Growing up in the 60′s and 70′s in Kentucky, Ohio, and Southern California, I enjoyed amazing freedom. When I was six, seven, and eight, I spent my summers swimming at a local pool and playing golf at an adjoining nine hole par-3 course. With my clubs outstretched across my handlebars I biked a mile plus to the course. No helmet, major road crossing mid-way, no problem.
I’d be gone all morning often returning in the afternoon with my mom and sibs. Thus the skin cancer. While Wonderyears Wayne brandished his legend on the 10 meter platform, I decided between Twinkies and HoHos.*
From nine to twelve it was pickup football EVERYday after school. Despite being built like a 3-iron, I just wouldn’t go down. An 80 pound Marshawn Lynch. We’d play on our spacious, fenceless, suburban Ohio lawns, or on especially rainy or snow days, we’d jog along a wooded trail to the Talmadge High School field where the objective was to win while sliding as far as possible in the muddy grass. On Friday nights in the winter I’d take the same trail to the gym to watch high school basketball games.
Fast forward to today, where my wife and I and our friends grossly overplan every childhood activity**. If you had asked my mom where I was at any given non-school moment, odds are she wouldn’t have known. That’s why she was caught off guard when a construction worker chased me darn near into our house after friends and I raised hell on his site. And that’s why, one spring, she threatened to “never take me to the Emergency Room again” when I called to tell her I cut my foot wide open while playing around barefoot on a just melted tennis court. Today, she’d be tarred and feathered for her laissez-faire parenting.
But I lived. More than that, I flourished, because I was allowed to learn from bonehead decisions. Today, parents are squelching their kids with hyper-organized activities and constant monitoring. Recent research reveals that on average, even today’s college students text and/or talk to their parents twice a day. Co-dependence trumps independence.
Why the over-involvement and constant contact? My hypothesis is an irrational media-fueled fear of childhood abductions. My guess is there are the same or even fewer child abductions (per capita) today than in the 60′s and 70′s, but when they happen they get amplified in people’s minds as a result of cable news shows, People Magazine, and the 24/7 news cycle. By tuning into the media bullshit, we’ve helped create a false sense of unmitigated danger.
And so we end up with soccer leagues for three year olds and global position satellite devices for teens’ cars. And to what effect? Young people who aren’t passionate about much of anything because they’ve spent the bulk of their childhoods doing what their parent(s) have wanted them to.
Bethrothed and I talked this through on the way home from Seventeen’s last swim meet. It’s not a coincidence that she only swims in-season when adults expect her to. A friend of hers, an ace violinist, is sick and tired of playing the violin. Neither have ever been even close to the ER.
The GalPal and I have regrets, but also know there was a certain inevitability to our parenting approach given the “tipping point” created by our friends’ decision making. We tried to swim upstream one summer, honestly we did, deciding not to schedule any activities at all. Turned out few if any of our daughters’ friends were around thanks to a steady schedule of drama, sport, music, and dance camps.
If you’re twenty-five or thirty and just starting a family there is one escape. Buy a small farm. Raise animals and grow food. If your kids have to feed chickens, milk cows, and repair fences, they’ll spend far less time playing adult organized activities and facebooking (yes, that’s a new verb).
Of course there are legitimate things to worry about, for older children especially, alcohol and drug abuse, driving under the influence, and teen pregnancy. Minimize those risks by having dinner together, checking in regularly, knowing your children’s friends, and listening. Eliminate them by scheduling all of your children’s time, putting a video cam in their bedrooms, and monitoring their every move.
In the end, the choice isn’t entirely yours, in large part, it’s the families in your hood.
* in hindsight I should have said, “Hey girls, someday I’m gonna crush the Platform Primadonna at Ironman Canada.”
** kid you not, there are about eight parent committees to choose among if you want to help plan the class of 2013′s post graduation Senior Night