“We’re Surviving!” (A Letter To Older Generations Who Think They Had a Much More Risky, Hardcore Childhood Than Kids Today)

In the good old days.

Every year or so, the same forward hits my in-box from someone in the family who’s a generation or two ahead of me.

“To All the Kids Who Survived the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s!” it exclaims. It’s a congratulatory list of the things former youngsters did which turned them into the hardy, upstanding grown-ups they are today, versus the constantly-supervised front-yard purgatory of the wimps who are growing up now.

The list begins by gloating that this hardcore existence of yore began in the womb:

“We survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they were pregnant. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, ate tuna from the can, and didn’t get tested for diabetes.”

Congratulations.

Other items include riding in cars without seatbelts, car-seats or airbags, drinking water from the hose, eating mud pies, riding in home-made go-carts whose brakes were experimental at best, quaffing Kool-Aid with sugar, getting BB guns as a 10th birthday gift and playing outside unsupervised all day. Apparently, back then, not everyone was good enough for the Little League team, and those who didn’t make the cut had to deal with disappointment.

“These generations have produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers and inventors ever!” the e-mail concludes. “We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned HOW TO DEAL WITH IT ALL!” (Find the full list here if your granddad, aunts or uncles haven’t sent it to you yet).

Who knew freeing your kid to play in the mud with Kool-Aid and a BB gun was the key to our 20th century progress?

The growing differences between child-raising then and now are a popular theme. Last week, in a piece for Slate Magazine, KJ Dell Antonia compared a school-readiness standard from 1979 to parenting norms today. She points out that while less was expected of new first-graders back then academically (they were not yet expected to write coherently on their own or count beyond ten), they had a huge advantage over today’s middle-schoolers as far as life skills.

“Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?” the 1979 checklist inquires of the six-year-old pupil.

Shocking.

Nowadays, even if parents wanted to let their first-graders walk home from school alone, it’s often against school rules. And given the ruckus last week over my blog post about child bans, people today would have a lot to say about sending six-year-olds unaccompanied into the store to pick up a few items.

Myriad contemporary articles bemoan the modern phenomenon of “helicopter parenting”, in which no children are never let out of their caretakers’ sight, even to urinate or go to college, lest the child be startled, bruised, disappointed, scratched or bumped, or incur a lawsuit on somebody else’s sidewalk. Kids of older generations had a tougher, more vigorous life by far.

As a child born in the early 80’s, I’m not quite sure where I fit in.

The author, c. 1989

I didn’t go to the store by myself or shoot BB guns, supervised or otherwise. But I did drink gallons of orange Kool-Aid and roam the woods with my dog. I played in mud puddles and got bitten by a large, wild rat snake. Once, when we were young, my brother and I panicked my parents by setting off on a long beach walk without bothering to tell anyone. I’ll never forget the look on my dad’s face when he finally found us, racing down the beach on his bike.

At the time, I didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Now, I break a cold sweat imagining what I’d do if my kid disappeared at the beach. Riptides! Bad guys! Sharks! Deceptively deep holes in the sand! Perhaps my kids will be the 21st-century softies that today’s 50 and 60-year-olds shake their heads at.

But I think kids today probably face the same number of dangers and challenges as their mid-20th-century counterparts – they’re just not the same problems.

The “We Survived” list crows that kids of old ate butter, white bread and sugar, and that their potentially diabetic moms smoked, drank, and downed tuna right from the can. Sure, pregnant moms know better now, and lots of today’s kids subsist on unfortunate low-sugar diets of 16-grain bread and pale, oily vegan spreads.

But what contemporary diet hazards will today’s kids brag about when they’re fifty? I can see the list now: “We drank out of baby bottles made with Bisphenol A!” “We had genetically-modified salmon for dinner!” “Our popsicles were full of high-fructose corn syrup!…And we survived!”

There are a lot of reasons I’m glad I wasn’t a child of several decades ago. Calls to return to 1950’s style parenting (which many commenters made in the child-ban blog) always leave me a bit queasy. But there are also times when I wish we weren’t raising kids in the digital age.

In the 30’s through the 70’s, when the proud “We Survived!” kids were daubing their lips with dirt and staying out after dark, no-one ever had to fear that the next moment Mom captured on camera would be the next YouTube sensation. Many of my friends’ kids are not even granted any privacy in the womb: they’re up on Facebook while they’re still gray smears on the ultrasound – and this is nothing compared to the media blitz that begins the moment they take their first breath: their squashed, scarlet faces hit the internet faster than Mom can ask for more ice chips.

