In Praise of a Carefree Childhood

When kids had the most powerful toy of all—their imagination.

kid jumping over fire hydrant
Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images
Of course all childhoods are happy from a worry-burdened, regret-nagged, past-50, skinless-chicken-breast-for-dinner perspective. Or after three drinks. Then being a kid is a beautifully drawn scene suffused with bright primary colors and drenched in cheer, and I’ve gotten childhood mixed up with the illustrations in my old Dick and Jane reader.

But we in the baby boom were lucky. Children had once been put to work, if not in factories and farmyards then in the kitchens, cellars, and sculleries of their own homes.

We were expected to clear our plates.

Now children have been put to work again. Homework started coming home with my children in kindergarten. Weekend assignment: Learn to read. They work at private lessons in every sort of thing, while I drive them around in a confusion of picking up kung fu and delivering “Kumbaya.” After the work they do at the lesson, they practice the work they’ll do at the next lesson. Recreation is organized according to the time-management principles of workplace efficiency. Punch in, punch out. In the dread word playdate, none of the pleasures of playing or dating are evoked. The kids work hard at sports, as well they should. Sports are an important part of the job of getting into exclusive schools. And while they’re working on the essays that accompany the applications to those exclusive schools, the kids need to be well-rounded. So they are drafted into volunteering for community-service work. This begins at about age eight, when the children are dragged to the local old-age home to annoy the doddering elders with “Kumbaya” sing-alongs and demonstrations of kung fu technique. And it ends, if it ever does, with a postdoctoral unpaid internship at Save the Snakes.

How today’s kids must yearn for the textile mills and milking stools of yore, where they were occasionally left alone and could play Tops with the spindles or have fun yanking the cow’s tail.

For a few blissful years, between the time the Enola Gay landed and the time the helicopter parents took off, children were in control of childhood.

What we did with our plentiful aggregation of playmates, our copious free time, and our minimal oversight was what right-minded kids have always done with freedom and opportunity: We wasted it. We did—according to the adult conception of doing something—nothing. We played. Parcheesi, Chutes and Ladders, Clue, old maid, crazy eights, and 52 pickup were for rainy days, and if it looked like the rain was never going to stop, we’d get out Monopoly. Despairing of its page upon page of rules, we’d make our own. This is how both Wall Street investment strategy and Washington economic policy were invented by our generation.

When it was just boys, we played Robin Hood. Tomato stakes were quarterstaffs. We played Knights of the Round Table with picket-fence-slat broadswords and garbage-can-lid shields. After the garbage-can lids were taken away from us, the fence slats became dueling foils—or if Mr. Biedermeyer had left his outboard motorboat in the driveway, pirate sabers.

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We played Cowboys. This was the only time it was permissible for a boy over five to skip. Done with our hands held out in front of us, grasping the reins, it was called galloping. We played Indians, but our twig arrows and tree-branch-and-package-twine bows didn’t amount to much. Indians turned out to be better at hurling beanpole lances at each other and scalping younger brothers, to the extent that the crew cuts of the period allowed for scalping.

We did not, however, play Cowboys and Indians. That this showed a nascent multicultural sensitivity is a nice thought. But, really, playing Cowboys and Indians would have required two kinds of role playing at once. Roping and branding buffalo? Fast-draw tomahawk duels? This would have been overcomplicated.

Fighting was our chief joy. We played war across the front yards, war in the local park, war indoors with foxholes behind the davenport and snipers at the top of the stairs. We were usually the Marines, sometimes the Army, but never the Navy, because sailors drowned instead of being dramatically wounded and bleeding to death while bravely urging our platoon to leave us behind and take the hill.

kids roller skating
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After the wars, there was War, on the living room rug or along the upstairs hall or in Mom’s herbaceous borders, with lead soldiers. We had hundreds of lead soldiers. We made them ourselves. Billy Stumf’s dad supplied the molds. My dad brought home tire weights from the dealership where he sold cars. Billy and I melted the lead in a ladle on an old hot plate in the basement workshop, surrounded by paint thinner and wood shavings. Parents put a great premium on children quietly amusing themselves.

Soldiers that came out of the mold missing a leg or a rifle were painted blue. These were the French.

Our enthusiasm for fighting extended to snowball fights, water-balloon fights, dirt fights where new houses were being built, and fruit-and-nut fights when crab apples and buckeyes were in season.

But only by accident, or an occasional ice ball, did anyone get hurt. The fighting rarely degenerated into “a fight.” We would wrestle angrily or try to give each other a kick in the shins at the most. Knock-downs and drag-outs were unusual among baby boom children.

This must have been our own doing. We rarely heard adults—male adults, anyway—voice sincere disapproval of boys slugging each other. “So hit him back,” our dads would tell us.

I once threw a roundhouse right at Steve Penske. So unused to punching was I, and so unused to ducking punches was he, that I put my fist into the side of the house—and he banged his head on the drainpipe.

And when the Vietnam War arrived, only one of us, Bobby Stumf, went. The rest of us had excuses. Billy Stumf’s spleen was ruptured from high school football. Steve Penske developed allergies. Johnny MacKay got migraines. Jerry Harris came down with asthma. We used our imagination.

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