Most old people have seen profound changes in childrearing in our lifetimes – child rearing now considered to be the incorrect term; we should talk about child raising. OK. But whatever it is, it has changed. Those of us whose parents were children during the Depression and World War II heard about their deprivations as children, having to get jobs to help out financially, sitting in church every Sunday for hours, celebrating scanty Christmases and even scantier birthdays. We baby boomers had it better, but one thing was still clear to us: we were secondary to the adults. The adults controlled the menu, the television set (if we had one), and the level of noise in the house. No meant no, and whining was instantly squelched. We ate three meals a day at the kitchen table and Sunday noon dinner in the dining room. There was only one telephone in the house – right in the center where no conversation was private. No calls were answered during dinner. Whether or not our families believed in corporal punishment, we were firmly under control. In all honesty, we couldn’t wait to escape, but even at college there were long lists of rules – at least until 1968.
We baby boomers raised our children with slightly more tolerance, I think. We allowed slightly more pushback. I surely was more permissive than my mother, trying to cook what the kids liked (as long as there was meat or fish, vegetable, and starch, accompanied by a glass of milk) and insisting only that the evening meal be eaten together as a family. Even this became a chore as the children got older; more and more events were scheduled during the dinner hour or their friends were calling. The children had their own television and there was soon a VCR, so content was at their command as long as we remembered to return the tapes on time to Blockbuster. There were fewer dress codes and I let the children decide what they were going to wear (within limits). But even then, the trend was toward the emancipation of children. Besides, as working mothers (many of our mothers had never worked outside the home), we were too tired to fight constantly against the tide of “what the other kids did.”
It was during their adolescence, when I was fighting a losing battle about getting everyone at the table for dinner, that I was teaching a class of young community college students. One day I asked them (most of whom still lived at home) how many of them ate at least one meal a day with the people they lived with. Out of thirty, only one young man raised his hand. One young woman volunteered that her mother did the most absurd thing: she cooked dinner every night, set the table, called them to dinner, and then everyone in the family loaded up their plates and took them into their bedroom or out to the TV room. She said her mother got upset. I cried for that mother, but it was clear that this young woman’s mother and I were losing the battle.
And in the next generation (that of our grandchildren), such battles (and it remains to be seen if they were battles worth fighting) have been completely lost. Grazing has replaced mealtimes. Toddlers and young children’s undeveloped tastes are catered to (even to the extent of preparing a second or third selection if the first is rejected). Such power given to a child often involves much wasted time and food. Entertainment is controlled by the children either by allowing them to select what to watch on television or giving them their own devices. I am not assuming there is no censorship; most parents still prevent children from accessing violent or indecent content, but that is about all they control. I sound old and critical, and perhaps I am. The young parents are not so permissive because they are lazy; it is far harder to deal with children who have fewer rules, less discipline. They rightfully worry about the child’s sense of self-esteem. And they would probably tell me (if they were honest) that they were trying to avoid the sins of their own fathers and mothers. OK. But it isn’t always easy to watch or deal with.
My generation witnessed huge cultural changes. When I was young, girls couldn’t wear pants or sneakers to school. There were no female varsity teams. No one (at least it my family) assumed that young women might have to support themselves for the rest of their lives. No one in my circle of friends had divorced parents. If a girl at my high school got pregnant, she disappeared to “visit her aunt” for a few months. I knew of no teenage single mothers. The world has vastly changed and there is no reason child raising should not be the same. Sometimes, however, I wish that it were not so very different and that I was better at adapting.
This week’s fiction, “When Elephants Fly,” is based on a composite of experiences with my grandchildren and somewhat exaggerated. Although the tale is pure fiction, it felt true when I wrote it!