The world is a rough place. For kids and adults. It’s always been rough. The disparity between today’s parents and those who came before us is not that we care more, or that we hover when we shouldn’t. The difference is that modern parents spend fewer hours simply trying to survive. Plus, we’re overly informed. We know precisely how dangerous the world can be.
I can only speak for myself, of course. I’m guilty of being involved in every facet of my children’s lives, a quote-unquote helicopter parent, if by that term you mean a mother who schedules playdates, drives her kids to and from music and tennis lessons, delivers them to school, helps them with their homework, and makes time to play and interact with them every single day. I can explain my motivations—and only my own—yet in some small way my childhood experiences may be illustrative of a larger cultural shift.
Born in 1967, I belong to the last generation of kids who ran free. My mother’s approach to parenting—seemingly the status quo back then—might land her in jail today. I walked myself to and from school at age 5. After moving more than two miles away from the campus when I was 7, I did the same, crossing busy intersections without a chaperone. My slightly older brother (who would rarely deign to walk with me) and I would return to a parentless house—the original latchkey kids—entertaining ourselves for hours with bad television (“Match Game,” “Love, American Style” and, yes, “The Brady Bunch”), punctuated with our violent bickering. On nights when our mother attended a college course after she worked, we sometimes put ourselves to bed, and tucked in our little sister, too. My father, in case you’re wondering, was nowhere in sight. He’d moved to another state.
Summers were one long sunburn. Most days we were quickly scootched out the door after breakfast and instructed not to return until lunch. After 15 minutes spent scarfing down a cheese sandwich at noon, we were told not to come back until we heard our names being called for dinner. After dinner, we played “Kick-the-Can” and “Ding-Dong Ditch” with the neighborhood kids until it grew dark. And then we went to bed, to repeat the drill the next morning. In our household we laughed at my brother’s legendary scrapes that nearly got him killed: stealing an older boy’s 10-speed bike without understanding how to use the more sophisticated brakes, then jettisoning it down a steep hill and, yes, flying off the bike, head 100 percent un-helmeted, a moment before steering into “Frogger”-like traffic; or exploring unmanned construction sites and jumping from the second-story to see if he could fly. As for me, I spent hours alone. Often reading, often lonely, sometimes not. It’s just the way it was.
My mom usually had no clue where we were, what we were doing, or with whom we were engaged. She had no time for such triviality. She was too busy trying to figure out how to keep the lights turned on while fending off our creepy landlord’s sexual advances. She was a divorcee, he’d figured, so she likely was looking for some.
There was little shame in neglecting your children in the early 1970s, or likely before that time, either. Families have long sacrificed their fathers to war efforts, fought to feed hungry mouths during a depression, and sent their young children to toil in factories to keep a roof overhead. Not so long ago, childhood was defined differently. Human beings didn’t live as long as we do now; the age of innocence ended when you were old enough to dress, feed and toilet yourself. Measuring happiness or mental health was a luxury few could afford. Kids were to be seen and not heard. And they were expected to work. They still are, around much of the globe.
As for my generation, the oft-maligned helicopter parents of today, we were in the midst of a cultural revolution during our tender years, where gender roles were rapidly being redefined, marriages were failing at astronomical rates, single mothers were entering both the workforce and being added onto welfare rolls, and children were mostly an after-thought. Talk to Gen X’ers about the 1970s and 1980s and a good percentage will share tales of warring parents; custody battles; the ubiquitous qualifier of “step” before mother, father and siblings; and a general sense of malaise that everything was shifting, unstable. Maybe because it was.
And while many American parents today still struggle to pay the bills, and juggle too many demands with too little time, modern fathers are held more accountable; women earn more college degrees then men and have made great, if not complete, strides within the workplace; and dads don’t usually simply disappear after divorce. We pay better attention to neglect. We have more programs in place to help stop it. We’ve settled into these seismic shifts, and have a better sense how to properly navigate them. Which perhaps gives us more time to troll the Internet and ponder the perils (and pleasures) of childhood.
Still, despite the chaos of those Me Generation years, from my mom’s perspective my childhood was close to idyllic, at least compared to her own mother’s. My grandmother was roused out of bed in the pre-dawn hours each day when she was just 5 years old to deliver milk bottles to the neighbor’s front steps in her native Glasgow, Scotland. She was expected to earn her keep before she’d mastered “the three Rs.” (Her formal schooling ended in the eighth grade, when she was deemed old enough to work full-time.) And that certainly trumps my walking to and from school alone, now, doesn’t it?
Were kids expected to do more for themselves, and at younger ages, in decades past? Yes, certainly. Did that make them safer or happier in vastly less-regulated times? I suspect not. When parents from former eras unquestionably trusted their coaches, teachers and priests with their kids, do you think children were victimized less, simply because no one discussed it, or even suspected it was occurring? I very much doubt it. Are we really glorifying a time when children had no voice, little monitoring or protection, less education and no labor laws, simply because they grew up to become scrappier, more independent adults? Children are now allowed to be dependent longer precisely because we’ve identified the ills of the world, and we’re trying to combat them.
So, for what and when, exactly, are we so nostalgic? Some narrow, yellow-tinged slice of 1950s Boomer-hood, when the Beaver and his pals were allowed to develop into well-rounded adults without much intervention, simply because their playgrounds didn’t provide padded flooring? Or some other tiny slice of post-WWII peacetime sanguinity, when unfulfilled Mom was quietly mainlining martinis in the afternoons to placate her depression, and repressed Pop was beating the living tar out his queer son?
This is not to say there’s no downside to leading a more cocooned, even (at times) coddled existence. And some parents definitely take it too far. Striking a balance between laissez faire indifference and hyper-vigilance is no easy task. But, remember, many of us now are among the first generation of adults who are parenting without blinders—unlike our more naïve predecessors, who were once shocked by images of Auschwitz; who never imagined someone like Jerry Sandusky could exist; and who, in a million years, would never predict the horrors of Newtown. Today’s parents are keenly aware through a 24-hour news cycle how kids all around the world are being exploited and harmed everyday—and with never-before-considered threats.
For it’s not just stranger abduction we fear. Now, through our home computers, predators can enter our homes and engage our sons and daughters without our having a clue. Our children’s peers can cyber-bully them, driving some desperate enough to commit suicide, while we stand by, oblivious, thinking they’re simply doing their math homework. And kindergartners today must practice lockdown drills where they hide in bathroom stalls and closets, because the possibility of a mass shooting in their elementary schools is not paranoid delusion, but rather a distinct possibility. (There have been at least 33 school shootings in the U.S. in 2014 alone.)
Trying to strike a balance between honoring our kids, pushing them to fly, and protecting them, even as the world spins and changes faster and faster, is a challenge. And it’s not a new one. I, for one, will err on the side of being an over-involved “s’mother,” even if it means my children might grow up to have slightly thinner skin. They’ll grow a tougher epidermis eventually, I believe. And, thrive, too, I hope. I’m willing to bet their strong foundation of support from home will help them to do both.