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Thursday, April 11, 1996

Beautiful for Spacious Skies

New York

The day broke with long-awaited mild temperatures, with the Times remarking upon the passing of a way of life: the phasing out of monkey bars and other play equipment from New York's playgrounds. The day wanes with news visuals of a hard rain falling in Wyoming and the twisted wreckage of the plane carrying Jessica Dubroff.

The tragedy which claimed the life of this diminutive free spirit will doubtless further dampen the ability of children to test their skills and limits through play. At the moment, the city's slides, swings and seesaws which have nurtured generations of children are being eliminated out of federal and municipal concern for safety and the play industry's fear of possible litigation from parents. Smaller, less challenging plastic-coated equipment which has been installed across the country over the past 15 years will eventually be placed in all of New York's 862 playgrounds.

Jessica's trip could just as easily have gone off effortlessly, as her capabilities, her supervision and the flight planning were more than adequate. All the prerequisites were in place, and that's all that can reasonably be asked. As a realistic axiom, once adults have emplaced the basic rules and cautionary admonitions, the rest is for kids to do, on their own or with their peers, measuring the risks and acquiring judgment.


The ubiquitous parental smothering in evidence in recent years can be traced to the 1980s intermingling of reasserted militarism and family values, and the beginnings of economic dislocation. The response to the evil foreign menace utilized a domestic component which alarmed yuppie parents with bogus reports of thousands of child abductions. And upscale cutthroat avarice and consumerism spawned a generation of hovering first-time parents diligently funnelling their kids into joyless success mode. One thing to be said for Lisa Hathaway, Jessica's mother, is that unlike her contemporaries she was not in retreat from her Sixties' upbringing and the much-maligned influence of Benjamin Spock. She raised an inquisitive and self-reliant child, one who lived her too-brief years unhectored and with enthusiasm.

That distinction in parenting is significant. Neither I nor my playmates on the New York playgrounds and streets of the 1940s and early 1950s were supervised. We hung upside down from those venerable jungle gyms, and then graduated to games of stickball, roller hockey and ring-a-levio, which required us to become proficient at dodging cars and scrambling around building fire escapes, basements, stairwells and rooftops. We learned to trust our instincts, became aware of the resiliency of our young bones, and tested our common sense against the inevitable daily dare. Some years later, as a high school student in the middle-class suburbs of Washington D.C., no one I knew was ever driven to and from events by their parents; and it was commonplace for parents to ask permission of their children to attend the latter's athletic events, to avoid making the kids nervous or self-conscious.

Like all kids, I was lucky to avoid injury on many occasions . As fundamental as the aptitude for language, there's some sixth sense unique to children which enabled us to remain relatively unscathed. And the close calls we had instructed us in ways no amount of parental forewarning could equal. Self-chastened, we became more receptive to parental advice and also better able to evaluate what parts of that counsel we could comfortably discard.


In the cabin on my return flight from New York, a boy of about 3 in the seat in front of me has removed his shoes and socks and rolled up his pants. He straddles the aisle by planting his feet on the seat armrests. He shifts his weight and balances on one leg, then the other, and then manages to turn his body and face in the other direction. He is intense and self-contained and talks quietly to himself. When he braces his wrists on the armrests and swings his body up and back he yells to his mother to look at him.

Throughout the flight he is indulged by the other passengers, approaches other children a few rows up, walks the length of the plane beaming and lays prone and pushes his truck up and down the aisle. He speculates with his sister about why the plane shakes and buries his face in the window as we fly over the stark New Mexico landscape. When his ears begin bothering him during descent, he proudly discovers that the chewing technique the flight attendant demonstrated to him really works.

The boy runs on ahead of his mother as we disembark, anxious to get on with what comes next after this grand adventure of soaring across a vast continent he could probably not even have imagined. At my neighborhood corner grocery the newspaper headline reveals that the captivating little girl crumpled on a Cheyenne street would never physically traverse that same terrain. On Jessica's flight cap were embroidered the words "Sea to Shining Sea." The reach of children should always appear to exceed their grasp. It's how they -- and we -- endure.

Copyright John Hutchison 1996
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