Where Teens Used to Hang Out

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Written By Pinang Driod

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked readers how much time they spent with peers in adolescence. This is the first batch of responses.

Michael is a member of the Silent Generation:

Hanging out with peers meant playing outside with the neighborhood kids: flying kites, playing baseball, football, rock fights, climbing trees, digging foxholes in our yards, and little parental oversight. But then, we were close to home and any misdeeds could and were quickly reported back for subsequent corporal punishment. (In today’s environment my parents could be prosecuted for abuse.) We had no car, so transportation was by shank’s mare or bicycle. On special occasions, we might take the bus downtown to go shopping with our mother. Once I started work at 13, there was less time for goofing off. As for the effects on my later life, well, I suppose you could say I haven’t noticed. It was just the way it was. I do miss flying those kites in the summer. In no way am I critical of current generations hanging at the mall. Hell, I wish that we had had a place like that, although a timber-covered fox hole is pretty neat, if dirty.

Molly is 80:

My high school had a sock hop every other Friday in the gym (hence the socks). On alternate Fridays, we had rollerskating, swimming, volleyball, and just hanging out. We could get snacks in the dining room. The school was packed. I am still grateful to the teachers and parents who gave up their time so we could have coed activities in a safe place.

Thomas was born in 1949 to a mother and a father who had both been American officers in World War II.

I was fortunate to attend U-High, the junior and senior high of the “laboratory school” of a midwestern state university. It was the brightest group I competed with until grad school. The smartest people I knew were Black, the children of an engineering professor. When I dated one of them, I got no trouble from my parents; her parents, whom I met when I picked her up; our friends; or people who saw us walking together. Civilized behavior has prevailed for a long time in some places.

After school we met at the cafeteria of a women’s dorm on campus. Sometimes we played casual games of bridge, but mostly we just shot the breeze. You were there not because of the academic, economic, or social status of your parents, but because you were a bright kid with a keen sense of humor. I somehow learned to swear in sixth grade, which made me somewhat precocious at the time, although I didn’t know what some of the words meant until seventh grade. The guys swore like sailors, but never in the presence of girls. We liked the girls and respected them whether they were present or not. Banter with girls could be light and innocent, but we also had serious conversations, just as we had with other guys. I’m sure it was an easier time to be a girl than my daughter faced 40 years later, and partly because boys tended to be “gentlemen.” It was easier for young girls to remain “ladies” for as long as they wanted to, because we assumed that they were.

I hiked and took long bike rides in the country with my best friend, and we taught ourselves to tie flies and fly-fish by reading books. My school had no girls’ athletic teams, but most of the boys played some sport at least once. If you went out for a team, you were on the team, which gave athletics a nice egalitarian ethos. Boys who otherwise had little interaction acquired a structured peer group where you were respected for doing your best. That helped to unify us as a community.

Children of the Baby Boom grew up with more siblings than kids often have now. I will not argue for a higher birth rate, but largish families did help to socialize kids. You were part of a family with other kids as well as a member of a peer group of kids. The dynamics are different but supportive, and teach complementary things. Even in 1965, kids grew up in a society that was much more like the hunter-gatherer societies for which we are adapted than like our modern, increasingly technological and impersonal society. Kids could learn at school and by reading, and they were freed from the very non-hunter-gatherer drudgery of household, farm, or industrial labor that had once dominated childhood. For a few decades, we had a golden age of childhood.

Donna from New Jersey recalls the 1960s as a fabulous time to be a teen.

My neighborhood had a lot of kids my age, and then there were the kids we met in school. The [Catholic Youth Organization] and Knights of Columbus used to have dances with live bands, and boys and girls all danced together. In the summer we would hang out at Fifth Ward Park or Warinanco Park; winter found us ice-skating on the frozen lake at Warinanco with a wooden boathouse with a pot-bellied stove we made hot chocolate on, or walking to the ice rink. Sometimes we all got together and sang a cappella or lip-synced to popular music.

The ’60s were a turbulent time in history. Vietnam images came nightly on the news. However, there was no 24-hour news, and newsmen reported the facts. No internet, cellphones, or video games. We were aware of what was going on, especially when friends/relatives got drafted, but it was not uppermost in our minds. Sounds idyllic now; conversations with my grandchildren made me realize that the ’60s were not so bad to grow up in.

Lu, who was born in 1959, reflects on her ’70s adolescence.

