For many of us '70s, '80s and '90s kids, summer days and after school was free time — really free. No phones, just a few rules and no parents. We grabbed our bikes (or sometimes just went on foot) and didn't return home for hours. I went to sleepaway camp for a month or so every summer, but the rest of the time, I was out of the house, riding through the woods on my bike, climbing trees and feeding neighborhood horses fallen apples.
Sometimes I would ride my purple unicorn bike several miles downhill to my friend's house closer to town and we would explore the dump that closed in the 1940s. I loved to break glass bottles, yelling as each one flew through the air, then glorying in the crashing cacophony each one made as it landed on a rock. Sometimes we were quiet, reading aloud one of the thousands of letters we found in bundles under old furniture. After the dump, we would slide down a muddy embankment into the gorge where we would sit under the gushing water to cool off.
Eventually, we were expected home. When we were at my friend's house, it was before her parents got back from work in the city. They returned on the same train every night so we just had to beat them home. We all wore Swatch watches and tried to be diligent about making sure we had enough time— though there were more than a few occasions when we cut it so close. We snuck in through the back as her parents pulled up to the front of the house, Ferris Bueller-style.
At my house, which was at the top of a small valley, my grandmother would stand out on the deck and ring a very loud bell. That meant dinner was almost ready. I'd race home immediately, because I was usually pretty hungry by that time of night. Even if I wasn't, one of my dogs who usually accompanied me would start off towards home and give me the "come on, human" look. So my summons home was a bell, as well as my dog's encouragement.
Calling kids home
When I asked my Facebook friends what their parents did, several gave what was also the most common answer on a Reddit conversation about the topic — they were expected home when the streetlights came on. My town was too rural for streetlights, but this makes sense in places that do, since the lights are set to coincide with seasonal darkness. Some kids just had to be back "by dark" and were expected to know when that was. Of course, "adult dark" and "kid dark" are two different things, as Greg Brown sings in "Canned Goods" below (listen from 8:00-10:00):
A lot of people said their parents yelled for them — using their middle names to let the wandering kids know they meant business, of course. "My mom used to just yell my name across the entire neighborhood. As I would run home all the kids would start yelling my name using my mom's voice. Good times," wrote mr_stivo on Reddit.
Some now-adults say they just knew what time they were supposed to be back. Other parents enlisted siblings. One of my friends' older sisters would be sent out to find her.
Besides bells, there were other audible signals parents used too. One person reported an air horn summons, while others used less high-tech methods. "My dad used to do the fingers-in-the-mouth whistle thing. (I don’t know if there’s a better name for it.) It was LOUD, so you could hear it in the few block radius we were allowed to play in," wrote BoopieBun. Similarly, "My mom would just wolf whistle loud enough to hear from ~1.5 miles away," wrote Builer2K14.
And then there were the town bells. One of my friends' hometowns had a 6 p.m. whistle which was the signal to go home for all the kids, and in some Japanese towns, a jingle plays over loudspeakers when it's time for children to head home: "In Japan whole towns will share the same predetermined curfew time signaled by music or announcements played over a system of loudspeakers," writes Aya Francisco.
"The time can vary based on the region and season, but it's usually just before the sun sets. In my area (Koenji, Tokyo) it currently plays at 4pm and is soon followed by what appears to be the world's smallest, sulkiest naval parade as half a dozen kids in sailor school uniforms trudge past my building" writes Francisco.
While it's now uncommon to see kids out playing unsupervised in the United States, the example above shows that this is still de rigueur in some other countries. And it may slowly be returning here, too. Utah passed a "free-range parenting" law this past spring so parents can make a personal decision about when their kids are old enough to wander without supervision.
That was around the age of 8 for me, and most of my friends seemed to be in the 8 to 9 range when they were first allowed out on their own. Of course, what's best for an individual child depends not just on their age, but on their maturity level, savvy and intelligence. But most kids learn important lessons about themselves and others when they are outside their parents' purview.
"The message is you need to protect your kids but we are not doing kids any favors if we shelter them to the point where they are not learning how to function," Utah Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, who sponsored the state's free-range parenting law, told Salt Lake City's KUTV 2News. "It’s not neglect if you let your child experience childhood."