Monday, April 20, 2015
Recently I heard humorist Dave Barry talking about growing up decades ago. He remarked that he and his siblings would go out during the day and be expected to return “by September.” Such was the bucolic life in the 1950s and 1960s for youngsters. This is the atmosphere under which I grew up and thrived. My brothers and I walked a mile and a half to school every morning and home every night through areas that were isolated and desolate, but no one ever thought that it was unsafe. I’m sure there were kids who went missing or were clearly abducted during the years I grew up, especially because I lived near Seattle and the large populations growing around Lake Washington, but we never heard of such cases. The most notable excitement in my young life was when some teens were joy-riding in a Thunderbird, took the turn up the hill behind our house much too fast and sailed over the embankment into a tree. My mom called the police but I never learned what happened to those kids – it was simply a moral tale my father pounded into us when he got home about the dangers of breaking the law.
My brothers played Little League, but my father only attended one game. He announced at the dinner table that the people at the games were crazy and refused to be in their company. I had attended the game with him and there were three other parents and a smattering of siblings. Not sure where the “crazy” came from although I’m sure he’d be totally mortified if he had ever attended one of his grandson’s soccer games. Instead of being carpooled to the practices and games, my brothers rode their bikes straddling their bats across the handle bars and hanging their gloves on the bat grip. My mother didn’t have a car to drive them and besides she was busy making dinner. I played volleyball in high school and skied. My parents never attended one of my competitions and just that one of my brothers, yet we never felt neglected; it was rare for parents to be around.
Every Saturday, my two oldest brothers and I received 50 cents each and marched down our hill to the local movie house. There were always two films, at least one cartoon, and a serial that ended on what we all assumed was an unresolvable cliff-hanger. It cost a quarter to get in, so we had a quarter each for snacks. We stayed from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. living on popcorn, soda, and candy for lunch. We had no cell phones, so absolutely no way for my mother to know if we had arrived at the theater safely. When we came home she was usually vacuuming to the sounds of “Saturday at the Met.” Beginning at age 8, I traveled three hours via train from Seattle to Bellingham to attend summer camp. The train stopped at least a dozen times on the journey, and I was totally unsupervised. Usually there were a few other campers on the train, and later my brothers joined me. Nevertheless there was no hesitation. I’m not sure my parents even got a call that I had arrived. It was all normal, expected, and entirely without drama or fear.
There’s a 20-year separation between our oldest daughter and our youngest son, so I have experienced the changes in how we parent. The transition I’ve observed has been both involvement and protectiveness. While I played volleyball and skied competitively, no one attended my games. A generation later, attendance was common. Shane was on the swim team as the long-distance entrant and her event always fell at the end of any competition, so I was often left alone with five or six other parents cheering on their 20 lap swimmers. She also was a cheerleader, so we were “obliged” to attend every game at which the squad performed. No parent considered missing an event. But parents didn’t attend practices. The change I saw once our sons began sports was that practices were populated with adults often just visiting with one another, but nonetheless present. The first field Bryce and Robbie played on was just down the road in our subdivision, so I sent them to practice on their bikes, just as I had done and the girls had done years earlier. But I quickly learned that I was being judged as standoffish and even an uncaring parent for not being with the other guardians down at the field, so instead of making dinner, writing, or just taking a breather for myself, I took my soccer chair and joined in. By the time the boys played at the local university, we attended all games, home and away, but of course we were now empty-nesters with the time to indulge in such activities.
Going along with being everywhere with the kids comes hovering. They call us parents helicopters, and I’ve been there, done that, even though I wasn’t that way with my daughters. It’s amazing how powerful parental peer pressure can be. Where I never had any help with or even reminder of school projects and followed this model with my daughters, I quickly saw that if I didn’t help out, the boys would be left in the dust of well-constructed poster boards and crisply polished classroom speeches. I never kept a calendar, but by the time the boys entered school I had three calendars around the house, outside cubbies and chest of drawers to organize the sports equipment, a box to hold all the notes and permission slips I had to sign, and long-term project reminders. Whether I wanted to hover or not was not the point – it just came with the territory. While I never played sports until high school and only had piano lessons after school once a week and a sewing class when I was 8 (all of which I was on my own to get to), the girls had voice and dancing lessons that I drove them to, and then the explosion came with the boys. There was a smorgasbord of sports, all of which everyone seemed to play, music lessons, Spanish lessons, tutoring, service projects, camps, and science group. Despite working full-time, I still had to find time to drive them everywhere. And as much as I resisted overscheduling, it was difficult to avoid when all their friends were participating and begging them to join in. I did hold firm on one sport per season, but that was my last bastion of resistance.
