It’s the height of chutzpah for me to envy the mother in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep—she’s a bitterly poor immigrant in a walk-up in Brownsville, New York; I’ve got a babysitter and an apartment on Riverside Drive—but I felt a twinge of envy anyway when I reread the novel last year. After interrupting her sweeping to give her five-year-old son, David Schearl, a drink of water, David’s mother gently asks, “Aren’t you ever going down into the street? The morning grows old.” And down he goes, this mama’s boy, to the street and its little Jewish toughs. To usher my six- and eight-year-olds into Riverside Park on a sunny Sunday morning requires, let’s just say, more effort. Playmates must be summoned via telephone or text. Drop-off and pick-up times must be coordinated. Parents must be pressed into service as chaperones or chauffeurs or coaches. The games the children finally play under our watchful eyes—soccer or scootering or monkey bars—are safer and more socially acceptable than the game of “foller de leader” that has David Schearl teetering on a railing outside a tailor’s shop. But they are much less fun for the children and an outright chore for the grown-ups.
How did play get to be so much work? We New York mothers ask ourselves this question every fall, for while school gets our children out from underfoot, their menu of weekend and after-school activities turns us into full-time social secretaries. We could, of course, put the children in regular after-school programs, and many do. But if we don’t, we must assemble a list of stuff to do, make playdates as much as a month in advance, and figure out which afternoons we’ll ferry the children to activities and which days we’ll let the nanny handle all that.
The rap on us is that we do this to ourselves. We keep our children off the streets out of an irrational fear of “stranger danger”—irrational, that is, in a city whose crime rate has declined dramatically over the past two decades—and overburden them with improving activities so as to ensure their entrance into Harvard. These charges are true, but don’t get to the heart of the problem. It would be disingenuous to claim that the specters of competitive admissions and downward mobility don’t haunt us or that we don’t obsessively replay in our minds the disappearance of Etan Patz. But such things are too abstract to make us squander precious hours a day acting as event coordinators. We do that because we think we have to. If we don’t erect the invisible scaffolding upon which our children can escape from their living rooms into some other children’s living rooms, or maybe even the park, we think they’ll never be able to do it for themselves. They’ll be stuck at home watching television or playing Wii or complaining when we won’t let them do so.
The obvious comeback is that today’s overscheduled children could use a little more downtime. That may be true, but what children really want, or so mine tell me, is not unstructured time, which in the absence of a playdate is often lonely, but unstructured social interaction, the collective effervescence that, if it isn’t interfered with, gels into play. That is precisely what they can’t have, because they no longer have access to the unmonitored spaces—the blocks, streets, yards, sandlots, fire hydrants, junk heaps, roofs, and sewer grates—where children used to gather, unbidden, for Red Rover or jump rope or hand-ball or other games whose names were not recorded because they were less respectable.
It isn’t just the city that lacks room for spontaneous play, though real-estate pressure is obviously more intense in the city than in the suburbs. I lived in Westchester for many years and found hardly any public spaces there either—a few playgrounds, many of them off-limits to children who didn’t go to the schools to which they were attached; a few community centers that had to be driven to. The sylvan winding streets were nearly as empty of children as my Manhattan city block is. And it wasn’t just that parents were afraid to let their children be “free-range kids,” in the words of America’s so-called “worst mom,” Lenore Skenazy. It’s that the children, especially those in their later childhood, had been swept off the streets into organized activities in remote locations, because any game worth organizing—and charging for—is bound to take place in a specialized facility, and it has to be organized in advance because otherwise no one will be around to play it.
This is a classic social trap, what a political scientist might call a deficient equilibrium: a bad situation that collaborative effort might remedy, but in which collaboration can’t be sustained. I ran up against the difficulty of artificially recreating the conditions of free-form, drop-in play myself last year when my children and I tried to institute what we called “Playground Wednesday,” a weekly gathering of classmates at the playground nearest to the children’s school. Everyone agreed it was a good idea, and by the second Wednesday a critical mass of children had appeared and exuberant games of dodgeball and Nerf swordfighting and who knows what else were played without adult supervision or quibbling, many of them on the broad lawn behind the playground that the New York City Parks Department has unreasonably put off-limits. Mothers and nannies were delighted not to have to hover or direct the goings-on in the odiously patient voice we adopt when we’d much rather be hanging out with one another. But entrenched patterns of private instruction and one-on-one playdates soon began to sap our numbers, and by the end of the semester my son declared the experiment a failure and refused to go himself. He experienced the poor turnout as a personal embarrassment.
