Happy 100th Birthday, Beverly Cleary! Alas, She Laments: “Today’s Kids Get No Freedom.”


Happy Birthday to the woman who gave us Henry Huggins, Ramona, Beezus, the Mouse and the Motorcycle (my God, how I loved that book), and three generations’ worth of joy.

As you might guess, Cleary grew up with what sounds like lots of freedom, and chores, since she lived on a farm in rural Oregon. She also didn’t read till third grade.

Got that? krhydsynzf
Did not read till third grade.

She loved stories — her mother read aloud each night to her father and her (no one had TVs!). But words on a page didn’t mean much until she picked up a book in grade three to look at the pictures and found, to her astonishment, that she wasn’t just looking, she was reading! As she says in the 2006 interview below, that day changed her life.

Ours too.

When asked about her inspiration for Ramona, the famous “pest” in her books, she talked about seeing a little girl in her neighborhood when she was trying to come up with a new character. “I have a vivid memory of her coming home from the grocery store — in those days children could be sent to the store — and she had a pound of butter that was open and she was just eating the pound of butter, and somehow that little girl became Ramona.”

Remember that when Clearly first introduced Ramona, the girl was about to start kindergarten. It was not out-of-this-world bizarre to write about a child of four or five running an errand on her own.

Nowadays, Clearly said in a recent interview, “I think children today have a tough time because they don’t have the freedom to run around as I did — and they have so many scheduled activities.”

She believes this is because when she was growing up “mothers did not work outside the home; they worked on the inside. And because all the mothers were home — 99 percent of them, anyway — all mothers kept their eyes on all the children.”

But I am not positive that that is really the root, or certainly the sole root, of the problem.

Moms back then, or even in my childhood, may have been home, but they were not keeping their eyes on their kids as they played in the woods, or zoomed around on their bikes. The kids were outside, on their own.

And even if today’s moms work, many are not at work on the weekends or summer evenings before it gets dark, and yet kids are still not outside at those times. Believing that working moms are the reason kids are more constrained ignores a lot of other factors keeping kids inside, from out-sized stranger danger fears, to the belief that kids learn best when they are in structured activities,  to the lure of electronics, to the modern day conviction that any unsupervised child is in danger of bullying, accidents, kidnapping or death.

These were not the fears haunting Beverly’s household, or the households she wrote about. Which is why even today’s kids keep reading them.

If you have any memories of the impact of Cleary’s books on your childhood — or your parenting — now’s the time to share them! – L



Ramona was based on a kindergarten age girl Cleary saw walking home from the grocery...alone. Which was normal.

“Ramona and the SUV Ride to Gymboree” — not. 

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18 Responses to Happy 100th Birthday, Beverly Cleary! Alas, She Laments: “Today’s Kids Get No Freedom.”

  1. That_Susan April 12, 2016 at 10:54 am #

    I know I was always impressed by how the dogs (not just the stray dogs, but dogs who actually belonged to people) were free to just roam the neighborhoods, and would be waiting outside the school to meet their children and walk them home. Of course, that’s also true about the dogs in the “Home Alone” movies which are supposedly set in modern times.

  2. lollipoplover April 12, 2016 at 11:10 am #

    “Quite often somebody will say, what year do your books take place?
    And the only answer I can give is in childhood.”
    ~Beverly Cleary

    I loved the Ramona book series as a child and both of my daughters loved it, too. The naughty Ramona was an absolute favorite character and her adventures were so entertaining and fun to read aloud. My girls liked Junie B. Jones books too at the time but I cringed to read them with the grammar issues and loved Beverly Cleary’s writing so much better and these stories of childhood are timeless.

  3. James Pollock April 12, 2016 at 11:27 am #

    Ramona is still there, in the park near N Klickitat St.

  4. Renee Anne April 12, 2016 at 12:15 pm #

    I, too, grew up reading Ramona books. In fact, I think I have a couple of vintage ones (from the original publication era) on my shelves. I snagged them when one of the school libraries did their annual clearing of old books. They had plenty of copies, however 🙂

  5. Vaughan Evans April 12, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

    I remember reading her books.
    I also liked the books by Carolyn Haywood.
    Today’s women and children must learn that the laws we have to protect them are supposed to be “shields.”

    They are not swords.
    In my city, 50 teachers files harassment accusations against the principals-for whom they work.
    In 48 of the accusations, the circumstances showed that if the principal was being firm with the teacher IN QUESTION the firmness was consistent with the responsibilities entailed by a school administrator.
    The fact that many principals are men, and teachers are women was an aggravating factor.