It’s a hazard that kids of past decades never faced.

Perhaps we could also point to the sheer tasteless stupidity of the modern world at large as something parents nowadays are actually failing to shield their children from. Consider that a children’s book called “Peanut Butter Rhino” was published in 1994. In it, a rhino makes a peanut butter sandwich for lunch and then accidentally sits on it. He spends the rest of the story going around to all his animal friends to ask if they’ve seen the sandwich, which is stuck to his own ass. Nine out of ten Amazon reviews give the book at least four stars.

Between the total loss of privacy, the growing intellectual drought of modern culture (a Facebook group titled “I Hate Reading” has over 460,000 members), and the evils of the typical 21st-century American diet, I don’t think children now are any safer than mid-20th century ones. So you drank Kool-Aid made with hose-water while you walked home by yourself after getting cut from Little League. It’s hardly the Battle of the Bulge. At least, once you got home, you could mope in private, while insecure preteens of today can watch a twenty-four hour stream of Facebook comments about how much fun their friends are having, because parents are too busy to limit computer use.

To those who think that modern kids are absurdly coddled because they’re not spending their time tramping unwatched through the woods and breaking their arms in climbing accidents, I challenge you to change places with the average American teenager. We might not let our six-year-olds cross the street by themselves. But we happily stand by as our teenagers take out $100,000 loans for over-valued undergraduate degrees before hitting an abysmal job market.

Every generation faces its youthful perils. Whether it’s on the playground or online, every child of every era faces risky and exhilarating challenges while Mom and Dad aren’t paying attention. Fortunately, most of us will survive to lord our triumph over the next generation.

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19 Comments

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  1. I had to read this blog because it looked like almost the opposite of my post tonight. I was going to tell you that the older generations are just messing with (probably part of it), but also congratulate you on getting a head start on your own survival list. 🙂

  2. I’ve begun to feel quite sorry for the current generation of teenagers even though a small group of them have caused me problems for about two years (how long have you got…?). I have found that I cannot agree with the heartfelt comment, “They’re all HORRIBLE at that age”, which came from a school liaison police officer I spoke to (in the UK many if not all schools have a police officer whose sole purpose is to deal with complaints relating to pupil behaviour). Although I could cheerfully push the little monsters annoying me off a cliff I have found myself taking a closer look at their peers and they do not seem happy to me. I see exhausted girls who are terrified of the things that are being said about them online, constantly sending texts or just worn out with gaining entry, as you point out, to degree courses that will get them nowhere and leave them in debt. I see boys who risk being stabbed because they look at someone in a way that could be misinterpreted (http://gu.com/p/3vqdq). All that has happened is that we have swapped one risk for another, for instance, sugary Kool-Aid for exposure to 3G/4G technology. In my neighbourhood we are trying to prevent the installation of 3G masts. Some things about children and teenagers have remained constant (I believe firmly that adolescence does not make anyone a nicer person) no matter which decade they were born into. That’s down to biology. What has changed, certainly in the UK, is the sense of entitlement that many children have which is down to the way they were raised. Some parents give their offspring everything they were denied almost as though they are giving themselves presents. I think others just do it to keep them quiet and fob them off. It was bad enough being a child in the 1970’s, I would not care to go through it again today!

    • Many good points. When I think of how stressed I often was as a teenage girl, when I could go home and hole up in my room without any text messages or Facebook, I can’t even imagine what it must be like today, when your friends follow you everywhere online. When I was a teenager some people told me that this was the best time of my life – enjoy it! Now I know how pitifully wrong they are – I feel sorry for anyone whose life peaked when they were a teenager. Things get so much better.

  3. We “oldsters” (I was born in ’62) did not have to survive parenting “styles” pre-school resume building, or a safety-squirrel-society. We were not expected to grow up on garbage like Happy Meals as a daily diet. We never had to deal with our parents insecurities by sharing their bed. We could make our own sandwich at two and didn’t get a sticker on a chart for it. We were potty trained after our Mothers’ said “That’s it, I’ve changed my last damned (cloth) diaper” and not when we were somehow “ready.”

    But, we oldsters also learned little ditties on the playground about “in 1964 my mother went to war; she pulled the trigger and shot a…” and other cultural gems that should not be remembered, but have scarred our brains too deeply to ever be forgotten–and we wince at the memory. We had whiskey rubbed on our teething gums, breathed enough second-hand smoke to choke life-long-barstool-sitter, and drank enough water contaminated with farm chemicals that many of us reasonably fear developing neurological diseases. We dealt with sexism at school to the nth degree from day one till graduation. We were “girls” even when we were young women.

