One of the things I find most troubling about being a parent is the nearly pathological degree to which we attempt to remove all risk from our children’s lives (a subject about which I’d be happy to rant ad nauseum some other time). Right now, though, what I really want to do is share a piece I came across about 10 years ago while trying to find interesting essays for a high school English class I was teaching. “How the Lawyers Stole Winter” made a deep impression on me at the time, and I’ve continued to think about it often (like, OFTEN) since then. I think I can credit this essay, and the idea of learning when the ice is safe enough to skate on, with planting the first kernels of what would now be called “free-range parenting” in me.
I had since lost the hard copy of the essay, but my good friend, Anne, found it online. She’s crazy-good like that. And reading it today, I like it as much I did 10 years ago. So here it is. Enjoy.
How the Lawyers Stole Winter
Pond skating in the changed context of childhood
by Christopher B. Daly, http://journalismprofessor.com/
When I was a boy, my friends and I would come home from school each day, change our clothes (because we were not allowed to wear “play clothes” to school), and go outside until dinnertime. In the early 1960s in Medford, a city on the outskirts of Boston, that was pretty much what everybody did. Sometimes there might be flute lessons or an organized Little League game, but usually not. Usually we kids went out and played. In winter, on our way home from the Gleason School, we would go past Brooks Pond to check the ice. By throwing heavy stones onto it, hammering it with downed branches and, finally, jumping on it, we could figure out if the ice was ready for skating. If it was, we would hurry home, grab our skates, our sticks, and whatever other gear we had, and then return to play hockey for the rest of the day. When the streetlights came on, we knew it was time to jam our cold, stiff feet back into our green rubber snow boots and get home for dinner.
I had all these memories in mind recently when I moved, with my wife and our two young boys, into a house near a lake even closer to Boston, in the city of Newton. As soon as Crystal Lake froze over, I grabbed my skates and headed out. I was not the first one there, though: the lawyers had beaten me to the lake. They had warned the town Recreation Department to put it off limits. So I found a sign that said: DANGER THIN ICE NO SKATING.
Knowing a thing or two about words myself, I put my own gloss on the sign. I took it to mean, When the ice is thin, then there is danger, and there should be no skating. Fair enough, I thought, but I knew that the obverse was also true: When the ice is thick, then it is safe, and there should be skating. Finding the ice plenty thick, I laced up my skates and glided out onto the miraculous glassy surface of a frozen lake. My wife, a native of Manhattan, would not let me take our two boys with me. But for as long as I could, I enjoyed the free, open-air delight of skating as it should be. After a few days, others joined me, and we became an outlaw band of skaters. What we were doing was once the heart of winter in New England and a lot of other places, too. It was clean, free exercise that needed no Stairmasters, no health clubs, no appointments, and hardly any gear. Sadly, it is in danger of passing away.
Nowadays it seems that every city and town and almost all property holders are so worried about liability and lawsuits that they simply throw up a sign or a fence and declare that henceforth there shall be no skating, and that’s the end of it. As a result, kids today live in a world of leagues, rinks, rules, uniforms, adults, and rides: rides here, rides there, rides everywhere. It is not clear that they are better off, and in some ways they are clearly not better off.
When I was a boy skating on Brooks Pond, there were almost no grown-ups around. Once or twice a year, on a weekend day or a holiday, some parents might come by, with a thermos of hot cocoa. Maybe they would build a fire — which we were forbidden to do — and we would gather round. But for the most part the pond was the domain of children. In the absence of adults, we made and enforced our own rules. We had hardly any gear—just some borrowed hockey gloves, some hand-me-down skates, maybe an elbow pad or two—so we played a clean form of hockey, with no high-sticking, no punching, and almost no checking. A single fight could ruin the whole afternoon. Indeed, as I remember it 30 years later, it was the purest form of hockey I ever saw—until I got to see the Russian national team play the game.
But before we could play, we had to check the ice. We became serious junior meteorologists, true connoisseurs of cold. We learned that the best weather for pond skating is plain, clear cold, with starry nights and no snow. (Snow not only mucks up the skating surface but also insulates the ice from the colder air above.) And we learned that moving water, even the gently flowing Mystic River, is a lot less likely to freeze than standing water. So we skated only on the pond. We learned all the weird whooping and cracking sounds that ice makes as it expands and contracts, and thus when to leave the ice.
Do kids learn these things today? I don’t know. How would they? We don’t even let them. Instead, we post signs. Ruled by lawyers, cities and towns everywhere try to eliminate their legal liability. But try as they might, they cannot eliminate the underlying risk.
Liability is a social construct; risk is a natural fact. When it is cold enough, ponds freeze. No sign or fence or ordinance can change that. In fact, by focusing on liability and not teaching our kids how to take risks, we are making their world more dangerous. When we were children, we had to learn to evaluate risks and handle them on our own. We had to learn, quite literally, to test the waters. As a result, we grew up to be more savvy about ice and ponds than any kid could be who has skated only under adult supervision on a rink.
When I was a boy, despite the risks we took on the ice no one I knew ever drowned. The only people I ever heard about who drowned were graduate students at Harvard or MIT who came from the tropics and were living through their first winters. Not knowing about how ice forms on moving water (After all, how could they?), they would innocently venture out onto the half-frozen Charles River, fall through, and die. They were literally out of their element.
Are we raising a generation of children who will be out of their element? And if so, what can we do about it? We cannot just roll back the calendar. I cannot tell my six-year-old to head down to the lake by himself to play all afternoon—if for no other reason, he will not find twenty or thirty other kids there, full of the collective wisdom about cold and ice that they have inherited from their older brothers and sisters. Somewhere along the line that link got broken. The whole setting of childhood has changed. We cannot change it again overnight. I cannot send them out by themselves yet, but at least some of the time, I can go out there with them. Maybe that is a start.
As for us, last winter was a very unusual one. We had ferocious cold (near-zero temperatures on many nights) and tremendous snows (about a hundred inches in all). Eventually a strange thing happened. The city gave in—sort of. Sometime in January, the Recreation Department “opened” a section of the lake, and even dispatched a snowplow truck to clear a good-sized patch of ice. I brought the boys, and we skated the rest of winter. Ever vigilant, the city officials kept the “Thin Ice” signs up, even though their own truck could safely drive on the frozen surface. And they brought in “lifeguards” and all sorts of rules about the hours we could skate and where we had to stay. But at least we were able to skate in the open air, on real ice. And it was still free.
How the Lawyers Stole Winter by Christopher B. Daly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. [First published in The Atlantic Monthly in March 1995]