If someone had described parenting to me as a way to relive your childhood, only from the outside, I never would have comprehended. Honestly, I don’t know if I even said that right. These children are not me, but they are. Does that make any shred of sense?
I see them inspect things, pretend things, imagine things, and I think Oh my gosh, that’s me. You’re me. But they’re these tiny little boys, and I’m a grown woman (sort of). Yet, I can remember feeling the way that they sometimes feel. Or thinking the way they sometimes think. Not always, not nearly enough, but sometimes. When they’re overtired and weepy and feeling every sort of emotion without being able to decipher a single one…or the sense of wonder when something is different or new. When they believe in magic and mysteries. When they tell me they dream about unicorns and want to paint their toenails. And we do paint them. Pink and glittery.
If I could remember what it was like to be a child fluidly and continuously as I age, I would either be the perfect parent or the worst one imaginable. I’m hoping the balancing act I’ve managed up until now is the ideal way to walk the mystical line of childhood and grown-up.
I remember sneaking candy, like I can hear them doing right now. I remember playing all the same games of make believe and pretend. They’re still precious at this age. They still believe in fairies and unicorns and leprechauns and monsters. And as soon as they start to grasp the idea of real and unreal, I dazzle them with lines from the Matrix. Real is just electrical signals interpreted by the brain. A confused look and then they’re back, being strange and perfect and imaginative again.
The difference is, this is their entire world, and I can only recall it. After a certain age, you’re booted out. You’re kicked out of Neverland. You don’t get to place a mirror on the floor and believe, truly believe, that it’s a portal to another universe. You don’t spend weeks in the woods building a tree-fort. You don’t log countless hours digging a hole as large as a swimming pool in hopes you can catch a mountain lion that you’re sure lives in your backyard in southeast, residential Wisconsin. Your friends don’t own walkie talkies, and no one wants to come outside and ride their bikes until you’re lost. No one wants to peer in windows of the abandoned house down the block and speculate about what supernatural event caused it to be vacant because the idea of it simply being sold or foreclosed upon is just too far-fetched. You don’t do anything you can to get out of sunscreen or broccoli or finishing your milk. Now, every move is a safe one. A “risk” is visiting a new restaurant and ordering something out of the ordinary, or talking to a stranger, or driving in a part of town you don’t know.
It’s never the same. The intensity and fervor of play and gripping curiosity is gone from us, but in them, it’s the life force. It’s vital to their upbringing. It’s why we need to guide, but not direct. It’s why structured play is a joke. It’s why a full schedule is ridiculous, and being a helicopter parent is suffocating. It’s why fifteen minutes of recess at five-years-old is wrong, and standardized tests in elementary school is torture. Homework. Reading. Science. Math. All skills that were never standard in Kindergarten are now required because we are so terrified to fall behind in our country, and in turn, we are robbing our kids of the most important parts of youth.
Gone are half-days. Gone is nap time. Gone are the days of letting kids handle their own disputes.
No one learns how to manage conflict anymore because we’re so afraid of getting sued. Yet, bullying is still alive and prevalent because all we’ve taught our children is how to tattle, and even that is frowned upon. We’ve given all of the power to the inherently mean, and tied the hands of the oppressed. And yes, there are both of those in the realm of childhood, or has it been so long that you forgot?
As a parent of this generation, I cringe as people my own age and older shame “kids today” as disrespectful, lazy, technology-dependent, and dumb. Excuse you. All of you. This is not something we have chosen. This is the culmination of so much more, and everyone seems so readily able to write that off.
I do let my children play video games because they are exciting adventures that require skill and complex thinking. I let them play in the dirt and get filthy and skin their knees. They’ve drank out of the stupid hose. Yes, they wear bicycle helmets which is apparently something that is frowned upon by older generations because it’s something that they never had. They didn’t have the internet. They didn’t have tablets. They didn’t have a thousand channels on their televisions. They didn’t have cell phones. They had chores and a wheel with a stick that they hit down the road, right? They were kicked out of the house for the entire day and no one knew where they were. And they survived.
All of this is true. Sort of. And yet, I’m torn between these two worlds in a way no one who isn’t raising children today can possibly understand. We didn’t know that a fall without a helmet can cause irreparable damage. We didn’t know that people prey on children, and so we have to keep them close and know where they are and who they’re with. We try to let them have freedom, but we still need to know, in this terrifying world, where babies are abducted by people you trusted and children are hurt and discarded in the woods, that they are safe. And so they get cell phones when those years of freedom hit because the frontal lobe of judgment is so underdeveloped in all of the years of childhood that we have to do all of the worrying for them. And also because we are just too brokenhearted to tell them that bad people exist in every corner of the world.
People didn’t care about kids until the late ’90’s. They just didn’t. We were little people that were an unfortunate result of sex. That was it, and we were supposed to do our best to stay out of the way and keep the house clean. That was my generation, and that was every generation before me. Sure, there was love there, somewhere, but no one knew any better than to let their kids run wild in the neighborhood. Not until kids started going missing and stories started surfacing–terrible stories of deeds done to children by people who were supposed to be trustworthy. Maybe they said something when it happened, but no one listened to children. Not like today. Nothing like today, where children are gunned down in their schools. Where the media sensationalizes these acts and eggs on the next perpetrator so that the next case is bigger and badder than the last. Where mental illness is ignored or criminalized rather than treated so that so many things could be prevented.
Is there a part of me that wishes my children could ride freely on their bicycles and meet friends in the neighborhood? All of me wishes that. I’d love for them to be able to bike to the convenience store and buy combos and soda with the money they found on the ground. And maybe they’ll get to, but not at the age that I did. Even if they were eleven or twelve and responsible, there would still be people who would call the police for child endangerment. That’s a tragedy on so many levels. Every aspect of childhood has changed. Every single one. You can’t trust your neighbor to look out of them if something goes wrong, as a matter of fact, it’s your neighbor you should worry about. They’re the one most likely to call social services if you let your child walk two blocks to the park at nine years old. Everyone is 911 happy. Everyone wants to be the one to tattle and never the one to help. The problem is, I don’t know how to change it. I don’t think anyone does.
I don’t believe we should go back to the way it was. Some things were better back then, and that’s the honest truth, but since then, we’ve learned to care about our kids. They feel loved and secure. They know they can talk to their parents which is something we never had. We’ve learned to trust what they say once we’ve taught them the importance of honesty. They aren’t disregarded as insignificant anymore. Kids finally have rights, and I truly believe they should. They should have discipline, too, and a work ethic. They should be taught how to stand up for themselves and others, but also not to bully.
From a parent in 2016 to the parents of decades ago who complain that our children are being raised wrong, I implore you to try doing it ‘right’ in today’s age. When school demands are so astronomical, when children aren’t allowed to be children, when fear is a necessary evil, when technology is everything and kids can operate a computer before they can tie their shoes, and when everything else falls to the wayside. We’re doing our best. It’s not perfect, by any means, but no parent ever is. If you see a parent today, out with their children who are playing on cell phones and tablets, please don’t shame them. These kids are smart. They’re the smartest generation yet, and I mean that. What parents really need today is support, not shame. We want to hear your wise words, but we also don’t need to hear that our kids are being raised wrong just because they’re being raised differently. The separation of generations is damaging, to say the least. I suppose that’s something that’s always been there.
What I’m proposing is that we all try a little bit harder to embrace empathy and compassion toward each other, to bridge the gap of differences. Parents today don’t have a village to raise their children. In fact, most of the time, we only have ourselves. It would be nice to have a little bit more than that. To have a set of hands applauding rather than fingers constantly pointed in our faces.