Ah, the good old days. When childhood was all about the danger. Well, not really. But our parents were definitely more relaxed than we are. When did we all get so uptight and start spoiling our kids' fun?
It wasn't until 1984 that the first law (in New York state) was passed in the U.S. mandating the use of seat belts. Until then, kids roamed wild in cars, clinging on for dear life whenever mom took a sharp corner. Dangerous? Sure. More exciting than being strapped down? Hell yeah. When I was a baby, I was placed on the rear seat of our car in my Moses basket for a two-hour journey. No joke.
If I sent my kid out on their bike without a helmet on, I'd be hung, drawn and quartered by the local parenting police. Today, 22 states have laws regarding mandatory helmet use by minors on bikes. No parent wants their precious child to crack their head on the sidewalk, of course. But there's something about cycling without a helmet that's just so liberating. Would Stand By Me have been as cool if Gordie and gang had their heads encased in foamed polymer linings?
When I get all rose-tinted glasses about my childhood, I'm 8 years old and running around the park with my sister and our friends. Our knees are dirty and our imaginations are running wild. The best part is that our parents are nowhere to be seen. We were — gasp! — playing outdoors unsupervised, and we did it every day we possibly could, weather permitting. Please don't throw up in your mouth when I tell you I can still remember the sound of the crickets in the long grass, because it's true. What will our kids remember when they think back to their childhood playtimes? The tug of the reins on their backs as they try to drag their mothers into the sandpit? The communal sharp intake of breath from the adults watching their every move as they dangle from the playground monkey bars? Hey, maybe our parents got it right — recent studies say unsupervised play is better for our kids.
Now that we're reminiscing, I have to say that the setting of some of my most vivid childhood memories was the back of my parents' car, which suggests that I spent quite a lot of my time there. Currently, 19 states in the U.S. have laws making it illegal to leave a child unattended in a vehicle. In the U.K., where I grew up, it's still left to the parent's discretion — but you'd think it was a criminal offense judging by some people's attitudes. Listen, if my mom hadn't left my sister and me in the car while she went into the supermarket, we wouldn't have the "She bit me on the belly" story, which we've dined (and drunk) out on many a time. Priceless memories, people.
My dad has a story about walking miles to school on his own that he loves to share on a regular basis. It may have been exaggerated over the years. We walked to school as kids too — not miles, but far enough. Today, parents in some countries are threatened with incarceration if they let their kids walk to school alone. Walking to school alone was never really walking to school alone though, was it? We walked in big groups, plotting and giggling and pretending to be cool and staring at the back of the head of the boy we crushed on. If it was snowing and we could arrive at school with damp hair and red cheeks, all the better.
I suspect my mother had an enormous jar of candy stashed somewhere in the kitchen and gave us a handful of coins and sent us to the local store just to get us out of her hair for half an hour. Now that I'm a mom, I can totally relate. And I envy her, because I can't do that with my kids. (See above re: parenting police.) My sister and I loved jumping on our bikes (without helmets, naturally) and pedaling to the store to spend our money on whatever tooth-rotting crap we wanted. It was freedom. It was independence. It was a much-needed break for our mom.
OK, maybe not. But we did sometimes go on public transportation without our parents. I remember a school friend of mine telling me that her mom used to put her on a train every summer to visit her grandparents, who would be waiting for her on the platform at the end of her two-hour journey. I was incredibly jealous of how grown-up that was. I imagined my friend meeting lots of interesting people and arriving at her destination a more mature, better version of herself. Nowadays, there are strict rules concerning a minor traveling unaccompanied by an adult. Killjoys.
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