Book review: Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing.

An image of the cover of the book  Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing. A drawing of a boy is on the cover.This is the single most important parenting book in existence. Or maybe not. It’s the sort of thing that burrows inside your head and you’re still thinking about days later, not quite sure what it all means to you.

On its face, Where did you Go? Out. What did you do? Nothing. is a memoir of growing up in the 1920s and 30s by Robert Paul Smith. Or, it’s about understanding the (stereotyped) wild streak that runs in boys.

But it’s really about something rare today: children being left to their own devices — without parental supervision or commercial entertainment (aside from books).

The author opens with this lament:

“The thing is, I don’t understand what kids do with themselves any more.”

That was written in 1957 by the father of two children, and I dare say things have not gotten better since.

On the second page he writes:

“I was with a bunch of kids a week ago, ranging in age from 10 to 14 and since none of them seemed to know what to do for the next 15 minutes I said to them, “How about a game of Mumbly-peg?” And can you believe that not one of these little siblings knew Spank the Baby from Johnny Jump the Fence? All right, I thought, they don’t know Mumbly-peg, maybe they’re Territory players. One of them knew that game. As a matter of fact, he beat me at it, but I figure that was because it was his knife.”

That pretty much sets the tone for the book. The author tells us how things were when he was a kid, the way they should be today by his reckoning. His memoir captures a way of life, a way children grew up that doesn’t exist today in most cities. That in itself is reason to digest this book and take from it what you will before your kids are too old. I guarantee you will take something away.

Now, excuse for the moment that Mumbly-peg and Territory are games involving Scout knives. On every other page you’ll read references to long-lost games or practices, only occasionally explained. There are plenty of things you’ll disagree with in this book, and some you’ll even be horrified by (smoking, lying, stealing, etc.)

The joy to be found is in the overall message conveyed about the virtues of boredom and kids making do with less.

You may think about:

  • How many toys you own.
  • How much you supervise your children.
  • Whether TV/DVD/video games are a solution to anything.
  • What you teach your children.
  • What your proper relationship is to your children (authoritarian, educator, friend).
  • How few of the fun things kids do today don’t originate from a store.

The book won’t convert you to the author’s way of thinking, but it will surely influence your parenting style in some fashion.

And on a basic level, this book is a joy to read for the truisms about childhood found on every other page.

Now, some excerpts:

Speaking to his son about buttons: “‘Did you ever make a buzz-saw out of a button?’ I opened brightly. He thought for a while, and tried to remember what a button was, and concluded that it was something like a zipper, but he didn’t know what a buzz-saw was. [...]

‘First thing we need is a big button,’ I said, and then we went into that thing about, ‘I don’t know where there’s a button, for the love of God ask your mother, of course there’s a button around the house. Where? In the button box.’ That’s when I found out we don’t have a button box. We went to our neighbor’s and after a while they found a button box. Not their button box, but one that Grandma had had.”

On utilizing everyday objects: “To this day I cannot understand why, right now in my own house, we don’t have a drawer with pieces of wrapping paper and pieces of string.”

On sand and mud: “All of us, for a long time, spent a long time picking wild flowers. Catching tadpoles. Looking for arrowheads. Getting our feet wet. Playing with mud. And sand. And water. You understand, not doing anything. What there was to do with sand was let it run through your fingers. What there was to do with mud was pat it, and thrust in it, lift it up and throw it down.”

On kids learning from their peers: “All the kids I see playing baseball these days are in something called The Little League and have a covey of overseeing grownups hanging around and bothering them and putting catcher’s masks on them and making it so bloody important that kids don’t even know about one ‘o cat, or one old cat, or whatever you called it. They tell me these kids in the Little League cry when they lose a game. [...] There’s always some interfering grownup around being a pal to them, telling them where to put their feet when they stand at the plate. We found out. Stand the way you wanted to and there was everybody on your side hollering, ‘Take your foot out of the bucket,’ and you took your foot out of the bucket.’”

On nothing: “You see, it never occurred to us that there was anything wrong in doing nothing, so long as we kept out of the way of grownups.”

On school crime: “When we appeared in school, we were frisked. We were searched for the carrying of concealed dirt under the nails; we were required to have, in lieu of an identification card, one clean handkerchief. I wonder, parenthetically, whether kids nowadays know the meaning of the phrase, ‘Is it for show or for blow?’”

