How Did Growing Up Change So Much in a Generation?

Nancy on phoneI came across a Washington Post article yesterday about a set of parents who are under investigation. With kids being raised in meth-houses and horror stories of children abused at the hands of their care givers I was braced for something different from what I got. These parents allowed (actually encouraged) their six and ten year-old children to walk a mile. I know! Outrageous, right? When I was a child, that was called going to school.

I saw a recent proposal regarding not allowing children under ten to be in community parks on their own. Not going to a park by myself before age ten would have eliminated T-ball entirely, some softball, flag football and a whole lot of ice skating during my youth. By age ten I was taking other people’s kids to the park. I’m pleased to say that I never lost one.

The parents in the article were actively practicing what they call “Free Range Parenting” which is simply allowing children to do what they as parents believe is an age appropriate activity which allows them to mature, develop responsibilities and in some cases make mistakes. It is a backlash to “Helicopter Parenting” which has resulted in twenty year old adults who are unable to make a hair appointment for themselves. I admire their willingness to permit their children some freedom and only regret that there has to be a name for what my generation just accepted as childhood and feel horribly that resources are going into questioning their actions.

I find it more ironic that I grew up with a stay at home mother, who like most of her peers were less engaged in their children’s activities than their working counterparts of today. Sure moms participated in the PTA and some helped out as “den mothers” or home room helpers, others prepared food for funeral luncheons at the church and engaged in other ways but the adults tended to do adult things and the kids were left to the activities of childhood. Some of us made good choices, others of us did not. With more parents around the community after school and during breaks, it was not unusual for some neighbor to step out the door and address a situation or behavior when warranted. Most of the time we were permitted to figure things out for ourselves.

Families tended to be larger and parents were not nearly as fixated on the accomplishments of their children. Even when you were on a winning team, I don’t recall much other than bragging rights, there were certainly no participation medals for the losers. Yep I said “losers”, we were allowed to keep score and be excited when we won and disappointed when we lost. It was all part of growth and learning and helped us be humble in our accomplishments later in life or know that we would survive when we were faced with future disappointments.

Like the kids in the article, we walked places. If it was a further destination, we biked and we learned how to navigate the bus system at a young age. I lived in Minneapolis, City of Lakes and did not drown. We didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t wear helmets. We often traveled with a dime in our shoe or pocket, to make a phone call in case of “an emergency”. We didn’t even have 911 and yet of the children in my community lost growing up there was a single horrific accident at a location with many adults present and there was disease.

As our world becomes what people describe as more progressive, I challenge the idea and think that we have grown more cautious and all at the potential of raising weaker adults. I remember my father dropping my brother and cousin off with a canoe when they were teenagers. Gear for a week and no method of communication, just a promise to pick them up at the end of the week at another location down river. That required a faith that few parents demonstrate today and I would love to know how a DNR officer might deal with a canoe of young unescorted teens currently.

My brothers had bus tokens and YMCA memberships in elementary school and spent their Saturday mornings swimming, doing crafts and learning various skills. My cousin came home with them once with a perfect black eye. Their reenactment of a Man from U.N.C.L.E. scene had gotten a little rough. No calls to my parents, they just took the bus home like usual. It would likely be considered irresponsible today to send your children off for open swim at a location with adults during a time where swim trunks were optional. My father had grown up taking the street car to the same Y to likely swim with some of the same men. During the 1970’s a letter came to the house explaining that swimwear was becoming mandatory. The end of an era.

I learned to write my name at age four, because it was necessary to obtain a library card. There was a wooden box on a desk that had belonged to my grandparents, if you were not at the library, that is where your library card went. Library books had due dates and it was an early responsibility to make sure that your books were returned on time. Other than Story Hour as a preschooler, I do not recall spending time with a parent at the library. It was a place I went if I needed or wanted something and it was a place my father would go to research something. I remember venturing into the adult section by about the fifth grade and writing book reports on Marilyn Monroe and discovering novels that discussed adult topics. I wonder how unsupervised children are dealt with at libraries today.

As a parent with two young adults, I understand the desire to want things to always be ideal for them but I doubt that sheltering and over-parenting is the key to achieving it. Growing up in the suburbs required that they have more parent involvement for transportation to youth activities and appointments. I recently told them that while they had never been to an orthodontist appointment without me, I had gone through braces with never having a parent at an appointment, I took the bus. I walked to my own dentist appointments after school too. Even in the suburbs though, they were allowed to play outside in the neighborhood for hours in the summer, walk a half mile to a sledding hill in the winter and explore the local trails along Nine-Mile-Creek. Their ability to feel comfortable on a college campus without a parent to guide them is the result of being given an opportunity to explore while at home or on vacation.

It is not always easy to let go and trust that things will turn out fine. We live in a society so connected through media that it seems like more horrible things happen now than ever before. I believe that it only seems that way because we know when a child is abducted in California, we hear when a high school teacher is arrested in Texas, we see the images of a school bus crash. We can’t question issues that are unique to this generation without exploring the dramatic change in parenting and the systematic coddling of our youth. We can’t velcro our children to a sofa and question why childhood obesity is on the rise, all while watching my own childhood school district (just this week) cut physical education credits necessary for graduation in half.  Honestly, when parents allowing their children to walk a mile becomes criminal, it is truly time to reevaluate. Who exactly is in charge of raising our children?



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