Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Shut Up About Your Perfect Childhood! Shut Up About Kids These Days!

It seems that almost every day I run across either a meme or an article on social media that runs on the theme of childhood and parenting the "kids these days".

The article sounds something like this:

When I was a kid in the 80s (or 70s or 60s or 50s) I had the most perfect childhood.  I went outside every day and I could play in the mud pits at construction sites and canoe rapids and climb mountains and and bike in heavy traffic and walk over to the next state to visit a friend and as long as I was home by the time the street lights came on. My parents didn't worry. They wanted me out of the house.  I rode in my mother's lap as a baby, sat in the car with no seat belt as a child, and never wore a bike helmet.  I lived! I either ate lots of home-cooked food made by my stay-at-home mother or else I ate lots of junk food and Spaghetti-Os and processed foods and drank Tang and Kool-Aid. Either way there was none of this organic, non-GMO, no-sugar obsession.  I ate every bite though.  I wasn't allowed to dislike it.  I didn't win an award if I wasn't the best.  I didn't have video games or the Internet and I only had channels 2-13 on TV and there was limited amount of air time devoted to stuff I wanted to watch so I had to find other modes of entertainment.  If I was bad, my parents beat me and of course any kid who gets beaten is going to turn out perfectly and the reason kids today are so obnoxious and get into so much trouble is because they don't get beaten.  Kids today are awful.  They are entitled.  They mouth off.  They are picky eaters.  They are mean.  They don't respect their elders.  All parents today are horrible because they are not giving kids the same childhood I had.

There are a couple of issues here when it comes to critiquing today's parenting. What crosses the line between safety and overprotectiveness?  Do kids need organized activities or hours of free play?  Are children today really so terrible?

I feel there a definite difference between keeping kids safe and keeping kids sheltered.  I'm all for safety, but I'm talking about real safety.  I find it weird that adults should mourn the days when kids didn't have to sit in car seats or wear bike helmets.  Yes, you survived those days.  I survived those days.  We are the survivors.  Who is there to speak for those kids who didn't survive?  I always wonder how it must feel when  parent who lost a child in a car accident or bike accident reads some meme about how kids in the 20th century survived without safety measures.  The hip libertarian view is to say that car seat and bike helmet laws are an arbitrary decision made by an evil socialist nanny state government trying to interfere with how we raise our children.  In fact it's really more the result of powerful insurance companies lobbying for laws like this because they didn't want to have to keep paying out benefits to parents of dead and injured kids.

I'm all for safety.  Bring on the car seats.  Bring on the bike helmets.  As an equestrian, I get the helmet thing.  I wouldn't get on my horse without one and I don't ride my horse in traffic.  I cringe to imagine a baby in car accident being flung around a car as it crashes into a stationary object or flips over.  No baby could survive that.  Plenty of "nanny state" laws make perfect sense to me.  I'm not going to wax nostalgic about how I lived my life before these laws were in place.  I survived.  I was lucky.  It doesn't mean it couldn't have happened to me.

Let's talk about the other part of the story.  Are kids too sheltered and what does it do to them?

I was partially raised by a woman with severe mental illness that went untreated her entire life.  Today drugs and therapy might have helped, but in my day, the family was just expected to work around with it, coddle it, and deal with it. She desired extreme control over everyone in her life.  She did not like to be left out of things.  She resented it when family members enjoyed their lives outside her sphere of influence.  She wanted tight control over everyone's actions.

I was her pet anxiety.  I was the original helicopter kid.  While my friends enjoyed the privileges of the supposedly free range 70s and 80s, I was stuck at home.  My friends walked to school, they rode their bikes far and wide, and they had adventures.  If I wanted to spend time with my friends, it had to be at home or in the playground next door.  If we wanted to go someplace, we had to be driven there.  I spent many lonely hours at home with the TV and with books.  I was convinced (most of the time) that I was better off.  I was safer and having more fun, but I knew deep down I wasn't.  Even so, if I mentioned wanting to do something that my friends were doing, I was shamed for it.  There was too much danger out there to consider such activities. 

So I spent my childhood in a bubble of safety.  I wasn't killed or kidnapped.  I never had any broken bones.  I didn't experiment with drugs and alcohol.  I reached adulthood in one piece.  Was it worth it?  Did it make me a better person?  Is sheltering a child to the extreme the right thing to do?

I doubt my part-time guardian would admit to it, but my safety was not worth it.  Since I was so isolated from other children I had terrible social skills.  I had trouble dealing with a world that didn't center around me so it wasn't easy for me to play with other children who might want to play by different rules or play other games than the ones I liked.  I had a sense of entitlement that annoyed other family members for years to come.  To this day I am extremely risk-averse.  I question major life decisions.  As I entered my teens I longed for independence, but independence scared me and sometimes still does.  I still don't know how well I can ever be on my own.

This is the legacy of helicopter parenting.  How good does it look to you?

When I see these ridiculous memes and articles, this is one point I have to agree on.  Children need to go outside.  They need time unsupervised.  They need to explore.  They need time away from adults and time with adults who are not their parents.  They need to take risks and learn lessons the hard way.  This is the one point of these memes and essays that I agree with.  Keeping kids locked up all day with TV and the Internet and video games is not good for them.

