in praise of lawn darts
the basis for a civilization of free people resides in the skills that children learn from the benign neglect of unsupervised play in an un-nerfed world
many things are better since the days of disco, but child rearing is not one of them.
i speak as a child of the 70’s.
this was our cathedral.
it was carnage. kids flying off, blood, bruises, fun.
there was not a parent or a teacher in the entire country that cared.
this was normal.
this IS normal.
childhood is supposed to have sharp edges and pointy parts.
that’s where the most important learning takes place.
today’s endless coddling and cosseting and suppression?
you are not going to like what it raises.
you can see this and laugh:
but is it even really a joke?
we have stolen growth from our children by nerfing their world.
we have addled their sense to the point where they wear masks (but not helmets) on a scooter. what does this tell you about their ability to assess risk?
nothing good, believe me…
when i was a child, this was considered a toy. these things are BIG, like the size of your shin.
it was marketed as “fun for the whole family.”
fun fact: it was.
it was bocce that could send you to the ER.
we owned these. i played with these. alone, without an adult in sight, without a parent even being home.
there was not a parent in town that objected.
today you’d be in guantanamo bay on some kind of WMD charge for even discussing the idea of leaving your 9 year old and his friends alone all day in the summer with these, much less with the additional armamentarium of bikes and skateboards and the bewildering variety of janky hand made ramps and jumps we used to build for them.
i did not know a single kid who owned a helmet. one kid had knee pads, but he was kind of a weirdo…
hell, i’ll bet i can get half the moms reading this to hyperventilate into a paper bag by describing the in-ground pool with a 10 foot deep end and a diving board we were left alone with. our friends all came over. we spent summer after summer alone, unsupervised, doing cannon balls on each other’s heads and playing a game where you had to try to dive into the pool while other kids threw dodge balls at you. bonus points for doing tricks. we did not even have a fence around this wonderous valhalla.
we were 10 years old.
there was not a parent of my peer group that even found this comment-worthy, much less worrying. they knew that we were not little idiots and that if something went really wrong, we’d let them know.
and we, the lords of the flies took it as our birthright to run wild and invent our own games, find our own fun, and see to our own well being.
we literally owned spears of our own making.
that was how it was.
parents tossed you out of the house and said “go figure it out. be home for dinner.”
the idea that they would help pick our friends or our games or settle our disputes was absurd. the word “play date” did not even exist. we got left in cars while errands were run. tattling to mom was the one true and unforgivable sin.
this was normal.
it’s more than normal, it’s healthy.
perhaps this seems like “neglect” to the parents today who schedule and plan every moment of their children’s lives with appointments and lessons and classes and structured activity while swaddling them in helmets and supervision and safetyism.
and perhaps it was, but it was “benign neglect” and the tigermoms (oddly named as no tiger would raise their young in such fashion) and safetydads of today are missing the things that they themselves are neglecting:
they are neglecting neglect and that is raising weak, authority dependent children.
sure, their kids can make a papier-mâché diorama that would not look out of place at the smithsonian, speak 3 languages, and play 11 musical instruments that i have never even heard of, but can you push them out the door in the morning and say “i do not want to see your noisy, sticky faces around here until dinner. go play!” and have it not only work, but result in another great summer day of adventures, mis and otherwise? because i do not think you can.
and that used to be a pretty typical day.
when i was 10 years old, my parents had a sort of generalized 5 mile circle of an idea where i was and a reasonable but far from complete conception of with whom. we went to the beach by ourselves. we went rock climbing by ourselves and swam and skateboarded and biked.
i say this not as complaint. this was what we wanted. and it served us well.
unsupervised is how you grow, it’s how you learn. it’s where ALL the important stuff comes from.
you learn to explore new places, learn new stuff, meet new people, and build and sustain relationships and interaction.
it’s not that we were magic or made of some sterner stuff.
we could do this because we had learned to do this. it’s a skill, it requires practice and confidence and above all reason. this is what you get from being left alone, and it needs to start young.
when you meet new kids, you have to figure it out.
when you need to decide what to do, you have to come up with ideas, build consensus, and make it happen.
when you argue, you have to resolve it.
these are the micro societies in which humans practice being civilized. from the anarchy of childhood emerges societal order as we grow and get better at planning and the implementation of our ideas.
but to gain this skillset, we must be free to scrawl our own designs upon the world. we must face the difficulty of doing so, the responsibility for failure, the lessons of losing, and the triumphs of getting stuff right.
that is the most important lesson in all of growing up. not piano or soccer or interpretive headstand watercolor painting and certainly not indoctrination into the grievance cults of wokedom:
what must be learned is how to become self-governing.
and it has been stolen from our children.
it has been stolen by overbearing structure and supervision. every edge has been dulled, every pointy part wrapped in 4 layers of padding, every head helmeted, every scary image and idea painted over or hidden from view while every need, no matter how performative indulged.
