Like many people approaching the mid-century (ACK!) mark, I look back fondly on childhood as an idyllic episode in my life. And while it may be true, as Doug Larson says, that “nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days,” I still think those days were pretty good.
I remember running freely through the neighborhood at a very young age, under the supervision of slightly older kids; riding my bike IN THE STREET; selling any number of things door to door to (gulp) strangers; walking home from the bus stop; hanging out in the five and dime while my mother shopped in the grocery store; sitting alone in the car while she ran errands; basically living outside in the summer till after dark.
If you are my age, you probably remember doing the same things. Now we all know many of our kids are having childhoods that are quite different. Often we blame the internet or video games or social media, and all of those are valid differences and posts for another day. What I blame is FEAR.
Having had a happy childhood, I didn’t see any reason to depart too much from the way I was raised when my own kids came along. Sure, there have been some advances we can all approve of. Today’s car seats are better than the one I had as a toddler, which came equipped with its own mini-steering wheel. We now know it’s not good for kids to bask in a constant haze of cigarette smoke.
We received a car seat for a baby shower gift, and we aren’t smokers, so those issues were never a problem. So I stayed home with my babies, slept with them nearby, diapered them in cloth with rubber pants and pins. As soon as we had a yard, I let them play outside alone, climbing trees, getting dirty, and having adventures. I left them in the car when I ran into the convenience store to buy milk. I let them stay at home alone for short periods as soon as they felt comfortable enough to ask to do so. In our urban neighborhood, they walked to the playground, to the library, to the drugstore. I could give many other examples.
Often I encountered others whose children were far more sheltered. Most parents seemed to be telling their kids to fear everyone, while I was telling my kids that most people are good. Others wouldn’t let their kids play outside in their own yards unsupervised; I was shooing mine out into the unfenced front yard. Everyone else seemed to be terrified of the infinitesimal chance of abduction. Other parents seemed to feel danger was lurking everywhere.
Yet studies show that crime rates are lower and the world is statistically safer than it was when all of us roamed freely. Maybe it is the influence of the internet, which makes sure we are all aware of every possible horror that could befall our offspring (although, as I have pointed out, if these things happened more often they would no longer be news). Or maybe, for whatever reason, it’s the product of an increased need to believe that we can be in control of our own lives (an illusion, and an emotionally crippling one). Whatever is causing it, it’s bad for us and it’s bad for our kids.
I don’t care what other people think about me, so I did what I thought was best for my own kids. But when they are parents, they might not have the luxury to parent the way they were parented. Because while I am not afraid that a stranger will abduct my unaccompanied child, I AM afraid that a stranger will report me to the Department of Children’s Services for leaving her alone in the car. I AM afraid of being arrested and charged with neglect for making parenting decisions that for one thing are perfectly reasonable and for another ought to be no one else’s business.
We all grew up knowing about over-protective parents but now we have to contend with an over-protective society. On every social media post I read expressing outrage about the “nanny state” I read several comments from parents who would never, ever let their kid do this, that, or the other thing alone because the “world is a dangerous place.” Can we trust parents to make the best decisions for their own families? Can we trust our kids with a little freedom to play, learn, and grow?