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.”
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.
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.
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.