everyone gets a trophy.
we have taken from them not just the glories of doing it yourself and winning despite difficulty, but the actual skillset prerequisite to undertake such things. and that is the true damage.
every game was taught to them by someone instead of invented.
it was supervised by authority figures: parents, teachers, coaches, referees.
disputes were resolved by these authority figures.
and THAT is a serious, serious problem.
system creation and dispute resolution are skills. they need to be learned, they need to be practiced. so does resilience. it’s stuff you have to figure out and grow into.
a child of the 70’s would be shunned for the dire moral sin of “tattling.” it simply was not done. you rat the other kids out to an adult, you’re done here.
being the wussie kid was as low as low status got.
sure, it’s tough. it can be nasty and unfair and everyone got bullied and beat up at some point. but, consider the alternative:
every kid yells “MOM!” at the first sign of trouble and mom wades in and regulates. so no one ever learns anything except how to yell for help in more compelling fashion than the other kids.
no one ever toughens up or gains the skills that allow independence. instead, they cultivate helplessness and stunted dependence. they do not learn to solve their own problems, they learn to rely upon authority figures to order and regulate their lives and engage in performative behavior to curry favor with the umpires. it’s a tattle tale arms race and it lasts a lifetime. he who tattles first usually wins and that’s a rotten incentive set.
then they go off to college and mom is no longer in yelling range. so they learn to yell “DEAN!”
then they graduate and learn to yell “BOSS!” or “GOVERNMENT!”
what choice do they have? they never learned to do this themselves, to handle and adapt to a plurality of views, to learn compromise and respect and conflict resolution. every disagreement is a threat you cannot assess or resolve. and so, you start to drown. worse, you start to adopt ever more absurd poses and positions to gain leverage in the “battle of tattle” and get to punch first or declare “no punchbacks.”
we’ve all seen how THAT is going.
it’s the equivalent of allowing scholastic “social promotion” whereby kids who cannot read keep getting passed up to the next grade and fall further and further behind because they simply lack the skills to be where they are.
one day, you have a high school senior who reads at a 2nd grade level and has failed to understand all his classwork throughout because of it.
one day, you have a college graduate who has never learned independence or to resolve her own disputes and who functions like a 7 year old because she never got to practice and develop these skills and resiliencies throughout the period that should have comprised her growing up.
and this generation is ripe for predatory authoritarians and totalitarians.
if you cannot govern yourself, someone else is going to come along and do it for you, good and hard, for he who adjudicates grievance may easily rule the plaintiffs and demand ever more baroque and debased prostrations to whatever is passing for “authority.”
they never learned to make their own games, so now they need someone to tell them what game they should be playing, who their friends should be, someone to settle their disputes and hand out praise and prizes, determine virtue and vice. they cede agency for safety and that evolves into totalitarianism.
far too much of what should be internal is instead external.
and this spirals into everything.
if you cannot assess risk because someone else always did it for you, you are reliant upon others to tell you when and of what to be afraid.
so conjuring hobgoblins to terrify you is no great challenge. you have been programed lifelong to believe in them and deprived of the skills to make these determinations on your own.
worse, you might mistake it for leadership.
this neurocracy of government by the least calibrated finds purchase because rising generations (or at least large swathes of them) failed to develop the antibodies to it that they were supposed to have.
such people have always been among us, hanging on by their fingernails, worried about everything, always ready to proclaim that the sky is falling. we just never used to listen to them, much less elevate them into positions of authority.
this is because we grew up climbing rocks and trees where a fall could have injured us badly or even killed us. but it didn’t, because we learned to assess risk.
there was no one around to ask “is this safe?” it was not nerfed or padded or provided with a spotter and most important: you knew that. you counted on it.
it was a tree. you climbed it or you didn’t. and YOU had to decide. so you LEARNED to decide. and you learned HOW to decide. you learned how to gather evidence and make judgements, to figure out what you needed to know, how to go about learning it, and perhaps most important, learned to know when you knew enough to be able to make a sound choice about the perils and prizes of ascending into the tippy top branches.
you weren’t always right, but you did OK and you got better and you figured it out.
you learned that no other kid could make this choice for you and that different kids might make different choices and that you could both be right. not every kid should do all the stuff. what might be right for crazy billy who jumps off the roof might not be right for you.
childhood was a master class in risk analysis.
and if you take that risk away, kids grow up having no idea what is or isn’t safe, because everything was always safe. worse, they have no idea how to decide what’s safe, because they never learned the skill, they just keep being socially promoted and handed off to a new set of curators. perhaps worst, they blindly trust that which is pushed on them so long as “the experts” call it safe or needful.
