Mike’s Manifesto

When I think about my kids’ (boys, 3 and soon-to-be-born) futures, I’m terrified. I’m not terrified that they will have inferior educations or live in an unsafe world. I’m terrified that they won’t have very much fun.To illustrate my point, take a moment to think of the ten best memories of your childhood before high school. Chances are, if you’re over 30, most of these memories involve playing outside your house with friends, not scheduled events with adults around. To jog your memory, I’ll offer my list from my childhood in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA in the 1960s and 70s, not in any particular order:

  1. organizing and running a carnival w/ my friends for a Muscular Dystrophy charity in the Weiss’ backyard
  2. stickball in the Bruces’ backyard w/ the neighborhood guys everyday one summer
  3. building a tree house in the woods behind the Allens’ house and hanging out there w/ the guys one summer
  4. hiking w/ the Weiss brothers in hip boots through the stream at their farm
  5. my first hit in minor league baseball, a triple to deep center, after many games without swinging at all
  6. seeing Pittsburgh Steelers’ home games with my dad, especially Franco Harris’ immaculate reception in 1972(!)
  7. golfing with my dad on Sunday mornings
  8. pickup softball and tag football in the street next to our house
  9. pickup hoops and H-O-R-S-E on the court behind the Morrisons’ house
  10. kill-the-guy-with-the-ball games, especially the one where the guys conspired to not tackle me on purpose, fooling me into thinking I had become the next O. J. Simpson

[Feel free to offer the best ten memories of your pre-high school childhood in comments!]

Now that you have your best ten memories in mind, ask yourself, how many of those are possible for your kids? For most American children, memories that involve unstructured play with no adults around are simply not possible today. For instance, I live in Palo Alto, CA, and I can tell you that for kids here, all but 5, 6, and 7 from my list are practically impossible.

Now you might say, of course, times have changed, so the American childhood today isn’t better or worse. It’s just different.

Yes, it’s different, but it’s worse, too. A whole lot worse. Sure, we had organized sports practices and games and piano lessons back then, just a lot fewer than kids have today. Would I trade all my kill-the-guy-with-the-ball games for Youth Soccer? Not on your life. One thing we didn’t have back then that kids have now are “playdates.” How about building a tree house and hanging out there all summer vs. a dozen “playdates?” Are you kidding?

Sad? I’d say so. Actually, I’m angry more than sad. In general, we have more money than our parents did, but for some reason, collectively as a society, we’ve chosen to create worse lives for our kids. That sucks. In fact, I just can’t accept it.

That’s why I’m writing this blog. I and others will try to show what’s wrong with the ultra-structured, adult-mediated American childhood of today. As we’ll argue, the negative effects of this go far beyond mere lack of fun. Because of this change in lifestyle, kids of today have fewer opportunities to develop social skills, leadership skills, and creativity, and they’re a heck of a lot fatter than we were.

More than just whining, though, we’ll explore solutions to this problem. I’m a five-time Silicon Valley entrepreneur, so chances are, you’ll see me take one of the solutions we propose here and try to make it happen. Stay tuned…

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25 Responses to Mike’s Manifesto

  1. Michael Tarr says:

    Mike,

    As I mentioned to you when you sent me the manifesto, middle class and upper middle class parents make choices. Many chose to live in the suburbs in big, secure houses with distant neighbors. Next step is playdates to remedy the “problem”. Soccer practice, etc. There are many wonderful urban areas/neighborhoods left in America and the world, but people (parents) make a choice not to live in them. Living in Rhode Island, Laurie and I have made explicit choices to not move several times, partially based on the environment for kids, and have, most recently sold our big house in the burbs for a smaller house that costs much more in the city. But there are about 12 kids on the block, mostly outside any nice evening playing with one another. All ages – 3-12. We live a mile from work. I take Ben to school on a wagon or by bike. When one chooses to live in the burbs they are choosing to live with people that share common values, positive or negative. Living in a city neighborhood this is likewise the case. So I think the “problem” is less an endemic problem and more a pattern of middle class migration to suburban areas and what that implies for most kids. This same migration pattern has all sorts of other (negative) ramifications for our cities and our country. But I think you are pointing out a symptom of a larger issue, not a root cause. There is a solution. Most people have the ability/freedom to choose to live somewhere that is much more of a neighborhood, but it may mean: 1) poorer schools, 2) older, more expensive housing, 3) high taxes, 4) less safety (or at least perceived as less safety. The other issue is that less of these neighborhoods seem to exist on the coasts and the south (which has many driving cities). But people don’t seem to want to live in the midwest – Pittsburgh has what I describe (and even affordable, very nice housing), but it is losing population. Same for other “livable” cities.

