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?


Barry said...

It is an interesting quandary. My parents were very over protected by our period's standards and it pales in comparison with the norms of the day now.

I think I remember even seeing a difference with how my youngest brother, 7.5 years my junior, was treated in comparison to me and the middle child (2 years my junior).

Chuck said...

A very thoughtful, honest, and even courageous post. I agree that something is lost with today's overprotective standards: children do not get the opportunity to make mistakes early and learn from them. Instead, children in the US are given all of their freedom in three chunks: 16, 18, and 21 – then they're expected to handle all of that independence at once.

There is a great solution to this: give the kids space. When I was alone I knew responsible adults who were nearby to help (if I really needed it). Being trusted on my own helped me develop real-life problem solving skills.

It's hard to trust kids, they just aren't trustworthy. But they can learn, and the sooner they do the better.

gaz said...

i know what you mean. it's like having a tug'o'war with yourself wanting to give them the freedom we had but being the protective parent at the same time. i don't know how our parents did it! i struggle to even let our boys go out in the front garden without one of us watching over them like a hawk in case they get snatched! we have been turned into paranoid over-protective maniacs by the scare-mongering of the media.

Mom said...

Times & life is very different than when you were young. You lived in military communities & even on a dairy farm in the middle of nowhere in Germany. The town that we live in now in MN is very much like when you were growing up - the kids still play outside unattended & walk over town to get to the pool or the skate park. People still don't lock their doors. We are very lucky to live here, but there are sacrifices to living in a rural area like this when you have been used to living in large metropolitan areas. Right now, this is a good place to be if it weren't so damn cold!!

JamesF said...

Great post Scott. This has been bugging me for a while now also. I also remember being left alone all the time as a kid. In second grade I came home from school and had the afternoon to myself. During summers I was on my own for the entire day. I roamed around woods, played in creeks and did all kinds of kid stuff.

I play the part of the over protective parent too, but I at least try and give the kids some space, but these days Ginger gets upset if I let Quinn play out in the front yard without being supervised. And I still get chastised pretty bad when I let Quinn go to the restroom in a restaurant by himself. It's quite a different attitude than when we were growing up and I'm not sure it's for the better.

Scott said...

mom said, "Times & life is very different than when you were young."

I hear that all the time, but I'm not sure that's true. P'ville is not so different than Ponca City, or Piper, or Starkville.

Times are only different now, I think, because we have a near constant litany of fear and drama being pumped out of our 52" LCD HDTVs from a startlingly large array of media organizations.

Chuck said...

This theme has been showing up in the news lately.

[...] proper care includes allowing freedom at appropriate times. As children mature, they gradually need more leeway to learn how to make their way safely in their communities, to make mistakes and to struggle. Otherwise [...] they emerge as anxious young adults, unable to take responsibility, with a sense of entitlement but little common sense and unequipped to deal with adversity.

Sounds like Generation Y in a nutshell.

Chuck said...

Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free-Range Kids" interviewed in Salon.com.

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