Like many Baltimore neighborhoods, ours has an alley that runs between the backs of houses. It's the shared backyard that unites the block.
Just when I think I’ve got my kids figured out – and the parenting tactics fine-tuned – they go and change on me.
I recently realized it was time to lengthen Eddie’s leash as far as where he is allowed to play when I can’t see him. “For Pete’s sake,” I though. “The boy is seven. Give him some room.” (I don’t remember my parents supervising my outside play at that age. Then again, I grew up in rural Virginia at the end of a dirt road with a 1.25-acre yard with woods on three sides and one house on the fourth.)
One of the many reasons I love our neighborhood of rowhouses is because each block has an alley. Running between everyone’s postage-stamp backyards, they’re a common living room that unites the block. They’re the perfect venue for riding bikes, scooters and toddler toys. They’re also wide enough, however, for cars to cut through in avoiding our grid of one-way streets or to reach people’s garages.
It used to be that Eddie could go only from end to end in the alley, with the manhole cover as the boundary at one end and the storm drain at the other. This still required frequent intervention and minor boundary revision, like when he and his buddy decided it was funny to repeatedly crash their bikes into the neighbors’ AC compressor unit.
Once spring weather warmed up, I looked at Eddie’s buddy’s mom and said, “I think it’s time to extend the leash.” (Co-parenting with my Lovely Bride is challenging enough – even more so with a neighbor. But our kids are joined at the hip, so we had to get our story straight and stick to it.) She and I worked out that the two of them are allowed to ride their bikes around the south side of the block and back to the alley.
And after receiving permission from elderly Mr. O, they are allowed to cut through his yard (but not on bikes – it will trample the grass) where there’s no fence separating the alley side from the street.
The "clubhouse" is a spot between tree's in Mr. O's yard where the kids like to play.
They’re also allowed to play whenever they want in “the clubhouse,” a space between three evergreens in Mr. O’s front yard (not visible from the alley).
In theory, they have to stick together, and they’re not allowed to stop as they ride. But the second part doesn’t really work, because there are four or five out of maybe 15 houses on the south side of the alley with kiddos in them. Nobody is more distractible than 7-year-old boys – especially when a good climbing tree is discovered – so there’s a good chance they’ll end up playing inside somebody’s house.
Wouldn't it be easier to ride your bike into the street than to squeeze between the bushes and this telephone pole?
My biggest fear is that some perv will grab him when he’s out of my sight. Second-biggest is that he’ll fail to round the southeast corner of the block, where a big bush and a telephone pole in the middle of the sidewalk make it really tempting to jump the curb and ride in the street.
But how else am I to develop the kid’s independence and judgment? He’s got to have a chance. And since this rule change, I have actually been able to bring a patio chair out to the alley and plop my behind down long enough to read the newspaper! On the day it was published, no less!
I thought the changing of the rules would be hard with my daughter. “It’s not fair!” already comes out of her lips on a regular basis. I even had my speech prepared: “He’s older, and he gets to do more than you. You’re only 4.” But she’s not nearly as good on her bike as he – training wheels really slow you down – and she seems content to climb the one good tree in the alley. I waffle on whether she’s allowed to go to the clubhouse without me – usually forgetting that the rule of thumb should be that she can’t go alone.
One thing that helps is that Eddie has a walkie-talkie set his cousins gave him last year. On better days, I talk, he answers, and harmony pervades. Other times, he gives his walkie-talkie to his hyper biker buddy or his 4-year-old brother, and communication turns into squeals and shouts. I like to think that Eddie will learn that when I say to come inside in five minutes, he ought to start climbing down from the tree in two or three minutes. So far, not so much. Now that he has a wristwatch (a little gift for having a good year in first grade), that might actually happen.
The best I can go for is constantly reminding him: stay together, stay out of the street and make sure I know where you are.
And if anybody grabs you, scream like a banshee.