Sonny, the husky, and I took the path down to the beach on a late August afternoon. I looked up and saw a nine or 10-year-old boy some 50 yards away. He worked diligently at building a dam on the little creek that empties into the ocean and always charms me because it never meanders the same way on consecutive days. A century ago it doubtless had a bountiful run of several species of salmonids. They're long, long gone, as are other features of American life, like sanity in American politics, and parents who cheerfully give their children some unsupervised breathing room to socialize, acculturate, and, well, be alone.
We hit the beach and I looked around for the adult I naturally assumed kept watch over the boy. No one was around. What? Incredible! I couldn't believe it. Since moving to the Oregon Coast in 1997 and visiting the beaches thousands of times, I'd never seen a kid his age, let alone an adolescent, play alone on the beach. What's next? Political courage (meaning reality), a balanced federal budget, an admission of the obvious, that Pavement was really the most overrated, boring rock band of all time, or that we really don't give a damn if the Portland Trail Blazers take to the hardwood this year?
The boy must have walked down from a nearby vacation rental. I watched him for a few minutes, and he never once went to a phone. Sure, he probably had one stashed in his gear with instruction to text in every five minutes, lest he lose Facebook privileges. Nevertheless, he was alone and damming up the creek with gusto.
Sonny and I ambled away and the boy was still on the job when we returned to the path and headed for home.
A few days later Sonny and I hit the beach again in the afternoon, and I came across three kids ranging in age from five to 12 constructing sand castles in the same spot as the dam builder. I looked around and saw their presumed mother sitting on a drift log 25 yards away, fiddling with her phone.
I do not have children and don't offer any advice here on how to raise them. In recent months, I have read quite a bit of literature on parenting that documents the pronounced negative results of children being raised by "helicoptering" parents, who schedule, supervise, and try to manipulate a positive outcome out of every minute of their children's existence. (An article titled "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy" in the July/August issue of the Atlantic was superb, devastating.) Limited space here doesn't allow a complete summary of the documentation, but basically the argument goes like this: Excessive supervision of a child doesn't allow for the dynamic personal growth, proper socialization, or unscripted moments that make life such a joy and a learning experience. It does, however, tend to build false self esteem and a fear of initiating things for one's self.
Reading this literature prompted me to recollect my glorious days growing up as a kid in Oregon City in the 1970s. My friends and I would spend endless summer days playing sports (no coaches around) or army out in the woods, a good (unhelmeted) two- or three-mile bike ride from suburbia. Our parents had exactly one rule: home at dusk... if you want to eat.
When families visited the beach, which wasn't that often, parents would invariably send the kids down to the beach with materials to make a fire, with simple instructions: Don't go in the water, and never turn your back on the ocean. Oh, and not too much lighter fluid. We always survived.
I watched the kids build the castles, and then I watched the mom watch me. Curiosity overtook me and I crossed the creek and approached her. I identified myself as a local writer working on a piece about parenting and wondered if I could ask her a few questions. She said "yes."
"Would you ever let your kids play alone at the beach?" I said.
What ensued was a probing 15-minute conversation in which I admitted I didn't have kids but taught at Newport High School and felt the greatest quality a student could possess is the ability to think independently and take some original initiative. It surprised me to learn that she had experienced a supervision-free childhood almost exactly like mine and cherished it.
But she hadn't continued this tradition. Times had changed for the worse. Too many predators about, was her unstated implication. "I might let the oldest out alone in his own neighborhood, but not here where he's on unfamiliar ground, and the ocean too."
A reasonable answer, I thought. I thanked her for her time and candor, and Sonny and I continued down the beach. She went back to her phone and the kids played away.