Tuesday, December 04, 2007


It seems remarkable to me that the norms of parenting today stand in stark contrast to the norms of when I grew up in the seventies. First of all, let me very clearly state that my parents were very good, very attentive, and very involved in my life from birth even to the present day.

That said, both of my parents worked. My dad was an officer in the Army, and my mother was a full-time nurse. Therefore, I was often left alone as a child—something which strikes me as unthinkable, even criminal, today. They even had a term for it. I was what they called a ‘latch-key kid.’ My brother and I would be home alone after school while my parents finished their last hour or two of work. My earliest memory of this was when I was eight years old.

Today, I have two sons. One is ten; the other eight. My youngest is the same age that I was when I was being left home alone for a couple of hours. Yet, would I allow the boys two hours of freedom and solitude while I step out to the store in town? Heck no!

And why is that? I ask people that question. What is different about then and now?

People tell me that “times have changed,” or that “things aren’t the same as they used to be,” or “it’s just not safe anymore.” Is that really true?

When I grew up, I was in the perceived safety of U.S. Army bases in Germany. We were literally fenced in and guarded around the clock. So it felt pretty safe.

But today, I live in a small Virginia town. We have three stoplights, and I know nearly every single person in my neighborhood. Are things really less safe today than they were in the seventies? Sure, we have sexual predators, and through the magic of the Internet, we can see exactly where they live. And, yes, there are some nearby. Are we better off knowing that?

Were the seventies any different? Were there not creeps and weirdos back then? Sure there were. Our parents warned us about them. They taught us what to look for, and to never get into cars with strangers. There was always that strange reclusive white-haired lady who every kid was afraid of. Again, no different from today.

And yet, when I was a kid, my mother would kick my butt out of the house after breakfast, and I would wander freely through the neighborhood until suppertime. The places I wandered fueled my imagination and taught me many things. Some of these were useful things, like spending hours erecting forts in nearby forests. Other times, we put our free time to less than useful things, like finding a stash of Playboy magazines buried under an old log in someone’s backyard.

Back then, my brother and I would walk ourselves to the pool to swim the days away in the summer. We would attend the pool completely unsupervised by our parents. This is absolutely unthinkable to me today!

My favorite excursions with my brother came when we were spending one summer in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Mike and I would routinely walk ourselves a couple of miles through our grandfather’s neighborhood, along the bricked streets, over to Miller’s Market on 14th Street. On the way, we'd have to avoid the aggressive short-haired dachshund that always tried to rip our legs off. Once safely at Miller's, we’d buy ourselves each one large Dino-sour egg—a large sour jawbreaker that changed colors as you ate it.

After popping the eggs into our mouths, we’d both walk back home to Grandpa’s house—again, avoiding that dachshund—each with our swollen cheek full of soury goodness.

Have my children ever experienced this freedom? No. Have my children ever been outside my watchful eye, or that of a relative or sitter, even for a minute? No. Have my children ever really explored their world on their own? No. Why?

I feel very hypocritical for maintaining this level of security over my children that is far and above any that I experienced. The problem is that, for some reason, this level of suburban security has become the societal norm. Maybe some farm kids growing up in rural Idaho are roaming freely through their towns and forests. Mine, in suburban Virginia, are not.

Today’s norms center around “age appropriate” time alone. I’m told that an eleven year old child may be left alone for 30 minutes. A twelve year old for a couple of hours. A thirteen year old, if he’s very mature, may even start to babysit for others. I must admit, my kids are not too far from these ages now. But I wonder, have I smothered them too much along the way?

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