A life without play dates

I envy Arthur's independence, but his parents' hands-off approach is a relic of childhoods past.

Published March 22, 1999 8:14PM (EST)

When my children, ages 7 and 3, first started watching "Arthur" (aired twice daily on PBS), I would find a reason to be in the room: wiping the table, offering a snack, retrieving a small coat from its usual heap on the floor. But soon I abandoned all pretense and just flopped down on the couch next to them. The fact is, the adventures of Arthur the aardvark, his family and friends -- assorted rabbits, apes, hippos, cats and the like -- appealed to me. Wry and sweet, they are unassuming little dramas of life in the third grade, and a welcome respite from the cloying antics of Barney and the infantile prattle of the Teletubbies.

But as I watched the episodes, I began to understand another reason why I like the show: Arthur and his friends live in a place that is free of parental involvement, a world that has no relation to the world that my children -- or any of their friends, as far as I can tell -- must inhabit.

Here is an example: We see Arthur sitting in front of the television, watching a commercial for a new game. "I've got to have it!" he declares and runs up to his room, where he breaks open his piggy bank to get the necessary cash. Next he trots to the store, pays for the coveted toy and returns home. Nowhere in this interaction is there any discussion with parents about his purchase. Nor do they accompany him to make it. No, Arthur is free to react and to act in a refreshingly unfettered way, a way that has more in common with my own childhood -- and that of other baby boomers -- than anything my own children experience. It's not that Arthur doesn't have parents; he does, and they seem great. Mom is an accountant who likes computer games. Dad is a caterer who makes terrific desserts for the school bake sales. But although they love their children, they are not involved in the micro-managing of their lives.

Instead, they let Arthur go to and from school alone. Although we live two blocks from my son's school, I wouldn't dream of letting him do the same. If he were to go by himself, he would have to cross a busy four-lane avenue where the cars whizz by at a dizzying -- and probably illegal -- speed. None of the children, even in the fifth grade, go to school alone. Nor do they go unescorted to the park, or to each other's homes, the way Arthur and his friends do. And never do I say to my son the magic words that so many of us remember: Go out and play. Playing, for my children, is a highly formalized, scheduled affair, with play dates arranged in advance and numerous telephone calls to confirm them. My son needs a Filofax -- or at least a cheap knock-off -- to keep up with his busy social life. It's a life he enjoys and one that offers many pleasures and challenges. But spontaneity -- the way Arthur and his pals meet for an impromptu kickball game or just ring each other's doorbells without phoning first -- is not among them.

This constant surveillance is wearying. When I take my son to the playground, where we have agreed -- in advance, naturally -- to meet several of his classmates, four other mothers are there with me, idly chatting as we watch our sons. An argument erupts: Someone has teased someone else; someone's feelings are hurt. There are taunts and more taunts. Five mothers intervene, trying to resolve the conflict.

By contrast, Arthur and his friends get into fights, tease each other, form new alliances with other kids: all the complex and essential social interactions that turn them into civilized adults. If they have a fight, they just have to figure out what to do themselves. I envy them -- and their parents. There is something liberating and healthy about letting kids work out stuff for themselves. I'm not talking about neglect, or about letting someone get hurt. When the hitting starts, I step in. But I do wish I didn't need to put my two cents in every time my kid calls another kid stupid. Yet it's hard not to say something if you and the other mother are standing right there and she happens to be staring daggers in your direction.

The kind of freedom I am nostalgic for is not possible today, certainly not in the city and probably not elsewhere either. My friends in the suburbs give similar reports; their kids are in organized activities, lessons and after-school programs. They are not allowed to just wander off for the day, to hang out, to invent their own amusement, to get bored, to figure out a life free from the constant watchful eyes of their parents and caretakers. So to get their daily fix of freedom, the kids have to watch "Arthur." So do I.

By Yona Zeldis McDonough

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the editor of "The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty," forthcoming from Touchstone Books, and author of several children's books. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.

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