Tag Archives: 1970s

Raising Scout: Why a Little Old-Time Danger is Good for Kids

When my friends and my husband lament the regimented life-style of kids today—the lessons, the arranged play-dates—reminiscing about the freedom of their 1970s rural or suburban childhoods, where “we ran outside, found our friends and played until our mothers yelled at us to come home for dinner,” I just nod, half wishing I’d grown up like that, half glad I didn’t.

Other people’s stories of childhood, the freedom, the excitement that took place beneath the radar of parents, always seem to involve trees, long shadows, mysterious sounds in the dark woods, and secrets whispered about nearby graveyards.  I listen to my sister-in-law’s harrowing tales of dodging snakes in the deep Wisconsin woods, my neighbor’s yarns about impromptu games of street-tag and rescuing her little brother time and time again from the town bully—for me, these stories carry the full mystique of  Harper Lee’s Scout and Gem Finch, braving the Macon County twilight, crouched in the brush outside Boo Radley’s home.  At the heart of all these stories is danger, risk, requiring the grit, the pluck, to make it home alive without adult intervention.  It’s what I loved about To Kill A Mockingbird (racial politics aside), what I love about all stories of children left to their own devices.

Those devices (call them life-skills or street-smarts) are part of growing up for all kids; they need to be developed and honed to achieve true adulthood.  Childhood pluck becomes adult self-reliance, self-efficacy: the idea that I can accomplish this, or, better yet: I have what it takes to get myself out of this mess.   Mastering danger as a kid can lead to adult confidence.  It’s why too much safety—helicopter parenting in a too-sterile environment—can lead to an anxious child.

I grew up in New York City—far from snakes, where trees and their shadows were confined mostly to fenced in parks—the only child of older parents who’d waited a long time to have me and weren’t taking any chances with my safety.  Our apartment complex on West 100th Street—the dividing line of Manhattan’s Upper West Side—had terraces and tennis courts (where the Mayor himself came to hit); a nice laundry room, pretty playgrounds, gardens and a parking lot.  But right across the street were housing projects, where you could always hear loud voices at night, glass breaking, police cars pulling up.  I could hear the sirens from my bedroom window on the seventeenth floor; I knew there was danger: crime, fights, drugs.  There were also children down there, many left largely to their own devices, roaming their own not-so-pretty playground.  No matter how late I got into my nightgown, teeth brushed, book waiting on my pillow, if I looked out of the window, the children from across the street were always still out.  To me they seemed to have it good.  How lucky, I thought, not to have a bed time.

For me, there was a time for everything: lessons each day after school—ballet, gymnastics, and piano—playdates each Friday, more gymnastics on Saturdays, family bike-riding outings on Sundays and dinner at seven each night with both parents.  When nothing was scheduled, I went to my room and played on my own, drew, or—more often than not—worked on the “book” I was writing (I started it in second grade and finished in fifth).  I had a big imagination that kept me company; I was never lonely.  Just sheltered.

Of course there were moments without supervision.  I rode the bus to and from school alone, and made the most of it.  Unbeknownst to my parents, I’d get off the bus several stops after I got on and wait for my friends who were coming from the East Side on the crosstown bus.  Then we’d all get on a later bus together, treating less-than-appreciative commuters to our noisy grade-school banter and antics.

Friday playdates weren’t always supervised either.  By the time my friends and I were in third grade, everyone’s parents let us walk around our various neighborhoods without an adult.  We could go to a playground, or to a grocery store for bubblegum and high bouncing balls, as long as we made sure to walk on the nicer side of the street and avoid anyone who seemed drunk or crazy. (Not always easy in New York City in the ’70s.)

The city wasn’t safe in those days, but child abduction wasn’t on anyone’s radar.   Instead we worried about “maniacs,” treacherously armed vagrants who got lots of press by holing up at various subway stations, taking mostly unsuccessful swipes at riders, but evading the cops with relative ease.[i]  We kids could all identify the best-known maniacs: for example, Plastic Bag Lady (she wore one over her face), who presided over the traffic island on 96th and Broadway; Hatchet Man, who was stationed at the 72nd IRT line.