  6. Tamara April 12, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

    My husband and I were sadly noting this weekend while house hunting in a very quiet, safe neighborhood that we did not see one single kid outside playing on a beautiful warm day. I imagined houses full of kids playing on their devices and sad, scared parents teaching them that the world outside is a scary place.

    When we were kids we spent our days playing baseball in the intersection by our house, riding bikes to the liquor (!) store to buy candy, hiking trails in the hills above our house just for the adventure, climbing trees in neighbors’ yards and even riding in the back of dad’s pickup truck (um, sitting on the edge of the bed!).WAAYY back in the 80’s.

    My kids get a tiny portion of that life but not nearly enough. My son rides his bike 1.7 miles to middle school and is one of 2 kids who are allowed to. I let my kids go to the neighborhood park (boy is 13, girl 7) and worry the whole time that the police will come to my door- not that my kids will get hurt/snatched/whatever. I worry about what other parents think of me and how they are judging my parenting and it stops me from giving my kids even more freedom. There are so many fearful parents out there.

    What a sad culture we live in. What will this generation of kids turn out to be like? How will they interact with nature, the world around them, other people? The first generation ever in the history of mankind to not know what being a real kid is like. To explore, figure things out for yourself, get dirty, get out of a scary situation unscathed, play an unsupervised game of hide and seek, to not have an adult constantly correcting and directing you. We had it made.

  7. Beanie April 12, 2016 at 2:16 pm #

    I totally think that both parents working contributes to not seeing kids out in the neighborhood. After school and during the summer, most of my kids’ friends are not available to play because they are in the after school program or at “camp” during working hours. Summer is when it really gets us down. . . those are long days to fill with no available friends. So we sign up for (shorter duration) camps, swim team, etc., so they can be around other kids, and because, let’s face it, a lot of those things are fun. When the parents’ schedule, including commute time, is 7:00-6:00, it makes the kids’ schedule at least that, then they still have to eat dinner and have family time. . . not much time for running free with friends.

  8. Vaughan Evans April 12, 2016 at 3:54 pm #

    Children often blame adults-for the VERY things that children are guilty of.

    I was in the changing room-of a community centre swimming pool. In this room also were about five boys aged-about 10-who were part of an after school care program..
    One boy came up to me-and said the word “BONY

    (This word mans the same as HORNY(one’s penis hardening up)
    I told the man who was supervising the children.
    The man told the boy he must sit down-and not participate in the swim.
    When I told y mother-she thought I was being mean.
    Because I was older, he was putting me in a spot(I could get in trouble with the law.)

    Even if the boy were another adult, it is not appropriate behavior-in a public dressing room.

  9. Suleymania April 12, 2016 at 4:32 pm #

    I don’t buy the whole moms-were-at-home-back-then thing either. Wouldn’t it make more sense that, out of necessity, kids would attain more freedom as women moved into the workforce?

  10. olympia April 12, 2016 at 6:34 pm #

    Love Cleary’s story of the girl eating butter as she walked home- what is it with kids and butter? My sister once found two of her boys in the closet eating a stick of it.

    And yeah, I don’t buy that helicopter parenting all stems from mothers going to work- there were plenty of mothers going to work in the 70s and 80s, but we didn’t have helicoptering, certainly not to the extent we have it now.

  11. lollipoplover April 12, 2016 at 7:48 pm #

    “Wouldn’t it make more sense that, out of necessity, kids would attain more freedom as women moved into the workforce?”

    Maybe. Most likely not.

    I’ve seen both. Working parents who have latchkey kids and the before care/aftercare kids who are never left alone. I guess it depends on parents and the child’s capability. I also know quite a few children of stay-at-home moms who have never been left alone and at older ages…still aren’t comfortable being left without an adult.
    There’s really no magic bullet, but neighborhoods are definitely less populated with kids playing outside after school with more working families, mainly because parents have to hide their latchkey kids from the busybodies.

  12. Curious April 12, 2016 at 8:27 pm #

    If you don’t read until 3rd grade, you live to be 100 and become a famous author–not necessarily in that order.

    Why do we test 3rd graders? They may not be ready to perform at that level yet.
    I, like Beverly, did not read until 3rd. Same with my child.

    We caught up by fifth.
    Why not consider individual differences?Talents. Giftedness.

  13. Barry Lederman April 12, 2016 at 10:03 pm #

    My daughter couldn’t read till 2nd grade. She could barely read a lick in 1st grade. Somehow, over the summer between 1st and 2nd grade something clicked and she bounced right back to her grade level to start 2nd grade. Just took a little patience.

    Maybe that’s what Beverly Cleary meant. Not that mothers being home is literally the reason kids had more freedom, but that it was a simpler time back then – not sophisticated, high-powered, frantic and over-regulated like it is now.

