I look back upon my childhood with great fondness. We had a comfortable house in a middle-class neighborhood in the middle of Houston. I had two amazing parents that worked really hard to provide for us, and three older siblings that made growing up full of hilarious stories. I was also a latchkey kid.
We knew almost all of our neighbors because most of them were the original owners in the neighborhood. I was often responsible for picking up Mrs. Bitterman’s mail for her when she was out of town. I could also knock on Mrs. Keith’s door when I needed to retrieve a ball that had flown over her fence (which happened more often than not). I could have told you almost all of the names of the neighbors that lived on Elmridge, except for maybe the weird man who lived in the house with the blue Christmas lights. That’s another story altogether.
We were close enough to AstroWorld that I could hear the weekly fireworks shows (pop! pop! pop!) through my room’s open windows at night. Around dinner time, I could also faintly hear the echo of the little league announcer at our neighborhood ball fields. Maybe once a week, we could also count on the sound of police sirens going down one of the main streets in the neighborhood to a small apartment complex. I never knew what happened there, but my mom never seem surprised.
In short, there was a certain comfort level in our neighborhood. While it wasn’t exactly utopia, it sure felt like it to a tomboyish (and innocent) 9 year old girl like me.
Since both of my parents worked, I was considered a “latchkey kid” as an 8 or 9 year old. During the school year, I had my own special red lanyard that I wore around my neck with my house key on it. While that didn’t make me the most popular girl in elementary school, I was able to walk home on my own after school, let myself in, and make my own snack. My parents would usually get home about 6pm on any given night, so I often had a few hours to play.
My Schwinn bike was my version of freedom and independence. It was almost like the elementary school equivalent of a driver’s license. I had the unique (and awesome) situation of two of my best friends living right next door to each other just a few streets away, so I would usually ride my bike to their houses daily.
As if we had nothing better to do, we would often climb onto the roof of one of their houses from their second floor window. Then we would attempt to walk from house-to-house from the rooftops using the tops of the fences. I can’t remember how many roofs we climbed (maybe 3 of 4) before we hightailed it back to one of their houses out of fear. I have no doubt that we probably injured ourselves once or twice, but since we didn’t want to out ourselves, we just dealt with the pain.
We sometimes rode our bikes out of the neighborhood to the closest drugstore, Eckerd Drugs, or to the Hallmark store to look at books and stickers. We would collect our money before we went, quarters and all, and buy whatever we could with our sweaty handfuls of coins. I doubt we bought more than just a drink or candy, but it was still a thrill nonetheless.
We rode around the neighborhood and found boys that had built their own skateboarding ramp. We would often sit and watch them do simple tricks on their little homemade ramp. It was really fun until we witnessed one of the boys (whose name currently escapes me) land on his skateboard vertically between his legs. I think that was my first experience seeing a “tough” skater boy scream that loud.
When we weren’t playing softball or soccer ourselves, we would ride up to the ballfields and watch the baseball games or go to the concession stand for a snow cone. Sometimes we would bring tennis rackets to the park next to the fields and whack the ball to each other over the old droopy tennis net.
To be honest, I’m not sure how much of these shenanigans that my parents were actually aware of, but we weren’t really doing anything wrong. We never did anything illegal (unless climbing on someone else’s roof is illegal– oops!), but we learned to navigate around the neighborhood, manage our money on a basic level, and we honestly learned to take care of ourselves if we got hurt. And without a doubt, we got a ton of exercise instead of sitting in front of the TV.
The funny thing is that I don’t think my “latchkey” childhood was different than many of my friends growing up in the late 70s to the early 80s.
However, now that I have my own children, I look back on my childhood with a bit of wonderment. My oldest child is now 7, and when I think about letting her have some of the same freedoms I had as a child, it makes me a little nauseated at best.
It’s not like we live in a bad neighborhood. As a matter of fact, the only time we usually hear sirens in our neighborhood is to check on a false fire alarm. We know a lot of the neighbors in the neighborhood, but yet I can’t stop thinking about the news, social media, and all of the other things that talk about scary things regarding children. I know those things don’t just happen in typical “bad” neighborhoods. Those scary things were obviously around when I was a kid, but maybe we just didn’t hear about them as much.
So, as a parent, I am conflicted.
Should I assume that the benefits of having some independence after school or during summers (problem solving and maturity) outweigh some of the risks (getting mildly hurt and doing things like climbing a roof)? Or do I let my biggest fears (children getting abducted, getting seriously injured, etc.) outweigh everything?
What do you think?