When I was a kid I rode my bike to the drugstore, had a cherry coke, and rode back at my leisure. The occasional summer night was spent walking to and from the ball park with the kids next door, six and twelve. Today it is called free-range parenting and could possible earn a call from the police. Back then it was just called childhood.
You may think it is a different time but it is not. Rape, murder, and abduction are down. Children have more abuse to fear in their own home. Most missing children are teenage runaways who return in a day or two. The world has always been violent, but it is easy to forget in a world with a 24-hour news cycle.
It has been increasingly hard to believe there was once a time when kids had not only more freedom but more responsibility. They served as safety monitors, leading other kids across the street in the third or fourth grade. Teenagers drove school buses in high school, brought home a paycheck and school credit, with little to no incident. It was not unusual to babysit at age 12 or younger. The Charlotte Observer’s Jenn Rothacker looks back on her own experience, sharing “I started babysitting when I was in fifth grade for a whopping $1.50 an hour. I became the babysitter of my street, getting booked every weekend and plenty of weekdays.
“Fifth grade sounds so early to babysit, but the ages of 10-14 are ideal babysitting years. You can't drive, you're not dating and you really don't go out with friends. At most, you had a spend-the-night every now and then. I was young enough to enjoy my charges' company, but old enough to do the right thing. Plus, I loved the independence away from my own parents, not to mention the extra cash for the mall.”
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When looking back it seems clear that we viewed adolescence as a bridge to adulthood at a quicker pace, with an expectation of responsibility and maturity far sooner in ways than we do now. Now it is not unheard of to find parents helicoptering well into the college years.
Certainly society has changed in a number of ways, economically and socially. Once upon a time young people left home sooner and could actually work their way through college. Now with a higher standard of living and the cost of college tuition soaring that is all but impossible for most, but does it justify the need for helicopter parenting well into college? A recent column of Lee Bierer’s talked about the emergence of snow plow parents, including one mother who slept with her daughter in her dorm room and another who took an apt to be near her daughter. Is it any wonder professors report students being less resilient, more likely to blame a professor for a poor grade instead of looking inward?
Some changes are for the better. Being aware of strangers and your surroundings, anti-bullying programs, and safe playground equipment are important. But self-esteem comes from handling freedom and responsibility, not pity trophies from adult-driven games and overly-involved parents, or safe rooms on college campuses or trigger warnings from textbooks. At some point children have to get out in the world and live and learn.