Sometimes when I look back upon my childhood using the eyes of the mother I now am, I really want to ask my own mother one question:
“Were you fucking NUTS?!”
When I was a young child, my parents took our family camping every weekend during the summer. We didn’t go to a crowded campground; we went to a privately-owned plot of 2,000 acres located just inside the border of western Pennsylvania. There were five lakes on the property, even though we only ever referred to the place as “The Lake,” and there were an indeterminate number of foot and four-wheeler trails throughout. If you played a game of “Hide And Seek” with someone, it was very likely that they’d never be able to find you.
This was a place where, at most, 100 other people might be on the land at any given time. We’d set up our tent campsite in late spring and leave everything there until September. It was our quiet, country refuge; a coveted home away from our home in the city. The designated campground area at The Lake resembled a gypsy commune, which is one of the things I loved most about it. A tradition of visiting other campsites in the evening meant that you got to enjoy great company and a free buffet dinner every night, and when we cooked meals at our own campsite, we planned to be able to feed at least 20 people who might happen by. Breakfast was always wherever you first smelled bacon cooking over campfire coals that were still smoldering from the night before.
Everyone knew everyone else and the same folks took up the same campsites every year. They were our “lake family,” and we were “lake people.” There was a palpable sense of safety in our seclusion from the rest of the world because only members could gain access to this gated wilderness. Every summer weekend, we lived in a private, wooded wonderland where there were no real rules and its inhabitants could literally do whatever they wanted.
When I became a teenager, I would drive my parents’ car down a winding dirt road that led from the campground to the lake itself, unsupervised and with their permission. I should probably also mention here that I was only fourteen at the time and that the car was filled with other kids who wanted to go swimming and who didn’t want to walk a quarter mile to get there. None of us wore seat belts.
There were no curfews. No bedtimes. In fact, it was common for a group of us, aged anywhere from thirteen to eighteen or so, to wander the land at night like a roaming gang of parent-less, hillbilly punks. I can’t count the number of balmy summer nights we spent walking and talking together, or stripping off our clothes to go skinny dipping in the lake just because we felt like it. We would leap off of the rocks into black water that was fifteen feet deep at its shallowest. Sometimes we built little campfires of our own. We smoked cigarettes. Occasionally, if someone “borrowed” a joint, we would get high. We returned to our campsites to go to bed when we were tired, often long after our parents turned in for the night.
We were treated like adults, treated like we could be responsible for making our own decisions, because our parents trusted us to do so. Looking back, we were lucky. No one ever drowned. No one got pregnant. No one was burned alive, although not for a lack of trying. I used to “pallet dance” over bonfires, which is as dangerous and stupid as it sounds. The most important part of that activity was simple: jump off the pallet before it burned all the way through.
Jackass-holery aside, having such freedom is what allowed me to mature, to navigate friendships and relationships, and to ace my driving test without ever having gone to driving school. Most importantly, though, I learned how to make judgement calls (albeit sometimes very bad ones), eventually becoming wiser from all the stupid things I did or didn’t do.
These days, though, parents get into trouble for letting their kids walk to the playground alone. I walked to school by myself when I was in the first grade; I was seven. I was a latchkey kid by the time I was ten, and cooking a complete dinner for my family after school by the time I was twelve. I went to the playground – unsupervised – all the fucking time from the age of eight or so.
Do I think my parents were wrong for raising me the way I was raised? Absolutely not. I gained a hell of a lot of vital life skill that I might not have developed otherwise. If you ask me, I think our current society has bred too much fear into itself. It’s irrational. I’ve researched the statistics – violent crimes and kidnappings have decreased since I was a kid in the 80’s. In fact, violent crime in general has been on the downswing for quite some time. While threats have changed and evolved alongside human civilization throughout the centuries, the world has always been a dangerous place; that’s the nature of life on earth. Even so, the current generation of helicopter parents is clinging far more tightly to its children than any of its predecessors.
With our smartphones and computers, Facebook and Twitter accounts, news stories roar across the landscape like a wildfire on napalm steroids. Tragedies that occur everywhere in the world are now at our fingertips in an instant, bringing them so close to us that they feel as though they’ve happened in our own backyards. To make matters worse, the media sensationalizes these stories to the point that they’re all we hear whenever we turn on the news or visit a social media site, convincing us that our children are in imminent danger of being the next horrific news story if we aren’t monitoring them 24/7.
We’ve developed a man-made culture of fear – fear for our children’s lives. I am a victim of it, myself. When I gave birth to my first child in 2002, I thought I would never be able to let her out of my sight. Dammit, sometimes I still don’t know if I can. I am a hypocrite because I won’t even let her go to the mall with her friends, which is something that I did when I was younger than she is now. My mom would drop me off at the mall and pick me up several hours later – I could have been doing anything during that time, or left the mall with anyone. There were no cellphones, no ability to check in with her unless it was through a payphone.
If anything, our constant connectivity to our children today should make them safer. It should make us feel more secure when we watch them walk out the door, or when they watch us walk out the door without them.
And yet, somehow it doesn’t.
I can’t help but wonder if we are doing a disservice to our children by hovering over them so closely. We are terrified of letting them live their lives out of fear that they’ll make mistakes, yet their independence is the one thing that fosters both self-reliance and self-esteem, two necessary traits for successful adults. As parents, where do we draw the line between appropriate supervision and overprotection? The times have changed, certainly, but have they really changed that much? Is it safe to land the helicopters yet?