  14. SKL April 12, 2016 at 11:24 pm #

    I didn’t read Cleary’s books until I was an adult (I read the Ramona books to / with my kid sister and later my own kids). We all loved the Ramona books – even the adult siblings, parents, and aunties used to listen in to “story time.” 🙂

    Though, my kids would occasionally ask why there weren’t any adults around supervising the kids’ adventures. I’m not sure where I went wrong, but my kids used to ask that about all sorts of stories that don’t mention adults.

    About the old-fashioned freedom thing. I think people expected kids to be less stupid and helpless in past generations. They allowed kids to learn a bit from their own mistakes, including getting hurt and getting punished and getting told off by the other neighborhood kids. They didn’t assume that every adult who might cross a kid’s path was probably a pedophile. So indeed, young kids had the chance to develop some street smarts.

    Also, just being able to hang around and watch (or “help”) the adults work on different things vs. attend safe, age-segregated activities. Watching mom solve all sorts of domestic challenges, watching Dad fix and build things in his basement workshop, watching the neighbors do their thing, prepared kids for troubleshooting their own problems when the time came. Yes, that still happens, but on a more limited scale.

    I do think it’s true that all the moms (and also retired people) looked out for the kids playing outside. Not visibly, but you don’t have to be within arm’s length to be aware of what kids are up to. I think this would still happen (with retired and stay-at-home people and during non-business hours) if people would interact in their neighborhoods.

    I also think a big difference is that childhood independence was not a crime until recently.

  15. Resident Iconoclast April 12, 2016 at 11:52 pm #

    I read all of Cleary’s books, when even the adults thought they were “normal.” The elementary school library had all of them. That would be the same elementary school that my friends and I WALKED to most of the school year. It was about 3/4 mile. There was no cop nor parental minivan shadowing us, either. It was 1960.

    Well, 1960 was safer, right? Oh, sure. Albert DeSalvo was about to begin his brief, 2 year career as the Boston Strangler.

    What I wondered today is this. Where would a person would find Cleary’s books? I found you can buy “The Complete Ramona Collection” over at Amazon. So there are some subversive parents letting their kids read this revealing expose of the modern American police state. But what then?

    Would you let your children read them? And, if you did, how would you explain the strange behaviors of all those children? Wouldn’t our modern-day children feel like Nurse Ratched’s inmates in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?”

    And if you did let your children read them, would you let your kids actually DO those things? Just imagine some cop saying, well your kids read about snorting cat litter, too, but you don’t actually let them do it, do you? After all, a parent might be arrested if they let little Johnny read and act out a book by some “addled old woman” who hadn’t a care about “Child Predators.” What if the book turned little Johnny into a modern day version of Jack Nicholson?

    If anyone here has young children, I’d love to hear what kind of explanation they dream up, when their kids ask them about prior generations’ childhood “freedom.”

    I wonder if one day there will be another revolution. These are the kinds of times when adults scream at school boards about the profanity of J. D. Salinger, but then go home to get grammar lessons from their kids on modern day street lingo. Maybe our kids should “overthrow us.” I know I’d be cheering them on.

  16. Katie G April 13, 2016 at 7:10 am #

    When someone says (or writes, or posts) that “times have changed”, a more effective comment might be that “Crimes are down, but what’s really changed is that people aren’t neighborly anymore.” That (I hope) is a bit more pointed to make people think.

  17. Crystal April 13, 2016 at 8:59 am #

    Oregon farm girls who grow up to be writers are simply the best! 😉

  18. JP Merzetti April 16, 2016 at 7:41 am #

    Tamara, you described my childhood, and my son’s childhood.
    What puzzles me is how easily so many people forget that.
    Kind of like a society-wide collective amnesia.

    I grew up in a small town, and then a small city. I was free range from the get-go. (pre-kindergarden)
    And no rules or regulations ever prevented it.
    It was a very oppressive and conservative time……which was why the freedom to escape (from adults) was so important.
    Now……the freedom to escape resides in a backlit screen. The thrall of technology.

    And that’s the thing – that kids can’t escape it, anymore.

    Maybe the truly sad thing is just that there actually is……a lot to be afrad of, in this unbrave new world.
    Changes galore, much for the worse….and poor adaptation to it all.
    “Fear” has become a commodified thing. Opportunities abound – from its promotion.
    But it was never a good thing – for anyone.

    You know – I remember that well. How fearless folks actually used to be. And kids soaked that up like sponges.
    “Supervision” (of any kind) was just a thing we put up with. The rest of the time we kept company in our own society. And traded secrets, wisdom, and a whole lot of healthy skepticism.
    Wept and wandered among our own free adventures.

    And books were always there – to urge us on.
    The seeds of any real freedom harvested in crops of true imagination………