All quiet here at the moment. Gas fire humming like the sound in a ship’s cabin, jazz playing softly. Faint sounds of building works in the distance. Apart from a snoozing partner on the couch, I could imagine this suburb is empty.
Of course it’s not. It is a week day and mid-afternoon, so many are at work or just getting out of school. Many houses will fill up in the next couple of hours, adding to the largely hidden population of shift and part-time workers, pensioners, unemployed people and ever-larger numbers of retired folks like me. But then and now, these streets look so deserted most of the time.
We spend a lot of time in Indonesia, mainly Bali, and the contrast is stark. Arriving home, after the bustle of the airport, it’s on to roads where there is almost no-one on the footpaths, or in the front yards of houses and businesses. OK, after about 10 PM it’s like this in Asia, because everyone goes to bed. But from around 5.30 AM till 10 PM every facet of daily living, for all age groups, is on show. Children as young as five coming and going from school, men on bicycles with huge loads from the fields and factories, whole families on one motor bike, small, medium and large buses and trucks. And everywhere, people at their front gates talking, showing off their babies, watching, selling, and washing the dishes, clothes and themselves in the roadside stream. It’s intoxicating, and it’s why so many of us keep returning to Asia for a fix of this lovely mayhem.
So back to suburban Adelaide. The generation before me say that life was lived out front of the house until the early fifties. Most people hadn’t got around to the family room extensions at the back and brush fences in the front. Houses were rarely empty, with mothers, little children and grand-parents visible most of the day. Children were walking or riding to school from an early age. Corner shops meant a good proportion of shopping was done by walking a short distance, often meeting other locals on the way. Television, bigger extensions, back-yard pools and fewer people at home during the day, especially women, have all played roles, along with the perverse belief that the streets have become unsafe.
All the evidence shows that there is less crime of the ‘stranger-danger’ type, but I often find myself a lone voice when I bemoan something like the low number of kids who ride to school compared to my childhood days. ‘There’s so much more traffic’, ‘You just don’t know what perverts might be out there’, and even ‘Maybe there is less crime because parents are more responsible about these things now’. When it’s people I love, from my own family circles, I know when to shut up in these conversations. And it’s not just the young ones. I’ve read various surveys showing that people older than me feel unsafe in their homes, often accompanied by the ‘It’s not like in my younger days’ type of quote to seal the point.
But I do think we have lost a lot that’s good for all of us, including kids, by giving in to the dark side that screams from the news every day. Some of life’s most important skills and lessons are learnt when bunches of kids play together around neighbourhoods. Of course accidents happen, fights break out, and hearts are broken for a while by cruel insults and friends lost. But plans are made and acted out, dreams of the future are talked about endlessly, riding, running, kicking and catching skills are constantly reinforced and friendships can be made that endure for life. Short-changing kids on so much of those unscripted, unplanned, unsupervised times, on the basis of ensuring their greater safety, seems like a category error in parenting history, which at the very least means they will have a lot less fun than I did.
I’m not going to join in the chorus of amateur child development theorists who say these changes will produce a more inward-looking, selfish, less socially aware and less robust generation of young people. Growing up is so complex, influenced by so many variables of nature and nurture, that for all I know the many advantages of social media, better education and generally older, more mature parents may be more than outweighing these losses of freedom.
So there you have it. I ’m joining another chorus, that of amateur anthropologists, with a gross over-simplification. We stay inside the front gate, and in Asia, they don’t. I can’t be sure it bodes well for those kids in the streets of Bali, but they look so engaged and enthused to me. I actually don’t know the comparative crime statistics for Bali and Australia, but I have noticed that it’s the ex-pats who talk about muggings and robberies there, never the locals. The locals clearly believe life on the streets is an essential part of growing up, and I think the evidence on their side. Yes, I admit it, I’d dearly love to see our kids and all the rest of us in, or at least visible from the street more of the time. I think we all get more out of living in groups, and every street has groups aplenty, just waiting to be enjoyed.