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When I was a child there were two things that were unpopular in my neighborhood. One was the Red Sox and the other was me. I was a shade younger, a shade smaller, and a shade more sheltered from cable television by my parents than the other kids. I also wasn’t afraid to share something I had just learned in a book which, truth be told, must have been annoying. Kids are justifiably suspicious of little adults and, in many ways, that is what I was.
Plus, I was a Red Sox fan.
Anyway, one day, I think it was late fall because I remember the buttery color of the sun, we were out riding bikes when the afternoon turned ugly. There was an argument — I don’t know what it was about — and one by one a dozen or so kids took turns spitting on me. I tried to get on my bike and pedal home, but the kids knocked me off and kept spitting. It took me about 40 minutes to make it the few hundred yards to my front door, where I was able to reach the doorbell. This scattered the other children. When I went inside, my mother told me to stop ringing the doorbell.
I didn’t go outside to play with those kids for another two years. Oh, I faced them everyday. We had the same bus stop. We were in the same school. But when the doorbell rang, I said “No, I’m not coming outside.”
In those days, of course, if you didn’t play with the kids in your neighborhood, you didn’t play at all. Parents didn’t shepherd their kids around and organize play dates. Kids were expected to befriend whatever kids the neighborhood lottery had provided. My parents were kind and decent people, but they were from a different parenting generation and never asked what had happened to cause my exile. My father did ask, gently, how much longer I intended to hold a grudge. The answer was forever and all time.
I mention this because there is a growing nostalgia glorifying the uninvolved parenting style of previous decades, turning it from a dubious practice — news magazines once bemoaned latchkey kids — into a paradigm of proper parenting. The fondness for that era grows out of disdain for the so-called helicopter parents who are apparently to blame for everything from the college admission scandals to the phenomenon of “learned helplessness.” The trend has forged an unlikely alliance between psychologists, who fret over the lack of risk in children’s lives, and internet commenters, who bemoan the snowflake culture that seeks to prevent, say, a gang of kids from spitting repeatedly on someone smaller.
There is, of course, a large body of evidence pointing to parental involvement as a key to academic and social success for children, but nostalgia demands no evidence. Psychologists theorize that little Jimmy will never learn proper risk management skills because he is not allowed to fall off a playscape on to piping hot asphalt and break his arm. Other folks worry that cushioned playgrounds (and all other safety devices built after 1977) have turned us soft. In America, apparently, if you can’t keep your grip on the monkey bars, you deserve a broken wrist. Winners hold on.
The notion that we are raising a nation of wimps is, of course, nostalgia of the worst kind. The kids today face fear and failure at a much younger age than those who complain about “the kids today” ever did. The kids today are rigorously and relentlessly tested in schools. They are cut from sports teams starting at age seven. We tell stories about waiting in the freezing cold for the bus, and they tell stories about lockdown drills where they hide in a closet for 10 minutes to practice avoiding a murderer. No contest. The kids today are much, much tougher.
Nobody is suggesting parents should attend their kids job interviews or that the modern involved parenting style doesn’t have its own drawbacks. For starters, it’s exhausting and can cause parents to forget to feed their own relationships, which are essential to mental health. And mental health is, of course, essential to good parenting. More importantly, kids do need freedom to explore and experience the world on their own.
But the price of freedom should not be a fist in the face. The misty-water colored memories of the historically anomalous parenting-styles of previous decades are misplaced. Our job is not to coddle our kids but to teach them. Teaching requires presence.
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