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    As you indicate, there are no easy answers here.

    In our world-class city here in the Bay Area, San Francisco, less than 15% of its population is between 0 and 18, as opposed to 25+% in the rest of the US. Lots of people there are not happy to see your kids as you walk down most streets there. Many restaurants don’t have high chairs. I know there are neighborhoods within SF that are better than others for kids, but they’re certainly not a panacea.

    So, many (most?) yuppies in SF move to the burbs once they have kids, and most of us don’t find what we’re seeking. My wife and I are still seeking – a house, that is. It’s been two years since we started househunting. We find glimmers of hope here and there, so we’re not giving up. It certainly is frustrating, though.

    Part of my point in the article that I will elaborate on a lot later is that the real estate industry as a whole could do a *much* better job for us parents at finding kid-friendly houses. I’ll save a detailed discussion of that for later…

  3. Ed Prentice says:

    Mike,

    I think you are going after an interesting problem and hope you find an issue to tackle and that you inspire others. When I walk in my neighborhood through the undefined open areas, such as under power lines, I never see any kids. In my childhood I would have known every nuance of such open space. Where you could hangout and no one cared, where you might build a fort, where you could have a great outdoor game, etc.

    Why is it that open space that is undefined is no place to be? Do parents tell kids to stay away? Do they only go places with parents watching? Or do they just rarely go outdoors? With bike paths to the baylands we have great places to explore. I grew up in a suburban area with a connected low-land creek running through town. It was a great playground and I knew my way around much of it. The only hard rule– that I learned from other kids, was if you didn’t know who you saw coming through you got away and up and out of the ravine. Yet I never heard of anyone encountering a problem. How many parents in Palo Alto would allow a 12- 14 yr. old take a bike ride alone or with friends to the baylands?

    How much is parents? How much is kids– and under what influence? Has the video game and sports practice kept them away? It does seem weird and I agree there is a loss to the children. I hate to think we have to organize them to resolve the issue!!

  4. odile says:

    I grew up on a farm, and my best childhood memories are the countless hours I spent outside playing in many various settings with my two sisters who were my best friends, riding my bike on our private road while singing my own songs, going fishing early in the morning with my father on the farm’s small lake… We didn’t have neighbors, but I was blessed to have so much open space as my playgroung and to be surrounded by animals who were a source of wonder.

  5. Kneidalach says:

    I actually do not find a problem in the behavior. It’s really up to the parent to decide how much freedom do you want to give your child.
    I think that playdates are on the funny side of things, when you can go to playgrounds, preschool, activities, parks, neighbors etc and find kids.

    To me it seems like kids can definitely still do all these things you did as a kid, Mike, as long as their imagination is stimulated and they have the freedom and the encouragement to do what they want.

  6. Jim Cashel says:

    Hi Mike: I’m with you 100% on this one. It’s funny — I was walking home the other day and in the church parking lot near my house were a group of kids with skateboards knocking around. My immediate thought was ‘I hope they aren’t damaging anything’ — then it occurred to me that skateboarding is one of the few (only?) outside kid activities that hasn’t yet been co-opted by adults. More power to them!

  7. Michael Tarr says:

    Mike:

    SF is a “world-class” city by some metrics, but perhaps not others. What is good for one demographic is not necessarily good for another. People wouldn’t call PGH a world-class city, but it is probably a better place to raise kids. Again, our living decisions (not just the house, but the city) make a huge difference in the kind of lives we give our kids. As do access to TV, video games, etc.