Muggings were a big concern too.  Everyone knew someone who’d been mugged.  Kids got mugged for their bus-passes and candy cash all the time.  Getting mugged didn’t depend on the neighborhood you were in.  You could get mugged anywhere.  A big topic of conversation among us kids was what to do if muggers caught up with you.  Give them everything, people said, especially if they have knives.  Some parents packed extra money in kids’ backpacks just in case.  Word was, if you had too little cash on you, it could anger the mugger, and you might really get hurt.  The best thing to do, said one of my friends (whose brother had been mugged walking home from his private school on 91st Street) was—anytime you saw anyone suspicious coming at you—just run as fast as you could go and hide in a store, anywhere you could.

My friend, Laura and I used to play this game on our way from school (on 63rd and Central Park West) to her home on 71st Street.  We’d link arms and walk, one of us looking to the right, the other looking to the left; if either of us saw someone unsavory-looking, we would give the watchword: Creep!  And both would run for our lives.

Though our criteria for a creep was pretty broad—it could be a man or woman, of any age or race—our prototype was an aged, white man with a matted, soot-encrusted beard and missing teeth, who had actually approached us one day, offering candy in a dirty, brown paper bag.  We’d screamed and run that day, concluding, once we were safely in Laura’s lobby, that the candy was poisonous, designed to knock us out so he could drag us off to his lair and chop us up into bite-sized pieces.

Laura and I did a lot of screaming and running for our lives, as we made our way along one of the most expensive stretches of real estate in the city.   It was thrilling.  Like Scout, Gem and Dill, running away from Boo Radley’s home in To Kill A Mockingbird.

My own children play Hunger Games with the other kids on our block, running wild through all the connected backyards, forming alliances and hunting one another down, armed with weapons they’ve fashioned out of K’nex.  I (along with the other moms on the block) am wary of this game, based on a bestseller about kids who survive by doing one another in, but I won’t intervene unless asked to.  Growing children have an innate need for such thrills.  They’ll find them anyway, anywhere they can.  Best served with a heaping dose of imagination.


[i] Not being flippant here, just describing my view as a child of the seventies’ mass-deinstitutionalization of severely mentally ill patients.  One devastating result was an explosion in the mentally ill homeless population.

Some ’70s Style Racial Candor from the Drunk on the Bus

(I dedicate this post to my dad, Mel Williamson, who would have celebrated his 89th birthday today.)

The Jeffersons,
1970s "Multiracial" TV

Yesterday, I was honored to be interviewed by Carol Morello, journalist for the Washington Post for an article entitled Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade.  Naturally, I spoke to Ms. Morello on the phone, during the after school hours while the usual mayhem was transpiring in my home–the little girls down the block ringing the doorbell looking for playmates, my own kids’ particular homework snafus.  I had to interrupt the interview no less than three times: once to give my daughter my cell phone so she could call a BFF for the homework; once to drop said daughter off at a Girl Scouts and once because my son–who had proudly informed his 3rd grade teacher that he understood long division and could therefore skip the lesson–discovered that he did not in fact have the foggiest grasp of long division and needed me to teach it to him so he could do his homework.  (Not that I remember how to do long division myself.)

In any case, I was a little distracted during the interview and rambled just a bit, though Ms. Morello was very patient.  There was one question, however, that I wish I’d had more time to mull over, which was how my children’s awareness of race differed from my own growing up.  (Remember, I grew up biracial in the 1970s; my children are “second-generation” biracial, growing up now.)  My answer to Ms. Morello was fine, but I spoke more about the differences between the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s vs. Montclair, New Jersey right now.  I stated that, in terms of the number of interracial families and the acceptance of such by the community, the difference is surprisingly minimal.  But having had some time to think about it, I have to say that I was much more aware of race than my children are for a number of reasons.

1) I had a fully black parent (Dad), who had grown up on the South Side of Chicago during the 1930s, at a time where things were not so comfortable racially.  Dad felt the need to arm me with information about race relations, so I would be prepared for racism when it found me (notwithstanding the fact that I took his warnings with a grain of salt, that his predictions never quite came to pass).