Along with the eruption of activities came a more global immersion in experiences. Some were positive – going to play soccer in England and Spain, learning about world events, sharing experiences with exchange students – but there were serious negatives. Suddenly we parents were made aware of all the dangers lurking out there. CNN began in 1980, a 24-hour news service that was hungry for content to fill all those hours. A war in Iraq helped, but the corners were stuffed with stories of kids missing and/or abused. What we blissfully weren’t acutely aware of, now became daily fodder. It wasn’t that pedophiles and non-custodial parents were born in the last few decades; it was that we learned about all of them, no matter where in the world they existed. I know I grew up with kids from abusive households, but no one talked about it. That’s an improvement that the media has helped, getting us out of the isolation. But we also became more fearful and cautious. The growth of social media fed these fears, but also helped resolved them. Amber Alerts began in 1996 and are credited with many cases of saving lives, and when they could not save lives, in apprehending perpetrators.
Cell phones allowed us and our children to have quick and important connections, which should have encouraged more freedom, but I still see caution. Phones became the instant recorder of every foible and tragedy. The proliferation of security cameras now catch us in our weakest moments, shining a bright light on our mistakes and creating instant shame. Likewise these images can be of horror, misuse of power, and crimes in progress giving us some measure of control and even more reasons to worry. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports these facts: they received reports of nearly 467,000 entries in 2014 for missing and exploited children, but less than 100 were murdered; their recovery rate for finding children has grown from 62 percent in 1990 to 97 percent now; 758 children have been recovered as a direct result of Amber Alerts. Very few children are abducted by strangers, with the statistics at one-hundredth of one percent translating to 115 kids last year. While abducted children seems to be increasing, that impression is a product of wider reporting. In reality missing children are down 31 percent between 1997 and 2011 and all crimes against children are dropping according to the FBI. The lower numbers can be attributed to cell phones, which help law enforcement track kids and help kids call for assistance. Teaching kids to avoid strangers may not be much of a solution since the majority of child abductions are not by strangers but by people the child knows. However, the stranger abductions get the most press because they seem the most nefarious. Again cell phones can be the best prevention no matter who the abductor might be.
I will admit that when Shane went alone to Nepal a month before her 11th birthday to visit her best friend Cassie I did have a moment of pause. Even though Cassie had been going to Nepal every year alone since she was 6, I wasn’t totally convinced that this was the best plan for my daughter. However, when considering that I rode a train at 8 alone where there were stops as compared to a plane that took off from one spot, was sealed to all outside influence for the journey, and then arrived to a spot where trusted people would meet her, I was convinced it wasn’t a bad idea. In fact, she had a blast. Cassie met her at the airport with an elephant they rode into Kathmandu, an adventure few of us will ever experience, much less at age 11. Deana went to performing arts high school 1,500 miles away when she was 14. Robbie flew to National Team tryouts at 14, and he and Bryce went to play with the Queens Park Rangers youth team at 13 and 15, respectively, thanks to a friend who bought an interest in the club and invited them to come participate. These adventures on their own taught my children independence, problem-solving, and self-confidence. Instead of holding them back because of fears, I sent them off because of opportunities. I never wore a bike helmet and fell off my bike twice with serious injuries, there were no seat belts in our cars growing up so I was lucky to never be in an accident and risk being thrown from the car, and I spent hours on my own getting to school, lessons, and activities because my mother had four other kids and a foster son and no car. So, she had no time and no means to provide me with transportation. Because I could drive my kids to places it opened up their opportunities but restricted their self-reliance. Therefore it was important that I give to them times to be independent and find their own way in the world. I credit soccer with providing my boys the experiences that fostered resourcefulness. Youth soccer can give them confidence both on and off the field, teaching them to rely on their wits and teaching them how to recover from failings.
Therefore, I absolutely encourage parents to relinquish some of their control and allow kids to navigate both actually and symbolically to and through their activities. I know how difficult it is because we watch the other “stage parents” manipulating and improving their kids’ situations and worry that our own children will fall behind. But I can speak from experience that those players whose parents spoke to the coaches, insisted on playing time, decided the clubs and positions they would play, and analyzed every game watched their children either burn out or be ill-equipped to handle adversity or both. In the end these kids quit. Helicopter parents prevent their kids from developing the skills to resolve problems and set and achieve their own goals. Except for a brief time for Bryce, none of my children went pro in their chosen activities (even Deana had gotten an audition with American Ballet Theater and decided it wasn’t for her), but they are successful and happy in life, which is really what we all want. Fame seems wonderful, but it can be fleeting. Figuring out how to stretch a quarter to get the most treats at the theater has held me in good stead for decades.