My question is, if you agree with them, if you think your unsupervised childhood was awesome, if you think kids were better off having the kind of childhood you had (and I didn't), then why aren't your children having this kind of childhood?  Why are your kids in front of the computer right now?  Why aren't your kids outside riding bikes or playing in the park?  Do your kids watch more or less TV than you did?  Do you think they should?

"It's a dangerous world out there," you cry.  "The world is filled with kidnappers, murderers, and child molesters."  So even though child kidnapping has decreased over the past decades, and that the most common abductions are by non-custodial parents, you have to never let your kid go outside because of stranger danger.  Do you know who is most likely to murder your child?  Take a good look in the mirror.  Guess who is most likely to molest your child.  You can pick from the folks sitting around the table at Thanksgiving dinner since sexual abuse most often happens at the hands of family members and close family friends.  Do you know where your child is most likely to die?  It's in your car, of course, yet you insist your child never walks anywhere and you must drive her.

"I agree with you, Rachel.  I really do.  However, the laws in my town are so out of control that I don't dare let my child play outside because I will be reported and arrested."  

That's a fair point, but those laws don't have to be in place.  Do you know why those laws exist?  They exist because passionate people cared enough about an issue to make a difference.  Do you care about those issues?  Great.  What are you doing about them?  Did you vote for the politicians who enacted those laws?  Did you even know those laws were on the docket?  Why not?  If you really want your kids to have the kind of childhood you think they deserve, then you need to do your part and start advocating against these kind of restrictive laws.  Go to meetings.  Go to the polls.  Run for office yourself if you have to.

I do want to address the last point that kids are over-scheduled.  Do kids get forced into too many supervised, extra-curricular activities?  Do kids need more free play?  If they had it, would they just spend more time in front of screens?

I personally am of two minds on this one.  I think when I was a kid, particularly in grade school before I started riding, I might have liked more extra-curricular activities.  I wanted to be out more.  My part-time guardian was not so fond of me enjoying extra-curricular activities.  It meant time away from home where I could be in danger.  It meant I was enjoying life without her.  It meant that I might be influenced by other, less restrictively-minded, adults or by the wrong kind of kids.   I'm not sure what type of activities I would have done since I don't like sports, but maybe more stuff in theater and the arts would have been fun.   I'm not saying I had no activities.  I generally did things that were close to home and didn't keep me out of the house for long.  If I mentioned an interest in something that didn't fit the mold, I was mildly shamed for it. 

I don't mind having scheduled days. I'm a planner and like to know when I'm doing what. Some kids aren't like that.  Some kids don't like to be confined to schedules or be be tied down.  These kids shouldn't be placed in too many activities and should just be allowed to hit the playground or ride their bikes or play pickup games of street hockey with their friends rather than organized sports. 

How do you know if your kid is the kind of kid who will thrive in a schedule full of extra-curricular activities or if your kid will do better with more unstructured days?  It would probably help to ask them, and pay attention to their moods and their stress levels.  If you are going to helicopter your kids, use that power for good and actually stay attuned to what your child is feeling.

So with all of this helicopter parenting and lack of fun experiences and freedom, are kids today really that terrible?  Every day I read that kids are lazy.  They are disrespectful to their elders.  They rebel too much.  They are too pampered by their parents and have gone soft.

The people of my parents' generation also said that about my generation.  My grandparents' generation thought that about my parents' generation.  I'm sure every generation thinks the succeeding generation is the worst ever.  Children never stop being more awful than the last generation, and yet the world survives.

Do you know why kids are so awful?  It's because of the simple fact that they are children.  We tend to see children as an extension of ourselves, as copies of their parents.  Good parents will have good children.  We tend to forget that every child is an independent, thinking, human being.  What's more these independent humans' brains are still developing and still learning and making messes.  Children are going to do things adults don't approve of because they need to establish their independence.  They need to find their places in this world.  To do this they will test boundaries and question authority.  They need to learn on their own why rules exist and what rules are best broken.  Adults tend to forget this as they grow older and are less forgiving of younger generations even if they were just as bad - or even worse - themselves.

At this point, many parents who are still reading this and don't want to kill me are now saying, "My kid isn't like that.  My kid is respectful.  My kid loves his life.  My kid is happy.  Maybe other parents are complaining that kids today are too soft and aren't having the fun childhood they had, but my kids have it so much better."

You know what, every other parent is saying that too.   No one thinks their child is bad or is living a miserable, unfulfilled life.  Just remember as you judge other people's children, other parents (and non-parents) are judging you.

At this point, readers are exasperated.  It's time to play the Mommy Card.  "Rachel, you are not a parent.  You don't understand anything."  No, I'm not a parent.  I will not let you think I know nothing because I am not a parent.   I am a human being.  I was a child once.  I also see the children of friends and family.  I don't have to have given birth to see what makes them happy or to empathize with their pains.

If you think your child isn't having the best childhood, if you think your child is not as well-behaved as you were, if you think your child is too soft and too pampered, then there is only one way to fix that.  Look in the mirror and decide exactly what needs to be done.

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