“Where’ve you been?” my father would ask, when I’d wander in from my endless childhood perambulations. “Dowd’s backyard,” he would chuckle, answering his own question. Growing up in the Depression, in the tiny rural town of Lawlor, Iowa, Dowd’s backyard was his and his brothers’ answer to their mother’s same question, no matter where they’d actually been.

The house I grew up in was a swell 1916 Colonial, spacious enough for eleven people, elegantly gracing two lush, secluded acres. I often brag of growing up without television, but in truth, with eight older siblings and a place like that, what did I need a television for? The house was everything many parents today long for: the perfect mix of space, safety and seclusion. So, why were we allowed to wander away unsupervised from a very young age, and why did we even feel the need?


The first part of that answer is found in Mom and Dad’s approach to parenting. My mother took St. Josemaria’s advice.

“You can’t treat them all the same. Justice means treating different children differently, but in such a way that they aren’t jealous of each other. They are different in age, character, health, intellect… So with your help they’ll learn to be equal and love each other very much, to behave well, to have their parents’ virtues, and to be good children of Our Blessed Lady.”  (Guadalaviar, Valencia, Spain, November 17, 1972)

This also meant she had to trust us, even when we deceived her. St. Josemaria added,

“Help your children to learn to evaluate their own actions before God. Give them supernatural reasons to work out, so that they feel responsible, and never show them any mistrust. It’s better to let them deceive you once or twice than to destroy the love and unity they have with you.”

The rest of the answer is Westville, our own Dowd’s backyard.

An Authentic Neighborhood

Westville is the kind of place, built upon the traditional pattern of development, mostly between 1860 and 1940, that is practically impossible to build today - more’s the pity.

Westville is the kind of place worth wandering. And wander I did.

Directly across the street from our house, to the west, was a forest - hence Forest Road, owned by the water company, and within a few minutes, you can shed your clothes on a soft bed of pine needles, and skinny dip in the cool, clear reservoir of Maltby Lakes. When I wanted adventure, I headed to the woods.

Go down the hill in the backyard, crawl under a hole in a fence, and stand at the edge of Yale’s intramural fields, a vast green expanse of possibility, in the center of which is an equine facility, complete with indoor polo.

Stroll pass the horse stables and cross Central Avenue, five minutes from our backyard, and you’ll be at Yale’s athletic facilities, the center of which is the Yale Bowl, this young boy’s cathedral of gridiron glory. That’s a subject for another post, but for football fans, Walter Camp, a Yale man and New Haven native, is credited with inventing modern football.

The rest of the neighborhood was north. Along the perimeter were the elementary school, the middle school, the local parish, and Westville Village, all within a fifteen to twenty-five minute walk. A local would know all the shortcuts, which meant cutting through private property.  I can’t remember anyone putting a fence up around their yard, nor a single instance of someone telling me not to cut through.

By Emporostheoros (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The interior was a slightly irregular, gently curving grid pattern of walking heaven. Homes ranged from historic mansions to modest multi-family dwellings. On some blocks, you could find buildings with storefronts on street level and apartments upstairs. Mixed-use buildings in a residential neighborhood?  Yup (see above).

The whole effect was a sense of solidness and exterior space, as if the same sensibility in creating the balance and proportion inside our house had simply been turned inside out.

The result was a sense of intimacy with the neighborhood as a whole. I joke about my parents and their sense of benign neglect, but I wonder if it wasn’t driven, at least in part, by the fact that nothing they did was going to keep us home, anyway.

Suburban Sterility

I love Westville to this day. Now we live far away, in suburbia. I have to accept that my children will never feel the same way about where they are growing up. In fact, they love Westville, too. Yes, our suburb is an award-winning, master-planned community, with lots to offer, “a place to live, work and play,” blah, blah, blah. But one thing it doesn’t offer, because it cannot, is to be loved.

Part of the reason, no, the main reason, is it is built around the automobile, first, and privacy, second. Want to go for a walk? Stick to the trails, with nothing to see. Streets on a grid? Over our dead development body, kid.

Each subdivision is separated by a circular, one-way in, one-way out pattern. Very few of the subdivisions have sidewalks, and the majority of homes have garages built in to the facade (that’s right - the automobile is so supreme in our life, it now has its own room in the house). 

And every home is surrounded by a fence.  The result is not a sense of intimacy, but isolation.

(My sanity is intact because our subdivision is an exception, a neo-traditional development, and our street, a single block of twenty-two homes, is practically miraculous in recapturing the traditional pattern of design.  That, and a 6.9 mile commute.)

So now, my son, who is nearly thirteen, wants to be able to walk to his best friend’s, about a 35-minute walk. Not surprisingly, impossible to do without crossing a couple of very busy streets. The arterial style of roads common in the pattern of development we adopted after World War II means we are crossing roads on foot that just aren’t designed for that.

Safety wise, my wife is not ready for this. At that age, I pretty much went anywhere I wanted to. Of course, in some parts of the country, allowing this will get you arrested. Seriously.

[Tweet "A child is entitled to his freedom. Not unfettered freedom, but the freedom that is right for him."]

Most likely, I will mediate the two, and soon, my son will have more freedom to be away from home, unsupervised. I recognize that, as hard as it is, he’s entitled to his freedom. Not unfettered freedom, certainly, but, as St. Josemaria puts it, the freedom that is right for him.

And I want for him to love walking and wandering, as I did. It’s just not going to be quite the same as Westville, or Dowd’s backyard. 

More’s the pity.

Copyright 2016 Kiernan O'Connor