This year has been one marked by a number of bizarre cases of parents being penalised, cited, and socially shamed for doing something that would have been second-nature for the parents of my generation, and even those a few years younger than us: Allowing their children out on their own. The ‘when I was kid…’ narrative is repeated so often that it feels stereotyped at this point, but, truly, childhood has changed radically in the United States, and not for the better.
When I was a kid, my dad let me roam around the community at will. He did it in the confidence that I knew where I lived and could make my own way back, that I had a house key if I needed it. He did it with the understanding that people in the community knew me, and that our neighbours would help out if something happened—if I needed a glass of water or a bandaid or more serious assistance. Likewise, he’d help out the kids of our neighbourhood. As our house was quite close to the bus stop, for example, if parents didn’t come to pick up their children on time for whatever reason, he’d take them in, especially during foul weather, so they had a warm and dry place to be while they waited.
Sometimes he’d head out and leave me home alone, occasionally when I was quite young. I knew where to find him and how to reach him — as for example if he ambled down to the bar to catch the game. He encouraged me to ride my bike around the neighbourhood, to spend time at the beach, to be an independent and self-starting child. As I grew older, I retained the same traits, sometimes much to the frustration of people around me. I’ve always been confident about striking out on my own in a new place, about finding my way back to wherever I’m staying, about exploring and knowing a place rather than hiding and following a familiar set of footsteps to scurry between here and there.
I learned how to cook and do the laundry and clean in childhood, and I puzzled out what my father didn’t know, learning how to repair my garments and sort through cookbooks to learn about the chemistry of baking. My independence as a child wasn’t just about who I am and my genetic predispositions, but also what my father cultivated in me, a sense of freedom and confidence in myself. If I didn’t know how to do something, I would set out to learn it. If I didn’t know something, I’d look it up. If someone referenced a concept or word I didn’t understand, I’d ferret out the meaning.
This is not to say that my father neglected me, leaving me to sort my life out while he gallivanted around. He was a committed parent and one very focused on making sure I was happy, healthy, and safe. He was my most stalwart defender and attentive listener. But it also means that part of his childraising philosophy included teaching me to be my own person and encouraging me to fend for myself. It wouldn’t have occurred to either of us to insist that I only play in the yard, within sight, or that I not walk or bike around the neighborhood without an adult or older child — had my father tried to institute such rules, I would have laughed in his face.
Today, childraising is a very different story. Much is made of ‘helicopter parents’ and their refusal to let their children do anything on their own, and that’s definitely a problem. In some senses, parents are suffocating their children by making them utterly dependent on the adults around them; thus, children go to college without knowing how to do basic things like cook a simple meal or do their own laundry. Likewise, those same children struggle in school because they aren’t familiar with the concept of research and they don’t know how to begin exploring and interrogating texts and information. Teachers and professors complain that the new generation of children doesn’t have a good work ethic and can’t understand how to write a paper or critically evaluate a source, but it’s not necessarily the fault of the student. More commonly, it’s a result of the environment.
But it’s not just parents who are the problem, as tempting as it is for many culture critics to point the finger at those struggling to raise children in a very complicated world. The motivations for overprotecting and excessively interfering in children’s lives are complicated, and could be the subject (and are) of reams and reams of scholarly discourse. Parents, however, are also faced with the bind that society expects this of them and considers them neglectful and uninvolved if they fail to be highly active in their children’s lives.
A parent who doesn’t closely monitor a child’s schoolwork is lazy and isn’t interested in helping a child succeed. A parent who hovers while a child works and practically does the work for her is a helicopter parent. Either way, the parent loses. That’s reinforced with ridiculous incidents like children being brought home in police cars because they were three blocks away from home in a quiet, safe neighbourhood, as though they’re dogs that need to be kept on leash for their own safety.
This is a society that suffocates children, choking creativity and curiosity out of them, and it encourages parents to reinforce that. Instead of creating an environment where children can learn and explore, we have instead created a bizarre culture of enforced dependency — and then we ask why children are incapable of being independent when they grow up.
Image: Late for children’s day!, Seema Krishnakumar, Flickr