Kids Were Free in the 50s and 60s

Remember When: Children Were Free in the 50s and 60s?

Back when kids were free in the 50s and 60s we had responsibilities and jobs to do. We also roamed for miles – with friends or on our own. Times sure were different then!

Kids Were Free in the 50s and 60s

We recently found a cute show on Netflix. It’s a Japanese series called Old Enough!

In each short episode, a camera crew covertly follows a child aged 3-6 as they complete a grown-up task on their own. Their assignments are things like walking to the grocery store to purchase a short list of items, or delivering something to a neighbor or relative.

Apparently, there has been a bit of controversy since the series started airing on Netflix. Some American viewers think the show depicts bad parenting. They feel the children are not old enough to attempt the tasks on their own, and they are being exposed to unsafe environments.

That makes me think about how things were when kids were free in the 50s and 60s.

Bob and I grew up in Minnesota. (I lived in north Minneapolis, and he lived in New Brighton.) Some of my earliest memories are from when I started kindergarten at McKinley Elementary School. The school was two city blocks from our house. At times I walked there and back with one of my sisters, but I also remember times when I walked by myself. When I was five years old. The same age as the children on the show. Bob remembers walking to school alone when he was in first and second grade, too. He estimates it was seven or eight blocks, or about a quarter of a mile.

I was probably not much older than that when my parents started sending me on errands to the neighborhood store. It’s funny to think of now, but I was often going to buy a pack of Pall Malls for my dad. No doubt that would really be considered bad parenting today!

We were given responsibilities as a matter of course when we were very young in the 50s and 60s.

I started babysitting when I was nine or ten. My older sisters babysat for a family who had two children and lived a block over. The little girl was maybe three or four and the boy was still in diapers. I was asked to fill in one day when my sisters weren’t available. From then on, I was routinely called upon to babysit for them and other families in the neighborhood.

My responsibilities included cooking for and feeding the kids, bathing them, and putting them to bed. My favorite meal to make was a box of Kraft spaghetti. It came with the noodles, a seasoning packet and a tiny packet of parmesan cheese. I cooked the noodles and made the sauce with the seasonings and a can of tomato paste, and it was dinner for all three of us. I think I got paid twenty-five cents an hour. Having my own money to spend at the corner store was thrilling.

We did lots of jobs around the neighborhood. Bob got paid to shovel snow or rake leaves for people. He remembers raking them into street and burning them. The smell of burning leaves was what fall smelled like back then. He also had a paper route when he was about eleven.

I remember going door to door when I was a Blue Bird, and later a Camp Fire Girl, to sell boxes of candy. I collected the money and carried the cash around in an envelope while out doing my rounds. Nowadays, you would never let a little girl do that alone.

When we got a little older we were allowed to ride the city buses.

We rode our bikes all over the place pretty much as soon as we could ride on two wheels. (And no one had training wheels back then. We went from the trike to the bicycle and learned to do it the hard way!)

Camden Theater

But by the time I was in fourth or fifth grade (about age nine or ten), I was allowed to ride the city buses. I would walk two blocks to Lyndale Avenue and hop on a bus going north to the Camden area (where there was a movie theater, a drugstore with a soda fountain, and some small shops), or going south to downtown Minneapolis. It cost ten cents to ride.

Kids Were Free in the 50s and 60s

I would often take the bus downtown with a friend or one of my sisters to spend my babysitting money at Daytons or one of the other stores. When I was in fifth grade, a friend moved to south Minneapolis near Lake Harriet. I frequently rode the bus downtown by myself, transferred to another bus, got off and walked a few blocks to meet her at the lake, and then did it all in reverse to go home at the end of the day. All while I was still in elementary school.

Obviously, the world we live in today is very different. It’s less safe to allow children the kind of freedom we had. But have we gone too far in the other direction?

Not everyone who has watched Old Enough! sees giving children some autonomy as a bad thing. Some feel that it is more damaging to a child’s development to shelter them and hold them back from having more independence. In this article from NPR, author Kim Brooks says, “We now live in a country whereas it is seen as abnormal, or even criminal, to allow children to be away from direct adult supervision, even for a second.”

My kids grew up in the 80s and 90s. I’ll admit I was a bit anxious about letting them go anywhere alone. Looking back, I probably didn’t allow them enough freedom. But I think it’s sad that’s the state of things today. I wish all children could have the wonderful adventures that we had when kids were free in the 50s and 60s.

Have you seen Old Enough!? What are your thoughts? Share your memories of roaming free when you were growing up (or the opposite) in the comments. And check out our post about springtime memories in the 50s and 60s here.

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