They shed their schoolbags, shoes, socks and jumpers in a trail between the hallway, the kitchen and F’s room. Every Monday, I call them back to clean up after themselves and they loop back obediently as I unfurl slices of bread at the counter and insert them into the toaster, four at a time. We talk about their day as I slice green apples into eight methodical wedges and pile them on plates with BBQ Shapes, hearing about mean kids and footy triumphs and what they did on the way home. I butter the toast, slice it in halves, serve the plates and – more often than not – retreat to my home office while they amuse themselves.
Two weeks ago, they had lingered at the creek and gone on an imaginary quest there.
They were five minutes later than usual, arriving home at 4.20pm. Their navy school pants were streaked with mud, their nails and palms dark with embedded grit. I made them wash their hands before they ate, wondering whether to tell them off and scold them to come straight home next time. Instead, I told them to make sure they don’t ever linger longer than they did or that I’d punish them.
‘I was just about to come looking for you. You were just in time,’ I said.
‘What would you do?’ asked L, F’s Monday companion. ‘How would you punish us?’
‘There’d be no toast and no BBQ Shapes. Only apple.’
The boys gasped theatrically; half appalled, half playing at being appalled.
Last week, I had a mountain of work to do. I cut up the apple and set out the BBQ Shapes and told them apologetically that they’d need to make their own toast, because I had a deadline. (‘Nahhhh,’ said L. ‘We’ll be okay.’) I don’t let F watch television or play computers during the week, but was so desperate not to be disturbed that I handed over the Foxtel remote on my way to my office and told them to go for it. As I hunched over InDesign, the boys bickered loudly about what to watch, eventually calling me in to referee. Decision forced, I retreated to my study again. Ten minutes later, they crashed through my door. I swallowed a scream.
‘Can we climb the tree out the front?’ asked F breathlessly.
‘Sure,’ I said, and they ran out, slamming the screen door behind them. From my window, I watched them barrel through the picket fence and onto the strip of grass on the other side of the footpath, where they scaled the tree and settled happily in its branches. For the next half hour, I worked to the muted sound of chatter on the other side of the windowpane, glancing up at intervals to check on them. They sat in the tree, chirping strangely polite greetings at surprised passers-by on their way from the train station, followed by cascades of giggles. (‘Good afternoon!’ ‘Hel-lo!’ ‘Have a nice day!’)
And then, the tone altered, relaxing into familiarity.
I looked up to see our next-door neighbour in his fluorescent work vest; his son, F’s best friend, bouncing delightedly at his side. G was frowning into the tree. I knew what was going on immediately.
‘Come up here!’ the boys shouted to Boy Next Door. ‘Come on!’
He flashed towards them. His Dad stopped him with a hand on his arm and low words, too low to hear. They stayed a moment longer, conferring with my son and his friend up the tree, and turned towards home, passing the wall of my study on their way to their front door. I heard Boy Next Door wailing and stamping.
Boy Next Door is, more often than not, my third young visitor on a Monday afternoon.
My boys resumed their greetings, their chatter, their darting up and around the branches. I thought of Boy Next Door, alone in his bedroom. I sighed and left my computer.
‘Hi boys. Is BND coming to play?’
‘Um ... yes. Later,’ said F.
‘We don’t know.’
I left the warmth of the doorway and stood under the tree, speaking softly overhead.
‘Is he allowed to come over, but not allowed to play up the tree?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said F.
‘Or out the front?’
‘Yes. That’s right.’
‘Ah,’ I said, and turned to go inside.
‘It’s okay,’ called F, giving in to guilt. ‘I think we’ll come in now.’ He dropped to the lowest branch. ‘HEY BND!’ he shouted. ‘WE’RE ...’
‘F! Don’t shout, go OVER there,’ I scolded. I lowered my voice. ‘And,’ I added, ‘can you tell G that I was watching you out the window the whole time? Please.’
‘Sure,’ said F, in a way that made me sure he’d forget my request by the time his feet hit the ground, if he’d ever listened to it at all.
Before I’d shut the front door behind me, G and BND were on the footpath.
‘Can he come and play?’ asked G, reverting to our polite Monday ritual.
‘Of course,’ I said, completing it.
He looked at me, wondering how to say it.
‘They’ll be playing inside,’ I said. ‘Or out the back.’
‘Oh, good.’ His whole body sagged in relief. He looked up at L, who was squatting on the lowest branch of the tree, readying to jump. ‘Are you okay, son? Do you want some help getting down, there?’
‘Nah,’ scoffed L. ‘I’m right.’ He sprang clumsily from his perch, landing heavily, jerkily on his feet.
‘Are you okay?’ G repeated. ‘You right there?’
‘Course,’ said L, straightening with shaky aplomb and running past him, through the front door, into the lounge room, where the television still blared from earlier. I was proud of him – L is a renowned sook and would normally explode into false sobs at an adult enquiry after his wellbeing. G followed him to the front door. He peered in at the boys, sitting three across on the couch, bodies slumped, eyes on Spongebob Squarepants. He smiled, waved goodbye to his son, and ambled back home.
Boy Next Door turned nine this Monday. His parents let him walk from his house to ours alone for the first time this year. Last year, I had to escort him home and back again if he went to collect a ball they’d kicked over the fence, or to get his footy cards. ‘It’s a dangerous world out there,’ his parents told me, more than once. ‘It’s not like when we were kids. Someone could just snatch him off the street.’
I strongly believe that this is media-fuelled nonsense. That children are just as safe, if not safer, than they ever were. I also believe that allowing children freedom to play and explore free of adults, and gradually extending that freedom as they grow older, is essential to creating a strong sense of self.
In a fabulous article for The New York Review of Books that had me shouting ‘yes!’ and ‘ex-actly!’, Michael Chabon makes the point better than I ever could:
The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past ... The primary reason for this curtailing of adventure, this closing off of Wilderness, is the increased anxiety we all feel over the abduction of children by strangers; we fear the wolves in the Wilderness. This is not a rational fear; in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of abductions by strangers in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was. What has changed is that the horror is so much better known.
He also offers a cogent, insightful explanation for this shift, going deeper into the issue:
The endangerment of children—that persistent theme of our lives, arts, and literature over the past twenty years—resonates so strongly because, as parents, as members of preceding generations, we look at the poisoned legacy of modern industrial society and its ills, at the world of strife and radioactivity, climatological disaster, overpopulation, and commodification, and feel guilty. As the national feeling of guilt over the extermination of the Indians led to the creation of a kind of cult of the Indian, so our children have become cult objects to us, too precious to be risked. At the same time they have become fetishes, the objects of an unhealthy and diseased fixation. And once something is fetishized, capitalism steps in and finds a way to sell it.
And makes an excellent point about just why this freedom is so important, for reasons beyond the obvious (the pleasure of it, the valuable sense of independence and self-confidence it brings):
What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children's imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible ... Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?
Obviously, I'm not advocating flinging open the doors and giving children free rein. (And neither is Chabon.) But letting children gradually off the leash in a responsible, age-appropriate way while keeping a surreptitious eye on them as they ease into each new stage of independence is surely part of the job of parenting.
'If I do send them out,' Chabon wonders plantitively, writing from suburban California, 'will there be anyone to play with?' Luckily, I don't think things are quite that bad here yet.
If I send F out, he just won't be able to play with the boy next door.