2) On second thought, our town and our time are actually quite different from the city and era in which I was raised.   In Montclair, diversity–integrated diversity–is everywhere.  In their public school, my children each have three or four fellow biracial classmates.  My husband and I have never been to a restaurant in town where we were the only interracial couple.  Everywhere you look are not only interracial families, but also adoptive families, families headed by same-sex parents, as well as transracially-adoptive families headed by same-sex parents.   So, anyone inclined to stare at the family who stands out would be out of luck here in Montclair.   Families who might stand out elsewhere blend right in.  Since most everyone is different, there is less pressure to discuss race with young children, except in the interest of embracing one’s identity.  When my kids were little, we talked about brown skin and kinky hair in relationship to our African Ancestry; we looked at photographs of great grandparents who arrived from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century.

Now we talk more about race; I answer their questions about black, white, Asian and being biracial; they talk about what they see and hear at school and in the newspaper.   But I am careful not to make my children anxious about race, not to make them fear that being black, or mixed will be held against them.   (I address this in a talk I’ve done called Speaking of Color.   See My Talks.)

3) The last the difference between my understanding of race then and my children’s now, has to do with our current culture’s increased tendency to protect children from hard topics.  I consider my own childhood pretty sheltered compared to some, but still I watched the news every night with my parents.  (They couldn’t get it on-line in those days as I do.)  I also watched adult sit-coms produced by Normal Lear, as did many of my friends.

All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times put race and racism out there with no apology.  In one episode of The Jeffersons, the word “honkey,” meaning white person, comes up about fifty times.  And talk about stereotypes; roughly half of what every black person says on these shows rhymes.  And it wasn’t just race that the Lear line-up was candid about.  Sexual innuendoes and booze were front and center too.  I think there was an entire episode of All-in-the Family, where Archie is locked in the basement getting soused.  Ned The Wino was my favorite character on Good Times.  Drunk was funny.  So was JJ, the most stereotypical African American character since Stepin Fetchit.  So was Archie Bunker, the reigning bigot of 1970s prime time.

Come to think of it, growing up in New York City in the post-deinstitutionalization, post-summer-of-love, Vietnam war era, the images from the Lear shows didn’t seem all that far-fetched.  (Except for Black people rhyming.)  By fifth grade–my daughter’s age–I took the city bus home from school.  There was always, always a drunk on the bus.  Sometimes it was a white drunk, sometimes a black drunk, sometimes a woman who yelled and screamed and scolded everyone who got on, sometimes a man who sat quietly, smelled and snored.  I traveled with friends, but most of them got off the bus before I did, so there was frequently a period each afternoon where I was alone on the bus with the driver, a handful of adult strangers and a drunk person.  (In those days, the concepts of mental illness and self-medication, substance abuse, and hallucinations were not on my radar.)  In person, I was afraid of drunk people because they were out of control, but they were always worth listening to for a laugh.

One in particular provided me with an early lesson on race.   He was tall, lean and black, of indeterminate age, though he had a wild tangle of yellow/grey hair.  When my friends and I got on the bus–showed our passes and found seats–he took a break from his monologue–or self-dialogue, to be accurate–to greet us:

“Helloooo, li’l ones!”  and began talking about how lazy kids were today, what smart mouths we all had, how different from his day when he would have gotten whupped for saying the kind of things we said.  Then he went off on graffiti, then he went off on dogs, and then we stopped trying to follow what he had to say.

By the time my friends had gotten off, the man had begun petitioning the bus driver to let him drive a while.

“I can really cut them corners!”  I thought this amusing, but a well-dressed woman apparently did not.  She muttered something under her breath as she exited the bus at her stop.

Insulted, the drunken man turned to me.

“You hear that? Lady call me a bum!  Humph!”  He straightened up, flipped the collar of what–in better days–might have been described as a trench coat.  “I ain’t no bum,” he directed this at the woman’s retreating image.  “Everybody know: bums is whiteWinos is black.  I am a W-I-N-O.  Wino.”

Having cleared up the confusion, the man nodded self-approvingly and promptly dropped off to sleep.