When I was a child, we played outside, rode bikes without helmets, rode in cars without booster seats and our parents didn't organize and supervise play dates.
This is a popular meme making the rounds on social media. It's usually accompanied by a photo of some kid jumping something enormous on a Big Wheel with no helmet, hair flying maniacally, face full of joy. The implication of course is that today's children are too coddled. The Atlantic just did a big article on this subject (See here). The article was good. It focused on helicopter parents and people who won't let their children do anything with risk.
But I think it's a mistake to revere the way things used to be. When I was a child, I was told to go out and "don't come back until it's dark." We would wander for hours. We had horses (that we rode without helmets), and we explored for miles. During a major flood in the early 1980s, we built a raft out of old boards and God knows what else, and floated down the road. We never did wear helmets, on horses or bikes, and no, we didn't get killed.
That said, a lot of the time I hated it. I hated when my mom sent me out and made me stay out. I wanted to be with her, but she was doing her own thing. We also got hurt. My sister was nearly hit by a car while riding her bike, and when she landed face first on the pavement, her permanent front teeth were knocked out. It is highly likely that if she had been wearing a helmet, the way the helmets are designed today would have prevented the tooth loss. I had several accidents on horses I'm lucky I survived (See Winged Gods and Goddesses), and I often wonder if the inclination toward bursitis in my shoulders came from one of those crashes.
I definitely had quite an imagination and spent a lot of time making up stories and acting them out with my sister and my friends. I would make up animal stories and then pretend I was in them. I'm sure this imaginary wandering was good for me. However, I also spent quite a lot of time alone and this was not always fun. I was lonely, desperately so, most of the time. My horse and my dog were my best friends; it's not surprising I made up animal stories because I spent most of my time alone with animals. I couldn't talk to my mom about anything and I was not unusual in this. None of my friends told their parents anything. We went out of our way to avoid doing so.
I am not raising my children like I was raised, but neither am I hovering over and planning their every move. I have taught both daughters to talk to strangers. I stand back while they approach the coffee barista and order their steamed milk. I taught my oldest daughter to walk to the park alone with the dog. Ironically, my mother was the biggest complainer about this, swearing she would end up kidnapped and dead in a ditch. When I reminded her about how we had been raised, she told me "Times are different now. It's more dangerous." Actually, Mom, it's not, especially in Portland, and if one follows basic premises like those laid out by Gavin DeBecker in The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift, it's definitely possible to move about while protecting ourselves from violence.
What I miss the most about my childhood has nothing to do with the involvement or lack thereof of my parents, but of what technology has taken from us. We didn't spend hours in front of screens because there was only the television, and it wasn't worth sitting in front of, and our mom wouldn't let us sit in front of it for hours. She sent us out to stay outside, rain or shine. Our telephones didn't have caller ID or any other means of knowing who was on the other end of the line. We would call pizza parlors and order pizzas to our friends' houses. We would call people named White in the phone book, ask them if it was the White House, then ask to speak to the president. We would call people and ask if their refrigerator was running, then tell them they better go catch it. We called the grocery store and asked if they had pigs' feet. When they answered affirmatively, we asked where they bought their shoes. We spent hours doing this kind of thing, laughing until we couldn't sit up. I suppose we could never have done it if our parents had been supervising too closely.
The biggest difference between myself and how I am raising my children and how I and most of my generational compatriots were raised is that I want to spend my time with my children and they want to spend time with me. I don't send them away with the admonition to stay out until dark. When my oldest daughter invites friends over, they don't hide out away from me, they seek me out. We interact and enjoy one another. I don't see this as a bad thing. When I see the memes extolling the past where crazy kids did crazy things without mom and dad nearby, a part of me thinks, Hell yeah! But that's quickly followed by bittersweet sadness at the long days alone or arguing with my sister. I would take the relationships I have with my children over what I had with my mom any day.
When I was a girl, I imagined having a daughter and talking to her for hours. I imagined that we would be close. I imagined riding horses with her and going on hikes, telling her about getting my period for the first time and loving my horse more than any boy. Now I'm a mom and this is how it is, and I wouldn't trade any of this closeness for all the helmet-free, bike-flying in the world.