Tag Archive | "childhood"

Now and Later

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Now and Later

Memory’s an odd thing, a labyrinthine library in which you can get lost for better or worse.

 

Some unknown trigger just tossed a vivid memory into my own mind: an image of my kid sister, in the ’60’s, popping her beloved Now and Later Pills.  Carefully budgeted from her weekly allowance of fifty cents, these must-haves sent her straight to Nirvana and never once had my parents sticking their fingers down her throat or frantically dialing the Poison Control Center.  Now and Later Pills, you see, were not a prescription medication or an illegal substance; they were a treat from our neighborhood candy store. On the heels of this memory came daunting notions of what might happen today if parents caught their offspring downing something of the same name: the accusations, the lawsuits, the therapy, the appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show.  In protecting children from every potential slight, and in providing them with the best and latest that our society offers, have we, in essence, robbed them of their childhood?

 

Born on Halloween and fascinated with things that go bump in the night, as a child, I was allowed to watch the old ’30’s horror films: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy — in the dark.  Now, many parents, if not the ratings police, would deem these masterpiece films too horrific for youngsters.  Instead, kids are steered into carefully calculated money-draws such as Disney’s Monsters and Aliens, a de-fanged, high-tech animation flick that reduces such creatures to cartoons.  The children are missing out.  Not only did I survive the films with no nightmares, they bred my interest in quality literature.  The movies prompted me to seek out and read, twice each, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, which the latter wrote, on a bet well won, at the age of eighteen.  Beautifully crafted, both haunting stories are metaphors for and lessons in human behavior, including the need to take responsibility for the things that you create: knowledge that I never would have gained if denied access to the films.

 

Initially, I found both books at the library.  The Internet may have made the process of research instantaneous, but it has also reduced it to the acquisition of a few brief paragraphs on complex topics; it has robbed the experience of much of its richness.  The hurry up and grow up children born in front of a computer never have the pleasure of culling titles from the card catalog, selecting books from the myriad choices, and cracking them open to read them  — quietly — all the way through.   At the age of eleven, I went to Russia, India, and Spain on John Gunther’s Inside series.  To this day, I still remember a few words in Russian, the reasons why Indians do not eat with their left hands, and the choice words that Pablo Picasso had for a would-be protégé.   Now, libraries are coffee houses, live chat rooms of the first degree that just happen to lend books.

 

I rode my bike to the library.  In fact, I rode it everywhere, from dawn to dusk, with my friends. And it was not just an ordinary bicycle.  It was a spaceship, a time-travel machine, the Bat Mobile, a sports coupe in a race for my life against enemy spies.  Neither my parents nor my friends dogged us like Roman guards with vestal virgins.  They did not push us into multiple, questionable activities but left us to our own creativity and responsibility.  Now, parents chauffer children to and from numerous activities that allegedly enhance their physical and mental well being, activities that are supposed to encourage health competition.  But do they?

 

When I was a kid, a helmet was something worn by a motorcyclist, not a child on a bike or a pair of skates.  The only pads that kissed my knees were Band-Aids®.  I took my scrapes and once-blackened eye, cried, and moved on, having learned that it’s really not a good idea to take your hands and feet off your bike handles and pedals at the same exact moment … and leave them off longer than a moment.  Kids who engage in sports now are as protected as the Michelin Man® inside his inflated rubber suit.

 

As a bookworm, I was the last kid picked for any team.  The isolation hurt, but truthfully, just a bit, driving me further into literature and eventually, a fulfilling career in publishing and writing.  Now, everyone participates in sports; no talent needed.  I nearly fell over the other day when my sister-in-law informed me that my nephew was “only a winner” and not a “champion” in his karate competition, where “every kid is at least a winner.”  Well, reality says that they are not.  Each kid is different; each kid has his or her own interests and abilities. They do not all blend together, like ingredients tossed into a stew, simmering into a single, indefinable flavor.

 

Somewhere, some kid who can download a software “app” and use it a lot faster than I can get to the library is laughing his little you-know-what off at me.   The productive tyke is calling me a relic, if he even knows what that term means (doubtful, as the child does not read anything in depth).  He pities me.  He does not understand, for he was never given the opportunity, what it is to live with “the gloves off” — to take a risk, to go the extra mile, to do something unique.  And I pity him, for as David Bowie sang so eloquently and candidly in Young Americans:

 

“We live for just these twenty years.
Do we have to die for the fifty more?”

The Peter Pan Syndrome

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Peter Pan

If “thirty is the new twenty” today in terms of people’s maturity, could ten be the new five?  It might be, given that children seem more overindulged and pampered than ever before.  Today’s youth benefits from freedoms never enjoyed by prior generations.  In the past, youngsters were forced to grow up quickly, assuming much more responsibility than their counterparts of 2009. 

 

Nowadays, babies come into this world because of their parents’ desire to have a family.  Cherished and spoiled, many children have no real obligations other than school and extracurricular activities, including various sports.  With all of their free time, they text and chat with friends on their cell phones, surf the Internet, and watch a good deal of television.  Today’s teens stay up longer in the evening, sleep later on the weekends, go to the movies, and hang out at the mall.  While the young ones enjoy all this leisure time, their parents take care of their laundry, tidy up their rooms, and act as chauffeurs for all of their social engagements.  Kids are generally given material wants such as electronic games; they do not have to work to earn the money to purchase those items.

