My mother armed me with important pieces of information like, “If you ever come across an old refrigerator, don’t climb in and close it,” and, “Don’t walk on an icy pond. You’ll fall through,” and, “I heard about a little girl who leaned on her car door. She fell out while her mother was driving.” Beyond that, though, she and my father left my siblings and me to our own devices, never flinching at our bike stunts off of crudely constructed Evel Knievel ramps, our experiments on the cat, our accidental fires sending smoke signals, or our proclivity for short-cutting through the nearby woods to flirt with the big, bad wolf.
Despite so much freedom, we knew our place in the hierarchy and dutifully passed dollars over the convenience store counter in exchange for KOOL cigarettes. My parents smoked in the car with the windows up. Our back-talking, choking pleas for fresh air were answered by the switch – kept tucked handily in the visor – blindly swung in the backseat until it connected with flesh.
There’s nothing wrong with the way I was raised. It’s how everyone my age was brought up. No one’s daddy knew her exact age or her exact birth date. Parents didn’t go to birthday parties, and if they did, they stood on the periphery small-talking about how it would be great if their 7-year-old could buy a can of beer, too, when she went in to get a box of cigarettes. Beer came in singles, then, tucked into can-size paper bags. I routinely waited in the unlocked car, engine running, while my daddy went in to buy one.
People in my parents’ cohort pretty much feared paying too much attention to their children, believing that whatever obstacles fell across our paths would ultimately make us stronger. Because news wasn’t immediate and pervasive, they had little inkling kids were getting maimed by those obstacles.
Their child-rearing philosophy is still evident today when they say things like, “Y’all __________ and none of you died;” insert any of the following: never rode in car-seats, didn’t wear bike helmets, got sunburns, etc. But, at least one kid did die; otherwise, why would my mother have warned me about rogue refrigerators gobbling up unsupervised children? I love to point this out.
My generation, desperate to mend our scarring, leapt onto the pendulum and yodeled, “Yee-haaa,” as we rode it all the way to the other side of amazing. We protected our offspring’s psyches from threats, becoming conscientious, interactive mothers and fathers who spout constant, foundationless compliments and provided detailed explanations to our 2-year-olds about why they shouldn’t touch the hot stove, instead of resorting to the barbarically effective, innocuous pain of a hand slap.
Trendy playgroups and over-the-top birthday parties were hotbeds of debate over whether to spank, if water guns are acceptable toys, and the educational rigor of various preschool curriculums.
I repeat, there was nothing wrong with our childhoods, except that riding bikes without helmets apparently did brain-damage us.
Since then, the pendulum has swung due south. My younger sibs, who have babies and toddlers now, report that emerging parents have all new worries. These days, children’s school files read like medical charts. In the age of full-on germ warfare and apprehension of unseen, but tweeted, menaces to every child’s well-being, dads, standing ready with Handi Wipes at gluten-free birthday parties, make conversation with each other, asking, “So, what’s your kid allergic to?”
Hearing this, my parents roll their eyes and say, “You ate peanuts and you never died.”
True. But someone did fall through the ice; otherwise my mother never would’ve warned me about it.