Our helmeted, hovered-over, overstuffed, seat-belted children have few opportunities to enjoy their childhoods. Many, in fact, have chosen to sit it out.
Last year, for instance, I ventured east for a family reunion, storm warnings be damned. The forecasters did not disappoint. Before the blizzard was through, the pleasant New Jersey suburb I was visiting had been graced by 28 inches of pure white powder.
On that Saturday, with about a foot already on the ground and tons more falling, I took a long walk around the neighborhood.
On Sunday, with the sun shining and the snow piled high, I took a longer walk. On Monday, with both school and my flight home canceled, I took a longer walk still.
During those three walks, I saw a few tykes with parents pushing their sleds, but not a single free-range child at play. Not a one.
On Tuesday, with flight and school canceled once more, I went for a drive through the city streets and saw no one sledding or even throwing snowballs.
For whatever reason, that is not the way it works in Kansas City, at least not in my neighborhood. Here we have one of the few remaining refuges for kids who want to be kids.
It is called “Suicide Hill,” and it deserves its name.
Formally known as Brookside Park, this humble slice of Kansas City had to have been carved out as parkland for no greater purpose than sledding.
It is just about all hill, a wonderfully hellish 60-degree drop with a natural brake at the old trolley bed below.
If there is snow, there are sledders on Suicide Hill, often hundreds of them of just about every age, sex and race locally available.
They descend on every kind of imaginable conveyance from dinner tray to inner tube, some of them sitting, some kneeling, some standing or trying to, some lying flat out feet first, some head first, some solo, some in tandem, some in groups of three or four, some with friends, some with family, and all of them smiling or even laughing as they reach the bottom of the hill.
Not all of them reach the bottom. Some wipe out on the way down, especially the adventurous and the ill-prepared. On a crowded day there is the occasional collision as well and a breathtaking number of near misses.
Yet for all the potential mayhem, one hears scarcely an ill word among the sledders and sees nary a fight.
The beauty of all this controlled chaos is the absence of a single posted rule or regulation, let alone a referee or security guard.
In a harmonious neighborhood like Brookside, where kids routinely have two parents, many of whom sled with the kids, self-rule is the order of the day.
Although phrased in the negative, political philosopher Edmund Burke suggested two centuries ago why Suicide Hill works as well as it does.
“Society cannot exist,” said Burke sagely, “unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without.”
On Suicide Hill that control comes from within. Good parents don’t need regulators to help them negotiate the risk-reward factor in their own or their children’s lives.
What good parents do need to do, however, is kick their kids’ butts and make sure they go out and play in the snow.