 

Things were very different in times gone by.  Children were born out of their families’ necessity to create an unpaid source of labor.  This labor was vital to the maintenance of households and farms that did not contain the appliances and other technology that we now take for granted.  Of course, children were not put to work the moment they left the womb.  But as soon as they had developed the proper motor skills, they pitched in, doing whatever needed to be done.

 

This entailed and was by no means limited to weeding the garden, gathering kindling for fires to heat the home, harvesting vegetables, drying the dishes, or carting water into the house. A trip to a creek or a well to carry water back to the home was a real chore.  It was worse in winter, when kids had to break the ice on streams and ponds to access water for the family, including companion and farm animals.

 

The laundry was not a matter of tossing dirty clothes and detergent into a washing machine.  A roaring fire had to be built to heat a large caldron filled with water.  Once the water boiled, the clothing was placed into it and stirred with a long pole to agitate the garments and thus ensure their cleanliness.  More water had to be toted in to rinse the clothes of the soapy, dirty water.  As electronic dryers did not exist, the clothing was hung on clotheslines to dry.  And if no rope was available, the garments draped onto trees or bushes.

 

We complain now about working eight to ten hour days, but before technology (and labor unions), the workday was much longer. Children had to rise at dawn, or earlier, to feed the farm animals, muck out the stalls, milk the cows, and gather eggs.  Since breakfast items were not bought in stores and placed in refrigerators by hard-working parents, meals had to be planned more carefully around the hens’ and cows’ production.  And, fresh water was required for cooking and washing the dishes.

 

Children attended school when it was feasible, usually in clement weather; winter dictated that children remained housebound.  The snow was too deep to travel across and frostbite was a real danger.  Also, in bad snowstorms, it was easy to lose one’s way just a few feet from one’s own front door for lack of landmarks, such as the crowded developments and streetlights that we have today.  Children took much of their knowledge from their parents’ experiences.  For instance, the sons of blacksmiths, farmers, and carpenters learned their crafts at their fathers’ knees.  Mothers taught their daughters how to cook, can food, sew, and keep the house clean (imagine doing this with no vacuum cleaners).  When the crops ripened, children were often pulled out of school to help with the harvest, which was a critical chore.  To literally survive the long, cold winters, families were dependent upon not only their farm animals for sustenance, but upon the crops that they could “put up” in glass jars or store in dark basements.

 

As a result of their responsibilities and close relationships with their immediate families, kids did not have much time to socialize beyond school or church functions. Transportation was not readily available unless the family was fortunate enough to have extra horses.  These precious commodities were not only used for transportation but also for clearing land and plowing fields.  Horses were not to be used for a lighthearted visit with friends.

 

While today’s offspring may perform chores such as taking out the trash, babysitting, or mowing the lawn, they certainly are not as overwhelmed as the kids of yesteryear.

 

As a member of the Baby Boomer generation, I can relate to some extent to some of the things these hardworking youngsters endured.  I grew up in a large middle class family that lacked some of the modern appliances of the day.  For instance, we had an old Maytag ringer.  It was a pain to lug the water needed to fill up the tub to start the first load.   When the water got too dirty, it was time to refill it.  I also had to fill up a rinse tub and feed the clothes and linens through the wringer without popping it.  That particular task was scary, because I always feared that I would break the device and receive a lecture or worse, a lesson on my derriere.  By the time I had hung the clothes out to dry on the line and had emptied the machine, I felt as if I had put in a long day’s work.

 

As I grew older, I was expected to work in the garden during the summers, pulling weeds out of the ground by hand, not with a chemical spray.  When the vegetables began bearing crops, my duties expanded to picking green beans off the vines.   This may not sound like much of a chore, but imagine working beneath a hot sun and getting bitten repeatedly by mosquitoes. Once the green beans were picked, we had to snap off their tough ends so that they would be ready for cooking.  Sometimes, my sisters disappeared during this phase, leaving my mother and me sitting on the porch, snapping beans.  This was the best of this particular job, as it gave me a chance to talk and connect with my mother.

 

I did not grow up with a telephone in the house.  My family finally acquired a phone when I was a teenager, but even then, my siblings and I were not allowed to use it much; it was an added expense for our large family.  In those days, frequent caller plans did not exist.

 

Lacking a dishwasher, more than a few arguments ensued over who was in charge of washing or drying the dishes.  My mother had to referee her share of fights.  If the situation called for it, my dad stepped in.  If he felt that we needed more encouragement to behave, my dad would grab a switch (a branch) or the fly swatter, and use it our behinds.

 

If your children make a fuss about the few minor chores they are required to do, feel free to whip out a copy of this article for them.  Kids now enjoy many luxuries, including indoor plumbing, air conditioning, dishwashers, the ability to communicate instantly with their friends through technology, and the gift of prepared and ready-to-prepare foods.  In addition, child labor laws prevent youngsters from having their education interrupted to do backbreaking work.  When you tell your kids to enjoy their childhood, they’ll understand a little better just how good they have it. 

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