He blamed me and my overcontrolling kind, and I blame us too, but for a slightly different reason. I blame us for failing to challenge the ethos of bourgeois individualism that prevents local governments from building cities and towns that are more livable for children (though it must be said that the New York City Parks Department has either built or fixed up 140 playgrounds since Michael Bloomberg became mayor in 2002). The German sociologists Helga and Hartmut Zeiher have done studies over the past two decades comparing the schedules of children in Berlin neighborhoods. One such study compared a working-class neighborhood with a middle-class neighborhood. The city had created a network of youth recreation centers and playgrounds in working-class areas, so there were several places within walking distance where a child could go to find a game of soccer, or table tennis, or just a good place to hang out. He or she didn’t need to sign up in advance, because the centers had learned that the children didn’t want to commit to specific activities at set times. No such center existed in the better-off neighborhood. As a result, the working-class children had fluid after-school schedules, shifting from one group or sport to another as their fancy took them, whereas the children of the better neighborhood had to make dates in order to do anything. They wound up developing a habit of hanging out exclusively in pairs, not in groups. They had learned the art of scheduling playdates from their mothers, who had planned all their social encounters when they were younger and may have found one-on-one playdates easier to arrange.
I have to say that I’m jealous, on behalf of my kids, of that second group of Berliners, too—at least they got to walk around the city by themselves. American children, on the other hand, are trapped, less by an overhyped fear of crime, in my experience, than by a completely legitimate fear of underregulated traffic or careless or drunken drivers. And so, children spend their lives being ferried from one island of childhood to another, from community center to playground to soccer field. Since these islands are either far apart or separated by busy streets, our children are our prisoners, whether we drive them or take the bus with them or arrange rides and companions for them. Of course, we’re their prisoners too, which is how I explain the harassed edge audible in the voices of the parents I eavesdrop on while walking down Broadway.
Even on their islands, the children can’t roam free. If you go to a playground, you must use the equipment that is given to you to use, which is why playgrounds so quickly grow boring unless they’re next to wide-open fields. And since city and suburban fields are coveted commodities and usually in use, if you crave a pickup game of flag football or Ultimate Frisbee, your best course of action is to sign up for after-school classes in those things. That’s what my son did, which is why he finally gets to play flag football in the park once a week.
Do I wish my children were part of a street gang, the way David Schearl was? I kind of do, and, of course, I kind of don’t. I was in something like a gang, and I did stupid stuff, and I survived. I grew up in an apartment on a block packed with apartment buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at a time, the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the city was considered particularly dangerous for Americans. Bomb scares cleared my school two or three times a year. An old man was shot and killed sitting in his lawn chair on the beach in front of our building. Yet we had the run of the neighborhood. My brother and his friends used to surf on top of the elevator cab—I never understood why they weren’t crushed when the elevator was called to the top floor—and my friends and I used to wander down the beach, misdirecting tourists and happily pocketing the change they’d offer. We were mean and cliquish, too; each of us had to endure weeks of being shunned for some unwitting violation of the laws of cool.
I would never knowingly let my children get away with stuff like that and would never want them to experience social humiliation, but I do worry about what will happen to them if they don’t. Last year I found myself in charge of an unusually large group playdate, half a dozen or so seven-year-old boys crammed into my apartment, and discovered, to my dismay, not that they couldn’t all get along—that was to be expected—but that they had no stomach for their own fighting. Every time an argument would break out about the choice of game or the distribution of lightsabers, a boy would run up to me. At first I thought I was being asked to adjudicate, but before I could figure out how to get out of doing so, I discovered that wasn’t what the boys wanted. They wanted me to turn on the television. If I turned on the television, they wouldn’t have to play anymore, and then they wouldn’t fight. I imagined legions of exhausted babysitters and mothers settling disputes in this way, and my son and his friends drawing the obvious conclusion: that group play is dangerous because conflict is intolerable, and that electronic entertainment is a good way to avoid both.
But what else is a parent to do? How do you find unstructured social interaction in America today? It’s hard to imagine American cities or even suburbs designing recreation centers like the ones in the working-class neighborhoods of Berlin, though I suppose that in some distant, less Europhobic future, it could happen. What I do instead of waiting for miracles is keep trying to clear out some fluid space and time in which my children and their friends can play together. The only way to do this is to get other parents to do it too. The logic of collective parental action seems to work poorly in the city, where a thinness of acquaintance and a wide range of class and ethnic backgrounds yields a paucity of trust, and everybody has too many things to do anyway. My efforts met with more success up in the Catskills this summer, when I and other parents in our little colony agreed to keep our older children out of a camp that’s really aimed at younger children and let them roam relatively unsupervised through the woods behind our cottages. Coincidentally, they were all boys, and they built forts. They changed forts about once a week, and we only had to shut down a fort once, when we learned that the boys were stockpiling purloined kitchen knives in it. They wanted to sharpen long sticks into spears, the better to ward off a group of younger girls, I think. We weren’t naïve. We knew that children who make up their own games are sure to concoct horrifying ones at least 30 percent of the time. We were ready to deal with that. Still, I have to say that we’re looking to hire an activities director for next year.
Judith Shulevitz is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This piece ran in the October 14, 2010, issue of the magazine.