Lamenting the Loss of ChildhoodIt's nearly Father's Day, and I'm ruminating — at a playground with my 8-year-old son — about his life compared to my own as an 8-year-old. About what it was like for the Eriks and Davids and Julies of 1975, compared to the Jeremys and Carters and Chloes of 2011.
Life has changed in the last three-and-a-half decades, and not necessarily for the better. Whether it's the fault of a fear-mongering media, an overly litigious society, or helicopter parents and their spoiled kids.
The playground where I'm sitting is a microcosm of today's society. I can remember the playground of my day, and I see a few good things, and a lot of things that make me despair.
One of the cool things? I see some Asian kids, Indian kids, African-American kids, and Latino kids, all playing with some white kids. You just didn't see that in 1975 Muncie. But that's where the cool stuff ends.
This playground is built on a thick rubber mat, guaranteed to cushion your precious snowflake should he tumble off the parent-approved recycled plastic slide. I walked on the mat, and I sank at least an inch. Little kids will just bounce.
When I was my son's age, our playground was built with two inch tubular steel, and the surface was gravel. Not the smooth, rounded river rock that's gentle on little knees. The kind that was broken from big rocks by prison chain gangs.
When I was a kid, we made the playground rules. If there was a disagreement about how to play, majority ruled, or at least the big kids did. The big kids got more votes than the little kids. But sometimes, the little kids outnumbered the big ones, and the balance of power was restored.
Here, the parents climb on the playground equipment (it is a pretty cool playground), insuring their own sense of justice is administered, that everyone has a turn, and that no one goes up the slide, because slides are only made for going down.
When I was 8, we looked out for the littlest kids. Even the bullies helped out. Now, the bullies are the helicopter parents who shoot other kids dirty looks when they cut in front of their precious snowflakes on the twisty slide.
Thirty-five years ago, kids made their own games, and if you started being a jerk, someone else's mom would tell you to knock it off. And you listened. A mom was a mom, no matter whose family she was from.
In 2011, parents tell their own kid, "some people just don't know how to play by the rules, Alexis," but say it loudly enough so the parents of the offending child — who are only six feet away — know who the comment is really meant for. But they'll pretend they didn't hear it, and leave, making their own loud passive-aggressive comments about how some people need to grow up.
When I was eight, my friends and I would jump on our bikes and disappear for hours. Our kid instincts told us when it was time to go home, and we showed up just in time to wash up for dinner.
Kids today strap on their four inch thick helmets to ride their bikes, trikes, scooters, and Big Wheels, all of which put them closer to the ground than when they're standing up, yet, parents don't feel the need to make their kids helmet up when they're running. They pedal slowly down the paved bike path, like a family of ducks heading to water, giant melon helmets creating an aerodynamic wind drag that is only seen in semi trailers.
I understand the need to protect our children. But I also understand they need to get bumps, scrapes, and bruises. What kind of kid doesn't escape childhood with scars? It's evidence that you did stuff and enjoyed yourself and learned important lessons. My own body is a veritable roadmap of life lessons.
There's the time I learned not to jump over a rope chain in the grass after it rains. And the time I learned not to play with a sharp knife, or the time I learned not to play with a dull one. The time I learned not to run into mailboxes on my bike, and the time I learned not pound a storm door window in anger. (I learned that one twice.)
Kids today will never learn any of those lessons. Instead, they're going to bounce off the rubberized ground, safe inside their puffy pillow-helmet, and think mommy will always be there to soothe the phantom boo-boos, and that daddy will make the mean kids wait their turn.
They're going to be in for a major disappointment in life when they're adults, and they meet the other now-grown kids who weren't cushioned and coddled when they were eight.
And they'll wonder why their big bubble helmets didn't save them from that.
My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on Amazon.com, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.
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