I see child-rearing from a perspective that none of these young parents have experienced. I grew up in the 1950s, supposedly a conservative era, but actually a much more liberal one when it came to freedom for kids. At that time we kids were pretty much on our own when school let out. The minute we came home, we dropped our books, ran outside, and played, played, played until it was time for dinner. In the nice weather we went back outside after dinner and played, played played until dark. I don’t remember doing much homework though I must have done some. I just remember being a kid among other kids, showing off by doing daring things like jumping down into a concrete stairwell from 10 feet up, climbing trees, running after boys and trying to kiss them, or having snowball fights in the street using parked cars as forts. If a friend wanted to play with me she’d come to my door and ask, “Can Erica come out to play?” There was no such thing as a play-date.
I don’t remember my parents playing with me at all. Kids played, parents read the newspaper and discussed politics. I never had organized “activities” that I had to be transported to. Kids ran out and played with other kids who were always around. No appointments were necessary. In retrospect, it was heaven.When I adopted a baby at age 55, six years ago, one of my worries was that I wouldn’t fit in with the young parents of my daughter’s playmates. I assumed they’d consider me a cranky old fuddy-duddy who was out of sync with the times. As it happens, I am both cranky and out of sync with the times. But not because I’m an old fuddy-duddy. Actually I’m cranky because I’m stuck with a bunch of young fuddy-duddies whose mantra is: “Be careful, be careful” and “don’t, don’t, don’t.”
Today parents are expected to “play” with their kids, both to keep an eye on them and because it’s considered “quality time”. My daughter is jealous of other kids whose parents play with them. She doesn’t understand there’s no way I am going to fiddle with dolls or crawl around on the floor. I don’t play, don’t ask me. I will do what my mom did, teach her how to cook and sew, or to swim or ice skate. I’ll take her to movies and the theater. I’ll read to her. She’d better find another kid to play with.
Kid activities are no long spontaneous, but planned and often paid for. Kids are signed up after school for everything from soccer and softball to gymnastics and karate. Parents with more than one kid are constantly racing in three directions at once. Family dinners have gone the way of the horse and buggy. I’ve received many a raised eyebrow and disapproving look when I tell another harried parent of an over-scheduled child that my child does NOTHING after school. She likes to come home after school and relax. If there are kids around who are not at some organized activity she will play, play, play until dinnertime.
I see young parents obsessively following their kids around those new “safe” wooden playgrounds hovering over their every movement. No parent would be caught dead on a playground when I was a kid. Somehow we all survived. When my daughter was two she started climbing on the older kids’ playground equipment, hanging from the rings, climbing the monkey bars and going up the high ladders. She was extremely agile so I let her climb. However, I can’t count the times young parents would race up to her and grab her off the equipment, looking at me as if I should be prosecuted for neglect. It got so bad I’d have to supervise her closely just so she could have a good time without being snatched by some over-anxious adult.
Sexual experimentation by kids today is really verboten. We played “doctor” and “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” without our parents thinking anything of it. Today such behavior is considered a possible symptom of sexual abuse or some other deep, dark secret. Children are told it’s “inappropriate”. What’s inappropriate is the blatant sexuality that kids are exposed to everywhere in the media. This creates a cognitive disconnect, where normal kid sexuality is considered suspect, but kids being exposed to adult sexuality is normal.
Even food is closely supervised today. We were allowed to eat pretty much everything we wanted and maybe there were one or two fat kids in each class. That’s probably because we played, played, played every day for so many hours. There was no McDonald’s—kids came home to a healthy square meal every day. Today kids are stuck with hours of homework, or are kept home by anxious parents who don’t want them out in the street unsupervised. Mom brings home takeout fast food. No wonder there’s an obesity epidemic.
If kids aren’t eating fast food they probably live in a hotbed of vegetarians and organic food nuts, like I do. In my town sugar is considered the anti-Christ. I’m considered an uncaring mom or worse for letting my child eat all the candy and ice cream she wants. Of course as a result she doesn’t want much—sugar is no big deal to her. The neighborhood kids are the sugar addicts who all come over to my house to sneak sweets.
My daughter seems to be taking after me. She’s a daring free spirit who is pretty much willing to try anything. I hope by the time she becomes a parent the pendulum will have swung back in the other direction. Somehow I just can’t see her admonishing her own child to “be careful.”