We’re in Central Park, at night. A young couple are sitting on a bench, kissing, when all at once a small gang of boys and girls shows up. The oldest can’t be more than 14. Two of the boys, one black and one white, are playing accordions. The leader of the boys, a canny fellow chewing gum, asks the couple if they know how to dance “The Big Apple.”
“That’s against the law,” says the young man on the bench.
“So’s neckin’,” says the boy.
The cost for the lesson is 10 cents. The couple agree, and the kids proceed to show them how to do the wild and merry dance. First one of the little girls takes the young man, who is a bit stiff in the knees and ankles, but he gets into the swing of it, and they all cheer.
“C’mon, sister,” says the boy, their leader, and he takes the young woman by the hand and, after telling her to “shake it,” they too go on in their merry way, when all at once a policeman shows up, and the kids run off. It is, after all, late at night.
The scene is from Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938), with Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur as the couple in love. Whenever I see such a scene with children having real and adventurous lives, I do not first ask why you will not see that in a movie now. I first ask why people in 1938 found such a scene credible, while we do not, because we hardly ever see children outdoors, in groups of some size, without adults to manage them, doing interesting and sometimes daring things, things that require skill or knowledge or initiative.
We are a child-poor world, and such children as we do have are, by comparison with children in any other culture, stunted in the soul, which must happen when you trammel up a human being in institutions no matter how well intended the wardens are, and when otherwise the small one is in front of a screen and not in the woods or on a makeshift ballfield or with his fellows swarming over the streets of a real neighborhood.
I will be accused of mistaking a film for reality. But it does not require much effort to discover that Capra was only portraying the sort of thing that people took for granted.
I have read an account of snowstorms in New York City (“Midwinter in New York,” The Century Magazine, February, 1900), by the urban reformer Jacob Riis, certainly not a man to put a pretty face on things. Riis shows in passing the freedom and the youthful life that people took for granted. He talks about “coasting” at night in uptown Manhattan, where you can “watch the sights when young America is in its glory.” Only at railroad crossings, he says, “do the police interfere to stop the fun.”
At one typical street-hill by the East River Park, we find children from both the tenements and the fine parkside houses coming together to whoop it up on the snow and ice:
Down they go, rich and poor, boys and girls, men and women, with yells of delight as the snow seems to fly from under them and the twinkling lights far up the avenue come nearer and nearer with lightning speed. The slide is lined on both sides with a joyous throng of their elders, who laugh and applaud equally the poor sled and the flexible flier of prouder pedigree, urging on the returning horde that toils panting up the steep to take its place in line once more. Till far into the young day does the avenue resound with the merriment of the people’s winter carnival.
“Till far into the young day,” says Riis, and that means the young people will be at play there all night long and for hours beyond the sunrise. We have nothing similar anywhere in the nation, even in finer weather, nor can we easily imagine it. Nor can we imagine the bands of boys whose snowball fortresses and wars Riis also describes, with the victors doing something we would now find utterly impermissible:
That night the gang celebrated the victory with a mighty bonfire, while the beaten one, viewing the celebration from afar, nursed its bruises and its wrath, and recruited its hosts for the morrow. And on the next night, behold, the bonfire burned in Seventh Street and not in Eleventh. The fortunes of war are proverbially fickle.
Examples of a truly youthful American life can be multiplied indefinitely. But that youthfulness, that devil-may-care liveliness, is gone. We have fallen into the yellow leaf. We say that we want to protect our children. But childlessness, in one form or another—you have no children, or your regular daily life does not involve children, or your streets are not alive with the calls of children—bespeaks an aged and timorous people, who wish to be protected from the inconvenient onslaught of unpredictable life that children in healthy numbers mount. Dogs can be put on a leash. Cats can sleep all day in the apartment. Children come upon staid old homes like invaders from a nearly forgotten world.
“But we cannot allow our children to do such things now,” I will hear, “because they are no longer safe.” I might agree, but it is a devastating concession. We are far wealthier than even the well-to-do people whom Riis describes, let alone those who lived in the tenements, always at high risk of fire in the wintertime. We have more effective ways of finding criminals out and convicting them. But we cannot accomplish the elementary task of providing a real world for children to roam in, a real and largely wholesome life in preparation for their lives to come as full grown citizens. We are therefore either failures or cowards or some of both.
And what a sad and constrained life we must lead! I am not a libertarian by philosophical conviction. But I love liberty—by which I mean, for the most part, the practical habits and expectations of free people. If you do not feel free to let the boys go down to the lake to swim, on their own, then what practical good are all the laws in the world that permit you to do it? And perhaps the legal permissions are also gone. The city policemen, said Riis, winked or turned aside as the citizens sledded down the snowy streets at night. Who will do so now? Instead we wink at real crime and real immorality.
Either our fears are mostly well-founded, or they are not. If they are not well-founded, then we are like old people whose nerves are skittish, and who do not like to hear children playing, because it gives them a headache, or who have forgotten what it is like to have warm blood, and who want children to share their debility. If they are well-founded, then we should ask why. What have we done to make up such a child-poor and child-unfriendly world?
One thing, more than anything else. When Riis wrote about life in the slums, he encountered families: mother, father, and children. Not all the time, of course, but still those were the overwhelming rule. It is not the rule now. The moral chaos of the sexual revolution has made life generally unsafe and unhealthy for such few children as we manage to have. And chaos then exacts its penalty. You pay for moral chaos by accepting limits upon your practical liberty that people would once have found intolerable. Your children pay the highest price of all.