Children should be seen and heard

Open your front door, lean out to listen and you'll hear two things: First, the sound of your electric bill tripling as you let conditioned air escape your home. And second, the silence of children not at play outdoors.

Think about it: When is the last time you saw a bunch of kids playing ball in the yard? Or running after each other in a game of tag? Or launching counteroffensives in a water balloon fight?

Driving through my neighborhood this summer, there's scant evidence of the existence of children. Yet I know they're out there somewhere, because the schools are always asking for more money. And SOMEBODY out there must be buying all those Polly Pockets and Spider-Man PEZ dispensers.

Back in my youth in the 1980s, a period archaeologists one day will label the Jazzercise Era, we were always at play outside with the neighbor kids. Almost daily we'd round up Timbob, Sniff, the Beast and the Brendemuehl brothers for baseball games. We also were known to organize lemonade stands, squirt gun wars and haunted houses so scary they made our little brothers wet their Underoos.

I don't see much of that going on anymore, and it's not just because nobody's buying Underoos. Why are kids neither seen nor heard these days?

This is where I'm supposed to label today's kids as lazy dweebs too busy playing GameBoy to realize their brains and physiques are turning to marshmallow. Where I'm expected to allege that the reason they're not playing in the yard is that they're up in their bedrooms surfing the Internet or manufacturing crystal meth.

But I don't believe that. In fact, I don't blame their lack of outdoor, independent play on kids at all. I blame us, their parents.

Kids don't have to organize pickup games anymore because parents have taken over. Who has time for a game out back with the neighbor kids when you've got Little League two nights a week and basketball league one night a week, not to mention daily swim team practice?

Why haven't you seen kids staging plays in the front yard for the entertainment of themselves and assorted crickets? Probably because they're away at dance camp, or taking voice lessons, or attending a weeklong drama seminar at the university.

Qualifier No. 1: There's nothing wrong with these constructive activities. Better to have kids improving themselves than hanging out in the Hardee's parking lot, the place in my hometown where wayward youths went to get high on saturated fat.

Qualifier No. 2: It's understandable why parents have gotten more involved. It only takes a quick scan of the daily headlines to see letting our kids romp about the neighborhood unsupervised isn't as safe as it once was.

Yet I can't help but feel kids are losing out now that everything is structured by adults. What about the lessons in initiative and organization we got as kids when it came to rounding up players, dividing them into equally matched teams, establishing rules and mediating disputes?

Wonder why nobody can resolve disagreements among themselves anymore, why every dispute ends up in court? Maybe it's because kids grow up counting on rulings from authority figures - referees, umpires, judges - rather than using diplomacy to craft mutually agreeable compromises. When I was a kid, it required the wisdom of Solomon to keep ballgames going, because any argument over umpiring could result in up to four Brendemuehls leaving in protest, effectively ending the contest.

As I peek out my front door and see nary a ballgame in progress, I fear kids are missing out on valuable lessons in self-reliance. And I begin to think the biggest mistake we parents make is doing for our kids things they can and should do for themselves.

I hope the next time I open my door to listen, the sound I hear won't be silence, but the calming words of a backyard barrister talking some buddies out of taking their ball and going home. But I'd settle for the frightened screams of little brothers fleeing a homemade haunted house in drenched Underoos.

If you would like to be heard, contact columnist Ben Bromley at bbromley@capitalnewspapers.com. A former editor at Lillie Suburban Newspapers, he is now a writer at the Baraboo News Republic.

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