    -m

  8. Michael Tarr says:

    Two books worth considering:

    The Dangerous Book for Boys
    The Daring Book for Girls

    Also, RI has something similar to this site:

    http://www.kidinfo.com

    -m

  9. Mike Lanza says:

    Re Michael Tarr’s last comment, another article I posted is relevant here. Check out What Kids Want in a House Most is Not in the House. There I talk about the fact that parents are so focused on getting the “nicest” house they can, while their kids, if they know anything about how much fun they can have in a great neighborhood, could care less about the house itself.

  10. Ed Hecht says:

    Great piece, Mike. I wonder how much “the lay of the land” (topography) has to do with this change. That is, is “playdate” a common term back in Pittsburgh today? I have my doubts. I grew up in the Metro Buffalo area in the 70s and have amazing childhood memories from that time (which I keep a blog of, ergo fresh in my memory banks). I can’t envision touch football or street hockey on a Palo Alto street (or in the snow, obviously) or building a tree house anywhere in this Valley. The suburbia so well parodies in “Edward Scissorhands” does not lend itself to these activities. I mean, where do you see a free standing hoop on a side street in this Valley? Some neighborhood noses would crinkle for sure…

  11. Amy Lee says:

    Did you know that the United Nations passed a resolution called “Declaration of the Rights of the Child”. In that resolution is the following text:

    “The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right.”

    You aren’t alone in thinking that this is an important issue.

  12. Michael Tarr says:

    I gotta say guys, there seems to be a clear solution given what you are all expressing and identifying as “the problem” – move out of the bay area! Maybe it was great when you were single, coupled but childless, but it doesn’t seem to be working for you now. Maybe you can “fix” it for some neighborhood, but there are many other places to live in America where much of what you seem to want for your kids exists.

    -m

  13. Tim says:

    Mike –

    You’re really onto something here… I remember doing all the same things as you did as a kid. We had open space in our classic 1960s era southern california suburb, but the big thing was the baby boom. 70% of the houses on my street (and ALL the streets) had kids between 2 and 12. We built forts, built push go-carts, we even built skateboards in 1969 before rubber wheels were invented.

    Hey – spot that? WHO has a garage with a bench, a vice, junk wood, nails, screws, and a bunch of tools around these days?

    We rode our bikes everywhere. There was only 9 channels of TV and no cell phones. When we wanted to see if Billy or Peter could play we had to either call them up – naaah, we rode our bikes over and knocked on their doors. Sometimes we pounded on their doors, or sneaked around back and walked into the kitchen.

    We got to know OUR friends parents. Eventually OUR friends parents became friends.

    Hey spot that? The parents knew each other THROUGH their kids! Not because they work together in a monoculture industry and are connected through alumni networks! (Not that I’m knocking alumni networks!)

    Why was that? Well, my folks were immigrants (heck I’m an immigrant) and they moved into a neighborhood where they knew no one. My dad’s friends were his colleagues but they lived miles away except a couple. They grew into that neighborhood where they lived for 25 years.

    Sure we had piano lessons and belonged to the swim team and did homework. And we went to summer school too. And all the parents knew each other from that stuff too.

    Now upwardly mobile means we move every few years to get a “better” house, or job, or whatever. Kids have play dates with the children of their parents friends.

    Play date kids are frequently not the children’s friends, they are the children of the PARENTS FRIENDS!

    We grew up walking to school and riding the school bus with all the other kids from the smarty-pants to the bullies at the back of the bus. No one drove their kids to school, nope, we all had to “get along.” And we figured out what to after school on the way home on the bus. “Hey look at those fall leaves! Let’s make a huge pile and hide in it when our dads come home.”

    Spot that? We learned to plan and structure our own activities. Without cell phones you had to really plan stuff. If everyone was supposed to meet at 3, well, you better be there, don’t welch.

