets. Most schools had three baseball teams, and three hockey teams (bantam, junior, and senior) with the number of kids in those teams being quite small in relation to the school populations. Not many of the elementary schools had football teams.
I had a couple of friends who played on school baseball teams and one who played league hockey, but that was about it. There were sports leagues outside of the school system but they targeted kids aged 12 and up, this being particularly true of hockey; in 1956, the Little Toronto Hockey League for the younger set consisted of 400 boys. Soccer was unheard of. Incidentally, those 400 boys playing hockey in the LTHL? It was actually 399 boys and one girl who had managed to fool everyone for four months before being found out.
Her name was Abigail Hoffman who had registered at age eight as Ab Hoffman, became a rugged defenceman (defenceperson), was named to the All-Star team, and was allowed to finish the season after her gender had been discovered.
Abby Hoffman subsequently changed to track and field, and, as a runner, represented Canada in four Olympic Games and was our flag-bearer at the 1976 Games in Montreal. She is an Officer in the Order of Canada and is currently (2020) the Assistant Deputy Minister – Strategic Policy for Health Canada. And how have each of the 399 boys fared? I don’t know, but Abigail has done quite well, thank you.
And now? Almost 60 per cent of children are involved in at least one organized sport, with many of them playing two or more. And then, of course, there is dance, and music, and Scouts and Guides, and the list goes on.
Is this good or bad? How would I know? All that I can say is that we had an awful lot of fun in the Fifties. We made up our own games; that’s called imagination and we made up our own rules; and that’s called governance.
Studies have been done that indicate that kids who run around on their own actually get more exercise than when participating in organized activities. And there was one really interesting study done by the Davos World Economic Forum that reveals that about two-thirds of kids think they are in too many organized pursuits. You may be a bit baffled why the Davos World Economic Forum undertook such a study. I’m baffled too, but it was interesting nonetheless.
My friends and I had considerable freedom in the Fifties. The risks that we faced then were, I believe, greater than those facing the kids of today. However, there is one major threat now that was not present in the Fifties and it is certainly very real. I am speaking, of course, about online threats.
Many people did not lock their doors in the Beach in the 1950s, although I am sure that they do so now. And many people now won’t open that door unless they have a pretty good idea as to who is on the other side of it. But when a child opens a browser, they are opening the door to the entire world and inviting everyone in and there are some truly bad dudes and weird folks out there. And there is only one defence which can be summed up in three words: Supervision, supervision, and more supervision!
In cyberspace, keep them in place, but in the real world, let them go and let them grow.
To read earlier chapters of BOOM, please see below:
To read Chapter Two, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/21/chapter-two-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Three, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/28/chapter-three-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Four, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/04/chapter-four-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Five, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/11/chapter-five-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Six, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/18/chapter-six-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Seven, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/25/chapter-seven-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Eight, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/01/chapter-eight-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Nine, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/08/chapter-nine-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter 10, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/15/chapter-10-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter 11, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/22/chapter-11-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter 12, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/29/chapter-12-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
Tor read Chapter 13, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/10/06/chapter-13-of-boom-tells-how-the-garden-gate-became-the-goof/
To read Chapter 15, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/10/20/rock-and-roll-arrives-in-chapter-15-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter 19, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/11/17/williamson-road-school-days-remembered-in-chapter-19-of-boom/
To read Chapter 20, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/11/24/chapter-20-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s-looks-at-race-and-racism/