Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Child Raising & The Case For Benign Neglect

Being a little kid in the 1970s was a dangerous job. By today's standards, it's a wonder many of us survived.

Back then, "Home alone" was not a shocker, it was a routine - particularly at night when all the scariest movies were on TV. Back then, we spent our indoor time in atmospheres largely comprised of second-hand cigarette smoke and mom's hairspray (now a banned carcinogen in 32 countries). And if we were outside, curfews were unheard of... hell, some nights you might even get a ride back with dad as he drove home from the bar. But somehow, like small war veterans, we survived to tell of it.

I remember episodes from my own childhood that sound absolutely f*cknuts insane by today's enlightened standards. Like, say, playing with my dad's guns (ammo stored conveniently in a drawer right next to them). But I never once loaded a gun, never shot myself or anyone else because 8-years-olds weren't raised that dumb back then. I remember lighting fires too. But I never burned anything down. I remember experimenting with mysterious chemicals in mislabeled bottles in the garage. But I was never dumb enough to chug them. Parental instruction aside, watching Tom & Jerry was enough to put you straight on stuff like that.

Then there's more specific, uniquely old-school innovations I remember like TV tube tobogganing: You'd take a trip to the dump, find an old TV, remove tube from TV, use tube as super-slick sled to slide down the nearest gradient. There was also our version of laser tag: random bunch of 8-10-year-olds with BB guns meet up in field, random bunch of 8-10-year-olds with BB guns shoot the sh*t out of each other, running hither and thither through the long grass laughing as small lead pellets zipped after them. Ah... those were the days... and what, aside from the odd BB in the butt cheek or knot on the head was the worst that ever happened?

Thirty-some years later, all this stuff reads like evidence from a CPS case study or an exposé of bad parenting on 60 Minutes. But I grew up fairly well-adjusted from it - and with my full share of eyes and limbs. But these memories do raise an interesting question: now we're all on constant point guard with our kids and barely a nanosecond passes without them being supervised and "edu-tained", have we all gone too far? Have we killed childhood and set about raising a new generation of helpless dullards and infantilized adults instead?

Katie Roiphe at Slate has a piece about modern parenting and the modern parent's "fantasy of control". She wonders too if a bit of 70s-style benign neglect might be a constructive thing:

I can remember my parents having parties, wild children running around until dark, catching fireflies. If these children helped themselves to three slices of cake, or ingested the second-hand smoke from cigarettes, or carried cocktails to adults who were ever so slightly slurring their words, they were not noticed; they were loved, just not monitored. And, as I remember it, those warm summer nights of not being focused on were liberating. In the long sticky hours of boredom, in the lonely, unsupervised, unstructured time, something blooms; it was in those margins that we became ourselves.

It's not like Roiphe's advocating a full-on return to that Darwinian proving ground many of us called childhood. But the idea that we do stifle our kids today by giving them no 'me time' for self-discovery, for figuring out sh*t through experience, is persuasive.

Perhaps we should quit with the whole Baby Einstein "you're so special" thing and stop policing our kids' every waking moment. Maybe we should just loose them to roam the neighborhood in packs again and let them find their own personalities. Let kids be kids while we hang out with other grown-ups and let adults be adults? Maybe...

But then there's a fine line between average parenting 1970s-style and reckless abandonment 2010s style. We'd need to temper "benign neglect" with some old-school common sense to make it work. We'd need to bring back those things that were actually safer about the old days... Like remember "community parenting"? Remember how people down the street would look out for your kids as well, maybe offer the occasional therapeutic a**-whupping or ride home? Remember too how parents took responsibility when their own kids caused trouble? Now it's all whining, passing the buck onto teachers, scheduling counseling sessions and lawsuits if the kids screw up. Both adults and kids have forgotten about concepts like personal responsibility and not being a dumbass.

But back in the day, you were corrected if you erred and the whole free-wheeling system ran on the implied threat of force, on that 'tough love' that could descend without a moment's notice. Sad to say, I'm not sure us touchy-feely, Oprah generation parents have that in us any more.



  1. Good post. Now that my son has turned 2, I've been thinking a lot more about these issues and what kind of parent I want to be. When I was a kid in west Los Angeles, my friends and I roamed all over the place on our bmx bikes and never had any problems beyond other kids "mugging" us for our candy after leaving the Kwik-E-Mart a couple times. In 7th grade, I started taking the public bus to and from school. Sure it was an eye opening freakshow at that age but I think things like this shaped me into a confident, independent person.

  2. Right on. Having grown up in the 50s and 60s I agree totally. My kids always thank me for raising them out in the middle of nowhere. They could roam and be themselves and learn a lot on their own just by observing.
    I grew up in a place with a number of lakes. Two of those lakes were on the main road in and out of town. On any day of the summer cars had to drive slowly the couple miles around those lakes because every 50 feet there was a group of kids messing around have of them in the lake half of them by the road. In the winter there were people all over ice fishing.
    Today, if you go by those lakes on the hottest summer day you will see absolutely no one except for the solitary fisherman here and there.
    There used to be five different swimming/boat rental places that sold hot dogs, ice cream, etc. There is not one left.
    Kids don't go out and play anymore. It's insane. Parents these days are guilty of something far worse than "benign neglect."

  3. It was safer back in the 60 and 70's, you could let your kids roam free, but Not in today's world.


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