It’s official, summer’s over. On the one hand, I’m not ready. On the other, it’ll be a nice long break from all the reveries of summers past. You know the ones with the roving bands of kids, no supervision, lots of TV, Bugles, red dye #2 and a lovingly recalled near-miss involving a rusty nail, perhaps, or a loaded handgun. Maybe you saw that How-To for creating a 1970s summer that was so popular on Huff Post. Don’t download the schematics for a water park built out of 125 pool noodles, it told us, just let the kids watch Love Boat reruns, eat fritos, drink kool-aid, roam the outdoors, live at friends’ houses, and play Milton Bradley games.
I read it, and it brought back fun memories of doing every single one of those things. But then I realized: What I really wish I had, was a memory of making a pool noodle water park with my mom—making anything, really, with my mom.
To quote the author of another one of these reveries, “My parents were off in a different galaxy, and I felt it.” For the man who wrote it (John Beckman in the NYTimes), this planetary alignment meant wild summers of fun mixed with danger, involving tree forts, tunnels, BBs, shoplifting, sitting in a hot-wired car and holding a loaded handgun. Like most in this genre, the reminiscence is followed by a lament for today’s overprotected children and then the advice to let go of the reins. This one was titled “All Children Should Be Delinquents.”
It’s a wish that only economically stable parents of white children can have (or try to have). If we didn’t know this already, we do now. This summer has also taught us that, for certain people, parenting 70s-style can get you arrested.
But this is how nostalgia works. It is naive by nature, able to write whatever story it wants. That’s what makes it fun, as well as useful. We feel dissatisfied, so we conjure an antidote. Even though the dissatisfaction is often with something that is impossible to change—like change for instance and, more specifically, aging—it doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate gripes. When my daughter tells me she plays “tag-less” tag at school (“no hitting”) I’m tempted to fire off one of these nostalgic missives myself.
But whatever my current frustrations may be, before I go enforcing my past on someone else’s present, it’s worth asking: Just because my childhood was mine and “I survived” is that reason enough to want it for my kids?
First I think about that parental directive that conjures so much freedom and fun: Be home by dark. But the other side of be home by dark, or being home but without adult presence, is that you learn by doing things—not very well. I wasted a lot of time flailing through life skills, where just a bit of adult modeling or guidance here and there could have made a difference. There’s the small stuff, like how to cut an onion, and the big stuff, like knowing that asking for help is an option and also knowing how one might go about doing it.
And just one adult paying attention would have saved the victims of some very stupid pranks. Unlike Beckman, I can’t even justify my bad behavior with a lesson learned. I knew it was mean, and not even fun, to knock on trailer park doors and when the doors opened, squirt water guns and run, but I was with the cool big kids, so I did it. No moral gained, only shame.
Because in the fiefdom that is run by neighborhood kids, it is the loudest voice and the biggest bullies that rise to the top. Kids learn not to show weakness, to pretend they can do things when they can’t, and pretend they don’t feel things when they do.
As it turns out, none of these are helpful life skills, but they are hard to unlearn.
Another feature of these nostalgic reveries is their pro-danger policy. This I get and yet don’t get. Yes, kids should climb trees and explore their world, but I’m not so sure that danger in itself is all that great of a pedagogical tool. My kids are more sheltered from danger than I was, but I was more sheltered from knowledge. As a result, I naively courted real dangers my kids either know to avoid or, at least, will know something about what they’re getting into. Of course, I survived those dangers unscathed because of my self-reliance and cool head…I wish. Truth is, more than once I ended up in the path of men with weapons, and it was basically stupidity that got me there, and sheer luck that got me out. As my daughter (inevitably) walks these lines of stupidity, self-reliance and luck, I want her to know that, if she needs it, trusted adult guidance is here for her.
But if there is one aspect of the idealized summer portrait that I find most baffling, it is the nostalgia for 1970s TV. I’m sure the temptation to romanticize The Love Boat or Gilligan’s Island is strong, but before you take that stance, I advise you to watch them both again, but with a kid, and feel their respect for you plummet. It’s not just the offensive messages (of which there are plenty). The shows are terrible. The future did not deliver us the Jet Paks we were promised, but today’s world is truly better in two ways: LGBT rights and kid’s TV. The proof is in Phineus & Ferb and The Backyardigans, and when it comes to MLP FIM, the geek boy Bronies are spot-on.
It’s not a bad thing to question if we are somehow overprotecting or stunting our kids. But to respond by burdening our kids with our own childhood ideal is, at the core, not that different from the “meddling” of so-called helicopter parents. One tries to create comfort and success for their kids; the other tries to create independence and “fun,” but both are primarily driven by adult needs and adult definitions.
Each one of us at some point in our young lives had that first taste of hard-won personal power—competency, and that sense of who we are and what we are capable of. Of course we want this experience for our kids. But, honestly, how we gained these things is our story. We can reread it as many times as we want, but no matter what, “kids today” have their own story to write, and it might be just as good…or better.