No Place for Kids

December 16, 1993|By LYNDA CASE LAMBERT

''We might be laughing a bit too loud, but that never hurt n one . . .'' -- ''Only the Good Die Young,'' Billy Joel

When my generation grew up in Baltimore, there were things to do. Church dances were, for the most part, free, and they featured local announcers like Lee Case, then of Hi-Fi Club, and Buddy Deane or Hot Rod. We had high school sororities; senior scouting was a respected activity. There was CYO and MYF and weekend dances at the VFW hall.

For hanging out, we had Ameche's and The Diner, once we learned to drive, and before that we had the neighborhood Read's Drugstore or the lunch counter at Woolworth's, where we could get a nickel Coke, or we could just take the bus downtown and window-shop. It was safe. It was free.

We had places to go and people to see. We were at an age that needed to be busy, but free from watchful parental eyes. And we could be. Most everything was in walking or busing distance.

Today's teens have the same need to be active, but there is less to do, fewer places to do it and danger behind every doorway.

Because so many kids are bused halfway across town to attend school, few extracurricular activities take place after school, and there is little to do within walking distance.

Because of increased danger after dark, there are even fewer activities at church, but for the most part they're too tame and too supervised for teens.

Everything else is too expensive. Ice Skating, which cost us 25 cents, costs them $7, plus skate rental. Bowling, which cost us 50 cents, including shoes, costs $3 a game, plus $2 for shoes. Swimming, which cost us 50 cents, now cannot be done at all unless you have a pool membership.

Kids need space to grow, a place to try their wings, a context in which to make their own decisions and see how things go. We had the whole city. They have only one place, the mall.

Within the mall they are protected, yet free. It is a place to meet, where it doesn't cost much to have fun, without dark alleys, where parents know there is supervision, yet that supervision is unobtrusive. An average evening consists of trying on clothes, getting fries and a shake at the arcade, and window-shopping. The rest of the evening is spent ''hanging'' with friends.

But whereas my generation could hang around undisturbed, today's generation cannot. Even kids who are no threat, even kids who do no wrong, are suspect just for being kids.

Last month three girls, aged 15, went to White Marsh mall for a couple of hours, ostensibly to shop, eat dinner and, with any luck, meet up with some guys.

In the stores they were followed around by clerks on the lookout for shoplifters, but they succeeded in buying some jewelry, then sitting down and sharing fries and a soda -- and they did meet up with some boys.

One of the girls headed for the ladies room, while the others stepped outside so that two or three of the group could have a smoke. Ranging in age from 13 to 16, the kids were sitting on a wall talking, maybe laughing a bit too loud; a few were smoking.

Sitting in their ripped jeans and slouch hats, flannel shirts tied around their waists hanging out from under their winter coats, they were peaceably assembled, waiting for their friend, and waiting for their rides home.

Security guards approached them and told them they would have to leave the area. To protests of ''But my friend won't know where we've gone,'' and ''But my Dad is picking me up here in 20 minutes,'' the guards only repeated the robotic incantation, ''That's not my problem.'' With pushes and shoves, the guards swept the teen-agers out into the night like so much garbage.

A few refused to leave, among them a 13-year-old boy who had no way to call his father to say that he would not be where he had promised to be. The boy got slammed up against a brick wall, handcuffed and arrested.

This is not right. Children who attempt to obey their parents are supposed to be helped and praised. Teens who are causing no trouble should be treated as respected citizens, customers, people who should be served, not slapped.

We have become afraid of our children. We wore our hair long, worshiped rock 'n' roll and sought to defy ''the establishment.'' Now we are the establishment, and our city councils and mall managements seek to ban our children from the streets and shopping areas. Governments impose curfews and say that it's for the kids' protection.

As a society, we tell them go home, stay in their rooms, watch TV. See no one. Enjoy nothing. We tell them to watch the news, be informed. Then we send them to bed with visions of war, abuse and murder to feed their dreams. Whom can they trust, but themselves?

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