    We traded hotwheels cars and had marathon Monopoly game sessions in the summers when it was too hot to play outside. We learned important social skills that way that are fundamentally different from those learned playing videogames or, worse, chatting on the PC. If you were upset with someone you had to deal with it face to face. Same if you liked a girl.

    We were also lucky in another respect. Our folks were all married – none were divorced. Sure they fought and we’d go over to our friends house, or our friends would come over to our house from time to time. But there were no shared custody child-trading issues.

    Except for cars (many families had just one – dad went to work in it), as I realize now, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t very different from growing up in 1930. Or 1890.

    But today’s child’s landscape is almost unrecognizable. It’s structured by parents, and features “interaction” via ubiquitous 24×7 tiny to giant screens of every kind: cell phones, PC chat & email, videogames and 250 channels of ubiquitous in-every-room TV.

    It’s mass-marketed and you aren’t “cool” as in having the latest gadget or dress, you’re one step from being a social pariah. The only thing really cool when we grew up might have been having a rare hotwheels car (they cost 99 cents) or (gasp) having a real genuine Schwinn Stingray in candy-apple red. The kid next door to Billy & Peter had one. I stole it for a two minute joyride once. I still remember it and the beating I got from its owner when I gave it back. I’ll bet he remembers that too.

    Thanks, Billy, Peter, Mark, Dave, Skip and Cindy – I never realized how much I learned from you back in 1968.

  14. Kris H says:

    Mike:

    I grow up with no organized play dates. Just bunch of kids in the neighborhood roaming like chicken and doing kid stuff without any adult supervision. Out of which we learned valuable lessons such as making friends, resolving conflicts, leadership, sportsmanship, etc. We grew up making mistakes but with no pressure from parents watching our every move.

    Can we create such an environment. Absolutely. But I see the problem lies with us parents. I’ve noticed, parents in some of the neighborhoods I am familiar with are so obsessed with making their child the next Michael Jordan or David Beckham, they are only focused on the next game or practice session. There is too much peer pressure as a parent.

  15. Ed Hecht says:

    Well put, Kris H. It seems like too many children have TOO much structure/regimen in their lives. I am reminded of Rick Moranis’ micro managing dad character in “Parenthood”: his son is forever in structured activities in every scene while Steve Martin’s kids seem to be living normal, though slightly neurotic lives. In fact, that movie illustrates perfectly what you touched on. Let the kids be kids. It’s over so quickly…

  16. kate says:

    I was raised on a farm also. Favorite memories? Learning Hullaballoo dance steps (from a book that we found) in the chicken pen; teaching my horse tricks; pretending that the mud puddles were lemonade; climbing rocks; playing with polliwogs; pretending that we were sailing in the swamp; walking in the forest, and so forth. Of course none of those things are even remotely associated with the suburbs, so I have to take it on faith that they are a “great place to live.”

    BTW, nice to meet someone with a manifesto! – here’s mine:
    http://www.anachronisticmom.com/Manifesto-H.html

  17. Carolyn says:

    Favorite memories from my 1970’s childhood: – playing afterschool pickup games of kickball in the street, playing “cops and robbers” throughout the ‘hood, climbing trees and having acorn wars (wow those things can hurt -hey guys, no aiming for the face okay? . . . okay!), riding bikes to the creek or to the corner bakery for pizza rolls and pop. In summertime, we had to be home for dinner and afterwards, when the streetlights came on. I rode my bike so much I actually wore the tires out. When I was ten, my parents moved to the suburbs and my world fell apart. All the girls just wanted to play Barbies or put on their sister’s makeup (indoors . . . in their rooms). I wanted to explore the neighboring construction sites for supplies to build my own fort. They looked at me like I was from Mars. I still remember writing to my buddies back in my old ‘hood – begging them to kidnap me so I could play with them all summer long.

