Those good old days, when you could be a kid

By Country News

Holiday childcare, when we were children, was pretty routine.

Your mother would shoo you out the back door, handing you a sandwich or similar, with the same farewell every day: “Be home before dark.”

And you were pitched into the street, where you found yourself surrounded by every other kid in the street, also under strict orders to be back before dark.

Technically, five minutes later would have qualified — but we all well knew it meant gloaming at the earliest, and the very last rays of the sun slipping below the horizon at best.

So there we were, footloose and fancy free. We may not all have had shoes on (depending on the season), clothes were a mishmash of new, hand-me-downs and mostly suitable for the season, and we had a lot of hours to fill in.

The one thing we never lacked for in those days was imagination.

Australia in the 1950s and ’60s had been purpose-made for kids in country towns — and circa that time, Geelong fitted that description perfectly.

My particular favourite was getting to a farm in the Barrabool Hills to go yabbying. A few mates and I would take up position on Barrabool Rd with a thumb out and in no time a farmer headed home would stop and ask where we were going and then happily deposit us at a dam on his farm to get rid of as many yabbies as possible.

So a few bits of old meat on fishing line went into the water and occasionally we checked to see if any of the locals were hanging on for grim death.

Mostly, though, we ran about the paddocks, cowboys and indians, World War II soldiers or, when the rage swept across Australia, Shintaro and his samurai enemies.

If we didn’t all have lunches we shared what we did have, including the bottle of Tarax, also on a fishing line and lobbed into the dam to keep cold.

Finally we’d pack our kit-bags, put all the yabbies in an old orange netting bag, and trudge up to the road for the repeat trick to get home.

Getting in the back door just before it was pitch black, you'd hear your mum’s greeting: “About time; I hope you didn’t get into any trouble.”

Show me any parent today who would let their 10-year-old out of sight for an hour, let alone a day; or who would not have a heart attack if they heard their child had hitched a ride with a stranger a few miles up the road; or who would even let their child go into the street barefoot.

How things can change in a single generation.

When my first child was born, my parents — his grandparents — were both in their mid 50s, making them better than half useful for the primary role of all grandparents: babysitters.

We now have children in their 40s (some well into) having their first and second children. Finding us, now the grandparents, in our 60s (some well into — and beyond).

And those cheeky slow starters then start ringing up to ask if we can babysit. Well, I can imagine the carry-on if we turfed said grandchildren out the door, advising them to be home before dark.

Anyway, they are seriously hard to dislodge from the nearest couch or bed, stuck like little limpets to their technology. But when charged with getting them out for a breath of fresh air by their grandmother (who had immediately agreed to housing the little robots for a weekend) it was an uphill battle.

“There’s nothing to do here,” they moaned.

Suggesting they use their imaginations only gets you a look of dismissal. Then, to their relief and mine, the rain started coming down.

They were certain it was their chance to get back to their little screens, while I was about to introduce them to paper boats and races down the gutter (as taught to me by my grandmother).

After another round of howling protest they were driven to the kitchen table where I showed them how to go a few folds beyond a paper hat for a paper boat.

This would occupy us for hours as kids; my grandmother guiding my impatient fingers.

We would then decorate them and then it was out to the street to see who could get theirs to the drain first, without it falling apart or getting stuck on some debris also being washed down the gutter.

That got their attention. So I showed them what to do, produced a bunch of whiteboard markers to colour their boats, handed out umbrellas (we never had those as kids, either) and it was out to the street where the protests were lost in shrieks of delight.

The next day the folks next door had just taken delivery of a new fridge and this enormous cardboard box in which it came was going to waste.

I showed the kids, explained my plan and they fell about laughing, clearly convinced I was losing it ... until they saw me hurtling down the slope on my cardboard bobsled, laughing my head off. That sparked a rush for the remainder of the box and next minute it was the charge of the Light Brigade down the hill.

These little guys don’t even realise how much time can be spent throwing stones in a creek, or skipping them to the opposite bank.

So it was with a little regret I saw them off the next morning, with their parents plugging in a screen hanging over the front seats and hitting play even before they hit the road.

Poor little buggers; “Remind me to tell you about `I spy with my little eye’ when you come back” I shouted after them.