On the changing times

One of the blogs I keep up with his Leslie Morgan Steiner’s “On Balance” blog through the Washington Post’s website http://blog.washingtonpost.com/onbalance. This recent post put me in mind of conversations I’ve had with friends, and my husband, about how it’s not like it was when we were kids anymore. Every generation of parents has probably had that thought, but it means different things in different times.

On Balance blog post – Leslie Morgan Steiner

En route to a meeting of her book club in the Washington suburbs on a spring evening, Leslie noted the absence of children playing outdoors in the neighborhood, and wondered “where has childhood gone?”

I know where all the kids were. Same place as mine. Soccer practice. Piano lessons. Tutoring. Or in lock-down because the neighborhood was experiencing a wave of bombings, drive-by shootings and child abductions (not).

Once at book club, one mom insisted that all the neighborhood kids needed to be inside because our world has become very dangerous. That schools forbid kids from walking or biking to or from school. That kids’ nonstop extracurricular activities are essential for them to thrive in our highly competitive world. I protested that our particular world — for instance, my old neighborhood — has not gotten any more dangerous or competitive in the past 30 years. Several of the moms argued that our world — let me note that it is a largely white, largely middle class East Coast milieu — is a far riskier, threatening place than it was in 1975.

Our world is very different — because we’ve made it different. Today’s parents have changed how we parent. If a majority of parents refuse to let their kids play outside their house, or go to a local park, or walk to school by themselves, then no kids can. Because one kid alone on the sidewalk or at the park is vulnerable (not to mention bored).

Can we agree that American parents — especially middle- and upper middle-class parents — have gone collectively crazy? Almost everyone today, myself included, falls into the “extreme parenting” category.

But what I cannot figure out is WHY. Exactly when, and how, did American parents become completely obsessed with making our children’s childhoods perfect?

I’m at a different place in the parenting cycle than most people I know. Despite being in my early 40’s, I’m about to become the mother of a college graduate (less than 2 weeks from today!), but I’m also a part-time stepmother to two younger kids (pre-teen and grade school). Except for brief intervals, I’ve been employed throughout my son’s life, and to some extent I’ve believed that the increased structure in kids’ lives now, and for the past 15-20 years or so, was partly driven by the needs of working parents to make sure their kids were occupied and supervised when the parents couldn’t be around. At the same time, I’m one of only a few non-SAHMs in my book club, and the volume of scheduled activities many of their children are enrolled in staggers me at times. My perception is that this is also spurred more by the needs of the parents, which may be different from those I had as a working parent, but it’s made me note that it can be difficult for kids whose time is so scheduled to occupy themselves on their own.

Another observation regarding why one doesn’t see kids playing together outside so often these days is that many of them would rather, given the choice, be indoors on their computers or video game systems instead, since this does tend to be their preferred way of keeping themselves busy during their “downtime.” Increasingly, and particularly as kids get older, it’s also more and more becoming how they interact with each other, via online chat and the like.

While I was reflecting on this post, my family and I watched this week’s American Idol “telethon” (and yes, we donated), and the scenes of poverty and struggle shown during the episodes did remind me that such questions as “where has childhood gone?” are asked in an affluent society that has the luxury of attempting to give their kids “perfect” childhoods.

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