Sharing Saturdays: Will the real American childhood please stand up?


Over the past eight-or-so years of parenting, I’ve overheard or been involved in some version of the following conversation, countless times:

Kids these days…It’s so different from when we were growing up.

Oh, I know! When I was a kid my parents sent us outside in the morning and didn’t expect us back until dinner (or ‘until the street lights came on’).

Yeah, me too! We didn’t play video games all day like kids do today. If we were bored, we had to find something to do!

The exchange goes back and forth a few more times, with the nostalgic air of grandparents who walked to and from school in snow storms, uphill both ways. One parent will inevitably mention that it’s just not safe outside anymore, bemoaning the decline of civilization in general. Another may interject that it’s also because kids are so darn over-scheduled by helicopter parents (or neglected in front of the television, take your pick, but either way it’s always an extreme situation, isn’t it?).

The conversationalists nod, sigh, and move on with their own overscheduled days, but they leave with smug, self-satisfied auras; they’re clearly reaping the rewards of their own idyllic childhoods. And at least their parents weren’t complete screw ups, like the parents of today seem to be.

I have to admit to nodding in agreement, throwing in some of my own memories of growing up in the country, and consequently helping maintain the hallowed institution of The Perfect 20th Century Childhood.

Only recently, I’ve begun to question this idealized version of the past, as well as the plugged-in-lazy-kids-indulgent-or-negligent parents version of the present. I can trace my questioning back to seeing a few too many Facebook memes like this:

childhood nostalgia

It struck me as strange that the wording of the memes and the overheard snippets of conversations consistently followed such similar patterns of syntax and vocabulary. A black and white retelling, with the past playing the hero and the present playing the villain. Like an instructive story, passed from generation to generation. Like…a myth.

If you hang out with real kids (as opposed to those mythological ones), and observe their actions and interests, you might be pleasantly surprised. These are some of the interactions I’ve observed recently:

  • Kids gathering on playgrounds, before, during, and after school to invent and play games that are intricate, social, and creative.
  • Kids in our neighborhood running freely up and down the block, often barefoot, in search of a pick-up Nerf battle or some fort building action. Climbing and balancing on the tree house pictured above.
  • Kids hanging out sans-parents, at local parks, libraries, playgrounds, and recreational centers. Seriously. And they’ve been making safe decisions and having a lot of fun.

What are your real-time observations? Is childhood really lost, or are we buying into nostalgic mythology?


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