I was lucky to spend every summer in our cottage on a small island in the St. Lawrence River just off the island of Montreal, Canada. There were no cars, just a few electric golf carts for the elderly. We had a pool for the 200 or so people who lived on the island, a tennis court, and a playing field. As teens we inherited a shack called The Wreck from those older than us. The rule was no adults (older than 20) and no one under the age of 12. It had electricity, an old television, a couple of old couches, and a wobbly card table with equally wobbly chairs. My sister, six years older than me, and her cohort took over the shack first, and when we girls were 11, all we wanted was to be old enough to be in The Wreck with our older siblings.

When I was 11, The Wreck was laboriously put on huge rollers and moved by strong men out of the woods and into a more public area near the ferry landing and the mooring area for all of our boats. I guess the parents felt The Wreck needed to be more visible, but they still weren’t allowed inside. When I turned 13 in the month of May, so did my best friend, Anne. Jennifer was allowed to join us all, even though her birthday was in late July. It would have been too cruel to leave her out on the technicality of a few months.

For years during the summertime we hung out in The Wreck. It was awesome! We played cards, watched grainy bad television, and fought over the best seat on the best couch. I flirted with David. Jennifer flirted with my brother John, and Anne sulked because she didn’t have anyone to flirt with. There was no alcohol involved. We would have had to go across the water in an open boat and bring it into an area near where our parents and neighbors were passing by all the time. Although they weren’t allowed in, they could knock, stand at the door, and look inside.

We didn’t really want alcohol anyway. There were runs across to the mainland (which was actually Montreal Island) to get candy and soda pop. There was eventually some pot smoking as well, on the part of the older boys. We also played a game we called Chase with the younger children and the older adolescents. The oldest was about 18, and the youngest was about 10. One of the older boys, almost grown up, would announce that a game of Chase was going to be played after supper. Everyone would gather at “base” which was a particular maple tree. The island was a mile long and a quarter mile wide, so the playing area, including everyone’s backyard and the rocky beach surrounding the island, was very large. There were two teams, equally composed of a mixture of younger and older boys and girls. It was like hide-and-seek in teams. We would play as the long summer evenings brought in dusk and eventually darkness. The only real danger was being eaten alive by mosquitoes.

It was unlimited freedom, or so it seemed. Jennifer’s dad was difficult, but we broke her out of being “grounded” with a good ladder more than once. My mother’s only rule was that we had to be home for supper. She had an old schoolhouse bell that she would ring at five minutes to six. We could hear that bell from halfway across the island. All the other mothers told their children to come home when they heard the bell. There were minor disagreements between us girls, but we knew that it was best to work things out. The coming of autumn and the school year always meant that we had to say goodbye until the next May, when the melting of the ice and the opening of the ferry landing would allow us access to our beloved island once again.

Russell is 63, and his socially formative years were in the ’70s:

I was the oldest, with three siblings, and our house was absolutely the go-to house. How my mom tolerated that, I’ll never know. Our house was almost always full of kids, and sleepovers happened with regularity even on weekdays. We had all smoked pot before we were 15. None of us made it to 18 as virgins, in spite of being raised Catholic and Mom teaching Bible study. By 15, I had girlfriends all the time. We played coed pickup-game sports, went to movies and concerts; our big thing was hanging out at Lyon’s restaurant (gone now) and drinking endless coffee. The guys and gals that I was friends with then are still my friends.

Some of us got together this year in Las Vegas, since only a few of us actually stayed planted. A couple of months ago, I visited with an ex-girlfriend from when I was 18; we’ve been just buddies since then. I was lucky; I met people when I was young that were worth having lifetime-long relationships with. A funny note: One of the friends that went to Las Vegas this year spends time on his phone like he is a 14-year-old girl. I still tease him mercilessly about that. Another friend from that trip who was the most awkward then is probably the most together of us now. We still love him anyway. One aspect of those days that I think a lot of kids nowadays would appreciate, if they could, is that although our parents would insist on always knowing where we were and what we were doing, they never did. There were no cellphones to be tracked or to keep us on short leashes.

I no longer live close to anybody I grew up with, and have tried making new friends in my new locale. I have moved often and have always made friends easily. I find it much harder now. In just five years, I have already had people just drift away, while I still tried to maintain [the relationships]. COVID, politics, and cellphones have definitely made an impact on current social behavior.

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