    Prior to moving to Palo Alto, my husband and I lived in Evanston for the past eight years and thought we had found the perfect place to finally start a family – we had found the same kind of neighborhood that I had loved as a kid. Then he was offered a job here and wow has our world changed. I’m pretty nervous that we’ll never find a “down-to-Earth” neighborhood (that’s affordable and within a reasonable commute) that feels like home before we meet our soon to be adopted child. At least I know we’re not alone in our quest for a playborhood. Thanks for spreading the word.

  18. Jean says:

    Thanks for starting playborhood. I’ve just begun talking to a few parents in our neighborhood (the Richmond Annex) about how to create an environment where kids can run a bit wild. Three years ago, I moved to this neighborhood specifically so my son could be within walking distance of other kids his age, including two boys who live next door. I know that there are a whole bunch of other kids their age around, but everyone stays in their own backyards.

    I’m looking for concrete suggestions about how to organize and reinvent a play-supportive urban neighborhood. (and I’m not moving out of the Bay Area for lots of reasons, including most importantly that it is home) Here are particular issues I’d love to hear responses to —

    What are the best strategies for helping parents get over the hype about child abduction and predators? (I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a friend’s father, so I’m not naive about the reality of danger. But it’s a reason to be conscious and careful, not terrorized into insularity.)

    What neighborhood organizing techniques have people tried or contemplated? An agreement to send kids out into the neighborhood once a month, with parents working on their front yards to keep an eye out? “Pied Piper” walks through the neighborhood to give kids and parents a chance to get to know each other?

    What communications strategies have worked? Listservs? Neighborhood bulletin boards?

    My son is 9. It’s time for him to have more freedom (and get away from the videogames!)

    By the way, Mike, there are lots of houses available in our neighborhood ($500-650K)!

    Looking forward to reading more.

    Jean

  19. Mike Lanza says:

    Yes, absolutely, I (and others) will post a *lot* about solutions, and eventually, we intend to offer solutions here that are much more than just advice. Because I think answering this question is so important, I’m going to make it a post. I won’t be offering any solutions in detail, but I’ll provide an overview of what we intend to do in the coming months.

    Finally, Jean, I’m *very* happy to see your comment and welcome you with open arms to Playborhood. You’re exactly the kind of passionate, pro-play activist parent we created this site for!

  20. Michael Wood-Lewis says:

    Mike and cohorts… great concept and I’m right with you. I grew up in the early 1970s in Indiana and have a list similar to Mike’s 10 favorite memories… including wandering barefoot around the new houses being built in the cornfields a mile from my home, loading scrap wood and discarded bent nails into my little red wagon. My big brothers set my price for admission into their tree house (top level was at 30 ft) at 20 straight nails… so I had some pounding to do. Then I spotted an unopened 10 lb. box and heaved it into the wagon. You should have heard the whoop go up when I pulled in under the huge oak where they were building. Only years later did it dawn on me that I had stolen those nails… but, you see, I was only five. What were my parents thinking!?!? But thank goodness I had that freedom! I wouldn’t trade all of today’s xBoxes and iPhones and soccer leagues for that stuff.

    So my wife and I see the same trends that Playborhood confronts right here in glorious Vermont where we live now with our brood of little ones. First, I banned the term “playdate” from my sphere of influence… makes my skin crawl. Then we picked a neighborhood that wasn’t dominated by the car. Then, realizing that the solution to this challenge required that our kids play freely outdoors with OTHER PEOPLE’S KIDS, we created Front Porch Forum.

    Now, a year into this project, we host 130 online neighborhood forums covering 100% of our small metro area. More than 25% of Burlington, VT subscribes. In our neighborhood, 90% of the households are on board, and 50% post.

    This service is designed specifically to help neighbors connect and build community within the neighborhood… and it’s working. Where, a few years ago it was all playdates and quiet streets, with the occasional parent-supervised outing to the sidewalk… now it’s beautiful chaos of street hockey, tag, bike jumps, and hopscotch. People become more familiar with their clearly identified nearby neighbors through our service, and that spills offline then… from the virtual to the actual front porch.

    Keep up the conversation at Playborhood… I look forward to reading more!

