Back to School: Then and Now

Lenore Skenazy made a name for herself when she let her nine-year-old son ride a Manhattan subway, then wrote about it for the newspaper. Some readers thought she was nuts, but many praised her. She subsequently penned a book called Free Range Kids, and has just posted on her blog a republished list of the skills six-year-olds were expected to execute before entering first grade in 1979. The list of 12 items is pretty eye-opening.

In terms of academic skills, kids of the 70s had nothing on today’s students. In 1979, a rising first-grader was expected to be able to “color within the lines” and count to 10 — accomplishments more akin to a preschooler in our era of Head Start and Baby Einstein.

But item No. 8 on this list has some wondering where we went wrong. That item reads: “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?”

My guess is most of our kids would fail this part of the test.

As a child of the 1970s myself, I remember being driven to the bus stop on the first morning of first grade. All the moms came, and a few even carried cameras. (Compare that to the veritable paparazzi that will digitize every instant of this, the first day of school for many in the Boston area). We boarded the bus clasping our metal Peanuts lunchboxes, waved out the window, and were on our way. I’m pretty sure my mother did not set foot on that bus stop again the rest of the year, likely the rest of the decade.

As kids, we walked the 10 minutes through neighbors’ yards and along streets and small paths. Sometimes I picked up a friend along the way; sometimes I walked by myself. That time every morning was purely my own, and even now, I can instantly call up the sights, smells, and sounds of those daily sojourns.

What happened? Why are so many parents, myself included, afraid to set their children free without adult supervision? Even at our local playground, chock full of clog-wearing, Kleen Kanteen-toting parents like myself, I scan the grounds nervously every five minutes, making sure all three of our kids are in sight. And yet, violent crime is down since 1979. What are we so afraid of?

I recently surprised us all by sending our two older kids out into the big bad world without me. We needed milk for the baby, and I was packing for a big trip. In a moment of pre-travel panic in which I feared we’d miss our plane, I called our eight-year-old son, William, and our five-year-old daughter, Jessie, over and said, “I need you to go across the street and down the block to get some milk.”

They stared at me confused, and I realized I had to walk them through each step.

I knelt before them, and spoke with the solemnity of Obi Wan Kenobi counseling Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia.

“Take this five-dollar bill to the store and buy a small carton of whole milk. If there’s no whole milk, then 2 percent. Bring me the change. You can do this. You are ready.”

Their eyes widened, and I could sense how determined they were to rise to the occasion. They didn’t squabble over who got to hold the money, for example, or hit or scratch each other. William gently guided Jessie through the doorway, and they were off.

I spent 10 slightly panicked minutes wondering if I should chase after them, but I repeated the mantra, “You can do this,” and hung back. When they returned, small jug of milk and change in hand, they looked as thrilled as if they’d scaled a mountain and come back to tell about it. And in some small sense, we all had.