if you are raised to trust others on what to fear and need and lack strong ability to risk assess and self govern, you are RIPE for the plucking by demagogues and tyrants. preying upon such vulnerabilities has always been their stock in trade.
and so we devolve into tribes.
if you are raised without the 10,000 little scuffles of finding the organization, consensus, and compromise that constitute self rule among and in society with other free people, then you lack the ability to handle dissent and dispute and to work productively with others.
you are, in point of fact, uncivilized.
and thus when tribal dogma clashes with that of other tribes, you cannot find common ground and therefore retreat further into tribalism because it is the only safety and order you know. you cannot resolve inter-tribal differences because you do not know how. so instead, tribes go to war.
this is how you land in a society that is divided on so many axes that no one can communicate across or resolve. and then everything is war.
there are no “authority figures” that all the tribes respect and so most of what should be a fight and a striving for freedom and human agency gets lost in the awful, no holds barred, negative-sum food-fight of determining to whom everyone ought to submit.
and worst of all, grievance is elevated to status and crowds out ideas like virtue or achievement because grievance IS status for tattle tales. it’s how they make their case for failure and to demand coercion and redress instead of learning to fend for themselves.
this game cannot be won. to play it is to lose.
but if we raise generations that literally know how to play no other game, it’s what were setting them up for.
look, people love their kids. they want the best for them.
they want them safe and happy.
but childhood is hard. growing up is harder still.
it NEEDS to be hard, because if it is not, you’ll never actually become a self governing adult. you might “grow up” and never even realize there is such a thing as a self governing adult.
it’s like that wonderful butterfly allegory where they have to struggle for hours to escape their cocoon. you might mean well and try to pry it open and help them. but if you do, they will die. the struggle is what fills their wings with blood and renders them able to fly. remove it, and they are forever earthbound, dragging their broken wings behind them.
and that is no fate for a butterfly.
and that is no fate for a child.
it’s terrifying to watch the same people who keep trying to tell us that children are resilient do everything in their power to keep them from becoming so. their intentions may be good, but it’s like watching lenny crush bunny after bunny because he loves them so much.
these people presume resiliency is some intrinsic fact, not a learned and cultivated skill. it’s gotten so bad that states like utah had to pass a “free range parenting” law to stop overwrought crybully karens from calling the police and demanding child protective services intervention because 8 year olds were doing what 8 year olds have always done and playing safely in parks near their homes unsupervised or were walking home from school by themselves.
when we were kids, 2nd graders rode their bikes to school alone. the schools near me today will not let you leave AT ALL without being picked up by a parent (let alone walk 4 blocks home) until you’re in middle school. you have to be 12 to have the rights not so long ago afforded to a 7 year old.
i get that it’s not all this simple. there is pressure from every direction, from peers and schools and even from police. it’s hard to free range parent when leaving a kid who is fully capable of opening a door or a window and taking care of themselves in the car for 10 minutes (and would rather be there) can literally land you in jail and mandatory parenting classes or get your children taken away.
but that is madness.
and it’s time that went away.
free range parenting is the only way.
we want what’s best for the kids and what’s best for them is to grow up into real people capable of leading and ordering their own lives, people with the ability to assess risk, establish order and relationships without coercion, and resolve disputes on their own, people possessed of an internal compass and internal capability, not stunted half-humans forever dependent on externally imposed structure.
clearly, i do not know everything or even anything about parenting, but i do know one thing:
the basis for a civilization of free people resides in the skills that children learn from the benign neglect of unsupervised play in an un-nerfed world.
take that from them and they will forever drag their wings in the dust.
restore it and they will take flight.
that choice lies with us.
Not to be totally unoriginal but this is one of the most wonderful pieces in recent memory and your baseline setsa pretty high bar in its own right.
"that is the most important lesson in all of growing up. not piano or soccer or interpretive headstand watercolor painting and certainly not indoctrination into the grievance cults of wokedom:
what must be learned is how to become self-governing.
and it has been stolen from our children."
For all of us who flourished with benign neglect, lawn darts , clackers, plastic super bubbles, injection mold vacu-form at lava like temperatures, playing Mumbly-peg throwing jackknives everyone of us always had in our pockets, even at school this is powerful nostalgia.
When there was an outbreak of measles or chickenpox our moms would drag us to the home of the infected kids; in my mother's words, "Better to get it now when we know what it is and all of you get it at the same time and get over it and send you back to school together. If you catch it later we might need to go to the doctor to diagnose you and what a pain that is!"
Everyone ate PB&J sandwiches in a lunchroom with our two cent container of milk. We never conceived of lactose intolerance or life threatening peanut allergies, we never knew other kids on prescription drug regiments, we never heard the word syndrome, but we all had first hand experience with broken bones and stitches and we did indeed draw priceless lessons from that. :~)
This is possibly the best, most poignant post I have read about the current state of humanity in a very, very long time.