Every now and then you see a sliver of sunshine and know there’s hope for humanity.
Last weekend on our local Google group, a lady warned the neighborhood that “three teenage boys are throwing snow balls at passing cars and people. Including older women.”
A self-identified “older woman” chimed in, saying she’d retaliate if so attacked, which is what you want to see from that demographic.
My takeaway was that it’s heartening to see that kids, who are increasingly over-structured and helicoptered by parents, can still bring themselves to drop their iPhones and head outside to commit some healthy, old-fashioned mischief.
Some of you might be harrumphing that snowballs can be dangerous, that drivers can be startled or that kids are thumbing their noses at law and order. But heaving snowballs at moving objects is a time-honored rite of winter. My guess is cavemen pelted grazing mastodons.
The activity has always been an unscripted, unsupervised, somewhat naughty, often heart-pounding adventure of boyhood.
At its core, it employs some useful mathematical calculations — timing a snowball to hit a moving object must take into account time, speed and distance.
But there is something more. It activates the primal fight-or-flight instinct and often causes a chase, which was the prime objective. Nothing brings about an adrenaline rush and rounds of terrified laughter more than running from a screaming, enraged adult in full pursuit.
Kids generally have an advantage; they know (or should know) the lay of the land, neighborhood shortcuts, the fences, dead-end alleys, yards with aggressive dogs.
Escape isn’t always certain; I know first-hand. My friend Smitty and I once pelted a car, causing the driver to stop and holler at us before continuing on. Minutes later, we hit another car and ran down an alley to evade the second driver.
To our horror, the first driver (a man about 50) had circled back, parked in the alley and was walking our way. My friend eluded his grasp. I didn’t. Next thing I know, the man was shaking me by my scruff and landing punches to my head, neck and body.
Now, it’s not as bad as it sounds, as this was on icy pavement. It was kind of like a hockey fight, where footing was hazardous and punches don’t carry dry-land impact. Of course, I was screaming, shaking and swinging back at him like a small howler monkey trying to escape from a predator. Ultimately, he fell and I scrambled away, largely unscathed.
The spectacle of a 12-year-old engaged in a fistfight in an alley with a grown man didn’t even seem all that terrible to us. Simply, I got caught, which was one of the aspects of the game. You play, you sometimes pay.
The activity, admittedly, is not legal. There are stories floating around the internet of police forces warning they’re going to make arrests.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s archives carry only a handful of snowball/car incidents. One story from Gwinnett County had police reporting complaints of kids throwing snowballs at cars AND a case of a man in a red car driving around, knocking over snowmen. It’s unclear whether any of the culprits were ever brought to justice.
I called Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow and founder of Free-Range Kids, to get her two cents. Skenazy is the author who caused a stir a decade ago when she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway alone. For that, she was called the World’s Worst Mother.
She’s a big believer in kids being allowed the freedom to make some of their own choices, settle their own problems and learn from the process. Just like what was common years ago.
“Your kids need unstructured, unsupervised time, unless you want them to be prisoners,” Skenazy said. “Because who else has their time totally supervised and structured?”
She points out that prisons have panopticons, circular structures where a centralized guard can oversee all without the captives knowing they are being watched.
“Now we can have iPhones that watch children,” Skenazy said, referring to spying apps and digitized surveillance algorithms that can be your kid’s watchman.
Years ago, you walked to school and ran amok afterward. Now it’s school buses with cameras and scrupulously planned and chaperoned activities after class.
Creating your own situations and then dealing with the consequences “is being lost on our kids,” Skenazy said. “Parents worry that their kids can’t handle what they get themselves into, so don’t let them get into any situation. We can’t think of kids doing anything a bit mischievous without it ending in complete disaster.”
Jerry Seinfeld, in a recent comedic bit, riffed on the subject: “My parents didn’t even know our names! They were ignorant; they were negligent; we grew up like wild dogs in the Sixties. No helmets, no seat belts, no restraints!”
Skenazy and her organization are working with schools to create after-school “free play,” unstructured time where kids can do what they largely want (yes, there will be an adult nearby, but not hovering).
“I’m trying to take free-play off life support,” she said.
I told her about my long-ago scuffle with the angry motorist.
“Look at how crisp that memory is,” she responded. “I can’t see our kids years from now thinking, ‘I sure enjoyed looking at my iPad in the back of the moving van.’”
There is something about winter that brings out the child in all of us. It’s why “A Christmas Story” is such a classic. It draws us to a time when kids roamed free and figured out how to deal with self-induced problems, whether it was Ralphie overcoming a bully or Flick getting his tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole and his classmates learning not to rat out a fellow traveler.
As I drove away from my home last weekend, I spied the neighbor kids building a snow fort, so I got out and pelted them with snowballs.
On my return, they spotted my van coming and started scurrying. So I opened the window and shouted, “Ready, aim, fire!”
They enthusiastically obliged.