BAR HARBOR — When Uncle Sam moved her family to Maine, Bangor author and columnist Sarah Smiley said, she noticed that more kids here are growing up the old-fashioned way: playing outside, walking or biking to neighborhood activities and taking healthy risks.
The sense that a free-range childhood is part of Maine’s culture is the subject of Smiley’s new book, “Got Here as Soon as I Could: Discovering the Way Life Should Be,” which she’ll discuss at the Jesup Memorial Library on Thursday, April 14, at 7 p.m. She’ll be on hand to sign books, available at the library through Sherman’s.
The title of this new book is a nod to a familiar saying among non-Maine natives who have made a home here: “I’m not from here, but I got here as soon as I could!” Some of the essays in the book first appeared in her newspaper column.
The Smileys lived in Florida before moving to Maine. In those years, Smiley said she felt trapped by the 6-foot privacy fences in her neighborhood and by “society’s ideas about what makes a good mother.”
Moms are exhausted from those expectations, and kids are actually worse off if they’re over-protected, she said. “One of the things I’ve always told new moms is that little boys who don’t take risks kind of grow up to be teenagers and adults who take bigger risks. It really makes sense, when you’re allowed a little bit of freedom to make mistakes, you learn consequences.”
She said parents feel pressure to make their kids act like mini adults, and they worry far more than previous generations about whether they’re doing a good job.
“If the mark of being a good parent is your kid not making any mistakes, there are no good parents,” she said.
“I think even in Florida, I always wanted to let my kids walk up to a park or walk to baseball practice. But not only was it not the norm there, it was physically impossible – they would have had to cross four-lane highways. I didn’t realize how constricting that was until we got up here.
“One of the things they really responded to here was how accessible things are. There are sidewalks [to] the neighborhood park, the neighborhood school.
They can walk to baseball. It’s not like a 35-minute drive in rush hour traffic. It’s just an entirely different way of living.”
They know their neighbors well here, even if her boys periodically get in trouble for running around on their lawns. Those neighbors are a more diverse group than in their old neighborhood, and they are more likely to know someone from more than one part of life.
“I love how in Maine, it wouldn’t be unusual to have your high school principal also be the person who mows lawns,” she said.
She hopes the essays in the book will remind older readers of their carefree childhoods and encourage newer parents to “let go and raise their children ‘the Maine way.’”
But parents need support and buy-in from other parents and community members. “We don’t want our kids to be out at the park all by themselves,” she said. “It’s kind of like we’ve all got to say ‘3, 2, 1, jump!’ and all go in together.”