    I could go on and on. We each only get one childhood. It’s ours to embrace of reject as we see fit. The big difference is we didn’t Oprah-ize over every little bump in the road. Maybe we should–maybe today’s folks SHOULD just “get over it.” Is the glass half full, or half empty.

    When you become a parent you hear how stupid so much of it all is when it comes out of your own mouth and then your child’s.

    No real conclusion here. Some people whine, others don’t.

    • Oprah-ize – excellent word usage. Yes, one reason I’m always fervently glad I wasn’t born earlier is that my career prospects would have been decidedly worse as a woman. But the goddamn “girl” syndrome is alive and well I think – I can’t go anywhere without everyone calling me “sweetie”, “honey”, “baby”, “babygirl”, etc. It’s continued effortlessly into my late 20’s – will “ma’am” or “miss” begin to filter in as I get older?

      Ah, the playground stories. I wonder what they’ll be when my kids hit school. Thanks for visiting!

      • Re: the “sweetie”, “honey”, “baby”, “babygirl” nomenclature, this is often just a quirk of geography. Travel around England and, no matter how old you are, variations on these will be bestowed on you in different parts of the country.

  4. I don’t mind “honey” “sweetie” etc if the person is over 50 or they say it to everyone. I’ve been south long enough I catch myself saying “Hon….” to everyone!! When you get carded for the first time in years you know you are officially old enough for “Ma’am”.

    • True, older folks MIGHT get a pass on the terms of endearment (somehow I don’t mind it from older women, but I especially hate it from men near my own age or slightly older).

      I still get carded all the time, so I guess my ma’am days aren’t here yet.

  5. Having seen too much violent death first-hand over the years, I’ve never been convinced that people should be boasting about the risky lifestyles of the past.

    Not everyone “survived” driving without seatbelts as some of my old school buddies can confirm if someone has a Ouija board handy. Statistics showed medical researchers that sugar, BB guns, and lead had consequences when *groups* of people were considered rather than surviving individuals. For example, watching someone gasp away fruitlessly from asbestosis brings thanks for some lifestyle changes over the years.

    If every uninjured war veteran said, “I didn’t get hurt, so what’s the fuss about? Go fight! You’ll make lots of friends and see foreign countries.” Hmm, I think we can see past that perspective…

    • Excellent point about considering the group rather than the individuals. I doubt any of the people who are bragging about surviving seat-belt less cars would let their own kids go without seat-belts.

      • You might be right, but I think many Virginians use a variation on post hoc ergo propter hoc to justify why their kids don’t need to wear seat belts either. If I recall correctly, it’s still a “secondary” offense in this state, which means a driver can’t be pulled over for breaking the seat-belt law.

        Back in Australia, they made this compulsory about 35 years ago and car death rates are much lower.

      • I have read a lot of interesting things to the effect that reducing deaths and tragedies are not a matter of fancy new technology – it’s usually a matter of effectively implementing the simple solutions we have. If everyone simply wore seat-belts in their cars, death rates would probably be lowered much more effectively than by all the latest technology in automatically-braking, rear-view camera cars. Same principle in health care, I’ve heard: if health-care workers consistently washed their hands between all patients, we’d reduce the spread of hospital infections much more effectively than by any new high-tech innovation. Kind of a tangent, I know, but interesting to me at least.

  6. Here is the link to my service dog blog as requested http://gideongoldenway.wordpress.com/ . This was a very humorous follow-up to your freshly pressed post and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Feel free to stop by either of my blogs anytime you like.

  7. I loved all three of the last blog posts. SOCKS are a wonderful thing, not just for the variety, but also they keep feet WARM in the winter. Sorry about all that sugary orange koolaid – it was good, wasn’t it?

  8. love it! and agree with both sides if this – I was born in 1949 so can easily recognise the older version !!! but on the other hand I would agree that the children growing up now have a much tougher time in a lot of respects …. a murder – a mugging a house robbery were practically unheard of in my youth but the generation of today have to hear of this on a daily basis. Sad fact really but is it the fault of our generations or merely progress ???

    • Yeah, we don’t have to declare that one generation or the other had it tougher — each has its challenges and always will, in the future. It is often a scary ol’ world and I don’t know if it’s anyone’s “fault” — the problems are too systemic to pin on any one factor or group. Thanks for stopping by!

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