SEBRING — There was a time summer vacations meant staying in the sun until your skin was almost chicken-fried, seeing how late you could get away with playing outside, balancing sitting on bicycle handlebars while someone else pedaled or getting to sleep under the back window of the car on long road trips.
Today’s children have digital cameras monitoring their every move for safety; iPhones and iPads keeping them regularly checking into home base; and round-edged, plastic modular playgrounds to keep them from cuts, scratches and bruises.
But what they may be missing, some adults say, is the unencumbered freedom of adventure — the carefree, no-injury-guarantee of unadulterated, blissful childhood play.
Around Highlands County, everyone from recent transplants to homegrown residents have recollections of the “good ol’ days” of childhood, unfettered with too many rules, regulations and worry.
“We were supposed to be home before the street lights came on. Sometimes, we may have been back a little later and we’d get spankings,” recalled Arnold Davis, a lifelong resident of Avon Park and member of the Southside District Avon Park Community Redevelopment Agency.
Davis, 61, said he, his four sisters and two brothers would often walk down the railroad tracks, cutting through the city and down to the train trusses — a unimaginable act today.
“We’d go about three miles down sometimes and then get off and run up and down the hills next to the tracks, just to get away from everybody. We’d also bring slingshots to shoot rabbits, but I don’t think we ever got any,” he said.
On the north side of Avon Park, City Councilman Parke Sutherland, 53, another Avon Park native, recalled days and nights of unlocked doors, running around outside with no shoes on and staying outside “until my mom hollered for us to come in.”
“We’d go swim around the lake with no adult supervision and then we’d get a drink from the garden hose; I still do,” said Sutherland, who was born in the old Walker Memorial Hospital on the northeast shore of Lake Lillian. “I drove on the hard roads when I was only 14. There wasn’t really any concern by the adults if we did something a little deviant back then.”
Delia Payne, 59, a Miami native and former pharmacy technician who moved to Sebring 30 years ago, said she remembers running out of her house and blindly hopping onto her bicycle, no helmet. Despite the seemingly lackadaisical nature of parents and kids in a car, she doesn’t remember children being left or forgotten in hot cars back in the day.
Payne said she thinks there wasn’t such a predatory aura surrounding the youth of today and that helped make her growing up years so insouciant.
“There were no helmets and I’m trying to remember if I even told my parents when I was going outside,” she said. “And I feel sorry for the kids today because of the overwhelming supply of child molesters out there it’s hard to be alone. I think parents are more cautious with kids in cars and everything else for that matter.”
Others recalled child pastimes that were fun but probably would have been better left in the circus: “Lawn darts and bb guns,” John Mansky of Sebring posted on Facebook.
Called “Jarts,” lawn darts were a weighted spear that kids hurled in the air to see where they would stick in the ground and most of the time, they were just flung haphazardly wherever. The toys resulted in 6,700 emergency-room visits and between 1978 and 1989 led to the deaths of three children. They were banned Dec. 19, 1988.
Katie Lindau Wilson, of Lake Placid, remembers waking up before the sun came up, eating breakfast, watching cartoons and then “jumping on my bike and riding till the mosquitos came out at night. My parents never even worried if I would return. I played all by myself. I would build forts in the wooded area, make up my own little town on the empty streets; so much has changed, I would never allow my kids to ride out of my sight!”
And even though she’s part of a force out to protect the public, Highlands County spokeswoman Nell Hays experienced a childhood less encumbered by the realm of overprotection.
Raised in Rockford, Ill., Hays said in the mid-1960s, she would ride her bike, sans helmet, around her neighborhood and walked seven blocks to school alone or with a friend.
Hays said she rode her bike a couple of miles or more through the neighborhood while she was in grade school and there was a neighborhood store where she would go get items for her mother.
“Also, we thought nothing of going trick or treating at night, or selling Girl Scout cookies or candy for school and going door to door — no big deal. You knew all the neighbors and they knew you!” she wrote in an email.
Although there are factors weighing on more cognizant parental control today, it might not be that much stricter now than 50 years ago. According to Jeffrey S. Dill in an April 8 blog on the “Family Studies” website, parents today see the world to be much more dangerous than it was three or four decades ago. Much of that perception is media-driven, he writes.
However, Dill adds that crime rates in the U.S. have been flat or declining in recent decades but crimes against children are harder to measure.
He noted between 1992 and 2010, “the prevalence of sexual abuse fell by 62 percent, physical abuse fell 56 percent and neglect fell 10 percent. Although child abduction rates are complex and difficult to track, they also appear to be in decline in recent decades.”
Although the doors to youthful freedom are generally more secured, the memories of a more free-spirited youth abound in the minds and hearts of many of Highlands County’s residents.
Jacqueline Hale, of Lake Placid, recalled growing up in Orlando and playing cowboys and Indians with toy or finger guns; being outside without her parents knowing where she was and staying there “until the sun started going down”; and jumping in her family’s boat and driving it and skiing all day.
“Had no boaters permit and never ran anyone over!” she wrote in a Facebook post.
Even though the years have passed and public perception on children’s discipline and guidance have changed, folks who reflected on their youthful Highlands County years remember times of freedom and fun and lament over the boundaries put on today’s kids.
“The kids now, they’re like zombies, hardly outside getting exercise with no worries. We need to go backwards and lift off some of today’s burdens,” she said.