  21. Mike Lanza says:

    Wow, Front Porch Forum sounds great!!! Perhaps we can do a story about it for Playborhood.

  22. Barbara Saunders says:

    When I was elementary age, my family’s house was the “playborhood!’ I grew up in a bit of Westchester suburb close that bordered the Bronx. It was sort of a no-man’s land, outside of the City but poor and disconnected from the places people associate with “Westchester.” My grandfather, a farmer from Mississippi, bought three contiguous plots in the early 1930s and put only one house on them. When he was raising his one kid, he operated a working farm, including livestock. By the 1970s when I lived there, the livestock were out, but my family did have a small field of corn, figs, grapes, roses, a barbecue area complete with picnic tables, a two-car garage with a long, enclosed driveway (great for roller skating) and two “mini-woods” of trees. My three sisters and I, the neighborhood kids, and our (friendly) dog could hang out there all day during the summer. My mother or grandmother could watch over us unobtrousively from the kitchen window.

  23. Len says:

    Thank you Mike for sharing all of your important thoughts.

    We recently had our first child and looking ahead, I definitely would like to offer him many of the simple pleasures and types of fun we had as children.

    We were from a very average to just below average working class family but still had wonderful times. Having such a big financial advantage and greater freedom now, I would like to ensure that we don’t rob our children of the chances we had to have fun, and additionally, offer them more opportunities than we even had.

    Some of my best memories are:

    1. playing red rover in the backyard
    2. going to family campgrounds in Myrtle Beach
    3. going on day picnics at local conservation areas
    4. playing board games with siblings and cousins
    5. playing with our dog
    6. playing with the kids next door – tag, soccer, etc.
    7. going to McDonalds (happened about twice but never forgotten!)
    8. trading hockey cards
    9. building models
    10. collecting stamps and coins

    Many of us are truly blessed to have so much these days and unfortunately, many still struggle to find happiness and don’t share enough positive energy with their children.

    Additionally, safety is a big issue these days in many communities and it is sad to see that this issue makes it much more of a challenge to offer the freedom we had to our children. Despite the challenges though, we can all do the right things to give our children a wonderful childhood.

    Those are my only thoughts for now. Happy 2009 all!

  24. Games We Played says:

    We recently moved into Bellingham Cohousing, an intentional community here in Bellingham, Washington. Everyone who lives here has a desire to live in a harmonious, collaborative community. The children are safe and free to play together. It is basically recapturing old-style neighborhoods where everyone knew their neighbor. We love it! More importantly, our children love it!

    There are Cohousing communities all over the country. You can find information about ours at http://www.bellcoho.com

    It may be a practical solution for like-minded families.

    Tom O’Leary

    http://www.gamesweplayed.com

  25. anna says:

    I discovered recently that we’re just making it way too complicated. I used to think that kids couldn’t “play like we did” (God – how many of us say this!?). We owned a house in a wonderful neighborhood on Bainbridge Island (ferry ride from Seattle)- wealthy, safe, beautiful homes! If there was anywhere in the world where kids are safe outside – that was it! Yet, the kids weren’t out playing. Now we rent a small, somewhat run down house in a middle class neighborhood in Arizona. In the summer, the kids are out from morning until dinner playing (with the occasional stop home to drop off a reptile treasure or get a bandaid). In the winter they’re out sledding and having snowball battles. I want nothing more than to buy a house in this neighborhood so my kids can keep playing! Do you know what makes it possible? Not a lot of hovering, over-protective parents; just parents who love their kids and a lot of neighbors keeping an eye on everything that happens! WE are creating our problem. (I understand that this does not apply to families that do, in fact, live in unsafe, inner-city neighborhoods. Crazy thing is, it’s the kids in the “safest” neighborhoods that never venture outside!) My friends and relatives from Washington never cease to be amazed when kids just randomly stop by and knock on the door to see if my kids can come out and play (no, they didn’t call and arrange an appointment!). I’ve got to believe that this is not unique to this neighborhood; hyper-parenting is a lot of the problem.