Since we've been having such nice weather this week, the Shortlings have been hot to go outside and play in the yard. Something odd has happened to our neighborhood in the past couple of years and there are actually other kids in it again. My neighbor, who raised his kids here, tells tales of when there used to be hundreds of kids coming to his house on Halloween night. When we first moved here, there were very few kids at all; I never saw them playing in their yards. But in the past couple of years, that's been increasing. I guess a lot of neighborhoods have cycles like that.

The Dormouse has discovered playing with the neighborhood kids this year and almost every day asked to go outside to play in the front yard after school where she holds court. Suddenly, two or three kids she knows will show up from out of nowhere and they all play basketball in the front yard or ride their bikes or chase slugs and talk about how valuable they are..(I'm not kidding about that last part, "Oh, that's a banana slug; they're not worth very much money. Look! A leopard slug! Let's catch it! They're very valuable. Now if you find a ghost slug, you have to keep it around because that's EXTREMEMLY rare." All this time we've been seeking after riches when we should have sought first for the kingdom of slugs.) For the most part, being older and mostly boys, the neighborhood kids are all pretty cool with The Caterpillar too and involve her in their play, something by which she could not be more impressed.

I'm all kinds of conflicted about this because I really want them to be able to go outside and play. The back yard would be a better option, but the logistics of our house dictate that you can't see them when you're in the house and they're in the back yard. Which means I either need to be outside with them and can't do stuff I need to do in the house, or I have to trust that no one will abduct them from my back yard while I'm not watching, something I haven't yet gained the courage to do.

When I was a kid, I remember riding my bike all over the neighborhood. We'd ride to friends' houses unannounced and stay for the day. We'd ride over to the elementary school with a sack lunch and climb up the trees to eat with the birds. We'd ride up to the local convenience store, buy a carton of sugar cubes with our hard-earned money and then stop by the house of the guy who raised Shetland ponies on his property and feed the whole box to the ponies. This probably seemed like a way bigger area when I was a kid than it was in reality, but I do know we were out of sight of my mother and our house a good deal of the time.

I don't feel comfortable letting my kids do stuff like this. It's not that there weren't threats and bad things didn't happen when I was a kid - because I remember that being part of my existence too - I don't exactly know what the difference is, but when my kids aren't in my line of sight, I don't feel comfortable anymore and I definitely don't feel like I'm doing my job as a parent. I don't think my mother felt this as keenly as I do now.

I tried one day to be all Nonchalant Mom and let The Dormouse ride her bike up and down the street with her friends because a) the other kids in the neighborhood do it and b) bike riding is way less interesting when confined to the thirty feet up your driveway and back. But we don't have sidewalks in our neighborhood and it's very hard to see kids running around if you're a car (or the driver of a car, for that matter). That lasted about fifteen minutes before they got in the way of a car and we made them come inside the front yard gate. "I'm just not That Mom," I finally decided, "they can stay in the yard."

The worst part about the decreased security of today (or at least the increased awareness of a threat; I'm never sure which) is not that I don't feel comfortable sending my kids out in the morning and not worrying about them until nightfall, nor is it that you have to drive them everywhere, nor that you have to actually make dates with their friends' parents so they can play together. No, the worst part about it is that I can't let my kids go outside to entertain themselves using kid-directed imagination and kid-conceived ideas. When I sit outside with them while they play, my very presence changes what they do. Because I am there, they constantly need to check in with me and involve me in their play. I'm not saying that it's a bad thing for me to play with my kids. I should do more of it. But there isn't a moment in their lives that's not supervised by adults. Adults who interject themselves in their arguments so they are never required to resolve the conflicts themselves. Adults who, even subtly, make suggestions or tell them that "that's not gonna work" or "please don't get ridiculously dirty" or "stop picking the heads off all the tulips" or "I wouldn't put all that mud up my nose if I were you." Sure, all of this is every parent's nightmare, but it's also kind of a right of passage for every kid. Try as I might to let them learn and explore and work things out on their own, the truth is if I am close by, the nature of what they do changes - it's the observer-expectancy effect for parenting. I'm not saying that's always a bad thing; I'm just pointing out that I got that kind of freedom occasionally as a kid and it seems like that's not a luxury my kids get to enjoy either because the world has changed too much, or because parenting focuses have changed, or because I'm just a big worrier and think someone's going to jump over my fence and attack my kids and I'm overreacting. That doesn't really happen, does it? Oh, wait.

For now, we're trying to find a happy medium. I let them play in the front yard, while I do what I need to do in the kitchen or the front room because I can see them through the windows. Sometimes I really watch them, sometimes I just have my third eye on them, but at least I would notice if something happened. They ride bikes in our crappy driveway, which is not really conducive to learning to ride unless you count having to push them out of the potholes every few minutes as part of the experience. It's not ideal, but it's the least distasteful choice I can find. That's kind of the problem with being a parent: you're constantly weighing your options.

The other day, they were outside playing with stuff in the yard while I was inside working. I watched The Caterpillar bring a bundle of sticks up to the front door and drop them there. Then she turned around, went back to the yard, and came back with another bundle of sticks. She dropped them there and repeated the process three or four times.

Either she's planning on burning the house down or she's trying to smoke us out of our holes.