On imaginary worlds:Tarzanoftheapes, Mowgli, Huck Finn, The Boy Allies, The Motor Boys, Joe Bonomo, General Pershing, Theodore Roosevelt, Tom Swift, Mitch Simon, Mitch’s kid brother, Simon’s kid brother and I lived in that [vacant] lot. We went home for meals, for bed, and for jawing. The rest of the time, we built a hut. What Roosevelt and Mowgli did with their evenings I haven’t the vaguest idea.”

On secret little worlds: “We would skulk over to the rock pile, exchange 14 or 15 passwords, swear 11 or 20 lifetime vows, and put our heads together. We whispered. There was nobody within a radius of half a block, but we whispered because it was a secret. I still think that’s right.”

On the absence of parental involvement: “We were superb actors, aided in no small measure by the total lack of an audience, other than ourselves.”

On books: “Good books were either library books or birthday presents. Bad books were fifty cents apiece, new, and were tradeable. Bad books were The Boy Allies, The Motor Boys, Tom Swift, Sax Rohmer. They were not read so much as devoured. [...] The newest Tom Swift was read by three people at once, one holding the book and two saying, “Not so fast,” or “Come on, fa Chrise sake, turn the page.”

On Twain: “I found Mark Twain, and my education as an adult began.”

On the excitement of spending the day watching workers build a house: “We sat and watched them, and every day when we went home we went to the rock pile and gave the passwords and swore the oaths, and we [spoke] to nobody about the new house. Because every day, sitting there we were thinking about the other thing that a new house going up meant to us.”  [See the next quote for the inner meaning.]

On society: “The trouble with kids nowadays is that there are no vacant lots.”

On not doing anything: “What I mean, Jack, we did a lot of nothing. And let’s face it, we still do it, all of us grownups and kids. But now, for some reason, we’re ashamed of it. I’ll leave the grownups out, but take a kid these days, standing or sitting or lying down all by himself not actively engaged in any recognizable — by grownups — socially acceptable activity. We want to know what’s the matter. That’s because we don’t know how to do nothing anymore.”

On being bored: “Being bored is a judgment you make on yourself. Doing nothing is a state of being.”

On childhood worlds: “I keep thinking that [my kids] don’t know about any of these things, and maybe they don’t. But then, grownups when I was a kid didn’t know — did they? — any of this world I lived in. Maybe my kids have got a whole world of their own, with different objects, and I am not admitted to their councils. I devoutly hope so.

On parenting: “My fear now is that all of us grownups have become so childish that we don’t leave the kids much room to move around in, that we foolishly believe that we understand them so well because we share things with them. This is not only folly, it is not fair.”

I borrowed this out-of-print book from a library, but if you’re unlucky, buy it from There you’ll find a massive database of used books at independent bookstores around the world just waiting to be shipped to you.


5 Responses to “Book review: Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing.”

  1. KB 111 says:

    How to Do Nothing With Nobody All Alone By Yourself (1958) is another of his books. This one includes (among other things) a more in-depth look at HOW to do some of the activities mentioned in the earlier book. While some of them may mortify parents (again, many involve pen knives), all of them have to do with found objects — nothing purchased. Activities include carving a peach pit, constructing an “indoor boomerang,” and a number of games that can be played by a solitary participant, using items immediately available to most.
    Yes, it is dated. But like the titular book, it is a means of taking a breath, stepping back, and observing the mass-manufactured goods that litter(ed) our [children's] play spaces. It’s simply an entertaining insight — for each to do with it what they will.

    August 5th, 2009 at 1:54 am

  2. Melody says:

    This looks great! I just bought it from AbeBooks for $3.64 for my hubby. Almost as cheap as going to the library (particularly since I never get my books back on time).

    August 5th, 2009 at 8:06 am

  3. Phil H says:

    AJ – Looks fantastic. Just ordered a copy.

    “…That’s because we don’t know how to do nothing anymore.” I think this is such an intriguing notion. We hover over our kids from the earliest age, foisting toys upon them, shuttling them from one activity to the next. We live in an ADD culture. Is it any wonder that they say “I’m bored!” the moment things slow down?

    Can’t wait to read it. Thanks for the tip!

    August 5th, 2009 at 12:25 pm

  4. Dallas says:

    I think this is wonderful! I was an only child and I loved to read. I would have adored this book!

    August 5th, 2009 at 1:05 pm

  5. Eric says:

    I never stop being amazed at how fun cardboard boxes are for my daughter –especially compared to all the manufactured toys that are multi-colored and make sounds. This book looks like it has lots of good idea for recycled things made into toys. Can’t wait to check it out.

    August 11th, 2009 at 8:04 pm

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