(Edited version of a 2019 post)
The incessant hovering of parents and surrogates that our Boomer Generation appears to have invented, that which our own children have ramped up into hyperdrive, has me wondering: Did we Boomers consider our children to be more precious than did the parents of previous generations? The parental behaviors of which I’m speaking are analogous to purchasing a lockable curio cabinet made of bullet-proof glass into which a valuable item can be placed for viewing, instead of placing the item on a shelf where it might be touched, moved, damaged or pilfered. The figurative curio cabinet about which I’m thinking is characterized by behaviors I do not recall happening in the Fifties, things like:
- Completely replacing the time of a child’s independence outside of the home with activities that are overseen by parents or their surrogates.
- Only engaging in sports in organized leagues (may the sandlot rest in peace) with the following corollaries:
- Sports cannot be played unless a child is wearing sport-specific shoes and suits that have undergone thousands of hours of research and development by manufacturers (e.g. for swimming, from Dick’s Sporting Goods: “Watch him leave competition in the dust and lead the team to victory in the TYR® Boys’ Alliance Team Splice Jammer!”).
- Sports cannot be played without equipment that must be carried in sport-specific containers (e.g. baseball bat backpacks and basketball, soccer, cheer leading, and field hockey backpacks, which are only a sample of the sports-specific bags available, some of which are offered as roller packs) or without essential accessories (e.g. no-one could possibly swing a baseball bat without wearing $25 batting gloves…in T-ball leagues!)
- Indulging as many of our kids’ wishes for material things as the family budget can be strained to provide, from elaborate princess dresses, to electric cars the preschool set can ride in while they drive about the driveway, to child-oriented, Internet-ready devices.
- Creating experiences that children as young as three could not begin to imagine or appreciate such as Caribbean cruises, birthday parties at remote sites like the Baltimore Aquarium, sessions at beauty salons and nail parlors, or the myriad other things that advantaged parents apparently now view as essential to the emotional well-being of their children.
- Providing opportunities to take lessons in some activity within milliseconds of a child responding positively to something the parent has intentionally placed into the child’s view such as, ballet, horseback riding, skiing: the list is as long as one’s imagination.
- Always believing whatever your child tells you regardless of any negative report expressed by a teacher or any other responsible adult, an extreme example of which, as described to me by the Superintendent of a school district a few miles from my home who affirmed that in the district’s high school, “every time” parents are called in to speak with the principal about their child having broken a rule that may have consequences (e.g. a three-day suspension), they bring their attorney with them.
Have children always been seen as being this precious? I’m not so sure. I’m not saying that mothers and fathers and others have not loved children since the advent of children; after all, there are videos and other documentation of humans in “primitive” cultures who display grief over the loss of a child that is analogous to the grief expressed by allegedly more advanced cultures. And anthropologists have unearthed graves, the contents of which indicate that prehistoric children have been buried with accouterments that indicate those children had likely been loved.
On the other hand, I recall speaking with an elderly Italian-American woman who lived in my house for over fourteen years who was adamant about the importance of a family having a lot of children “in case you lose some,” which I assumed did not mean the temporary loss of a child at the mall. Such an attitude expressed so easily and with such certitude suggests her view may not have been a unique one for someone of her generation; rather, it may have reflected the ancient, agrarian culture from which she had descended. While she exhibited an emotional attachment to her own child, her words suggest that part of the value of a child to her may be associated with the utilitarian need for their services.
As I was considering the possible content of this post, I wondered if my questioning of the degree to which earlier generations regarded children was a result of my having read too much Dickens (which of course was silly of me to think because no one can read too much Dickens). My wonder was quickly extinguished after reviewing several encyclopedic accounts of child labor. This link to Wikipedia provides a good summary of “The Way We Were” in the 19th and early 20th Centuries in the context of whether children were considered precious: Child Labor. For a large swath of humanity, it seems children were chattel only valued in proportion to the degree to which they could be exploited, e.g. being paid as little as 10% of adult wages to perform work that adults could not or did not want to perform, in some cases for twelve hours or more each day.
Having spent most of my adult life in public education, my first-hand, non-scientific-sample-of-one has taught me a few things directly. There are economic considerations in some families that still require children to contribute to the family budget; however, the law now insists that young children cannot be employed. There are examples where children seem to be willing participants (see: Independence Days and Responsibility), but certainly there are many places in the world where children are not viewed as precious. Governments had to create laws—a metaphorical curio cabinet—to protect children, which again begs the question, before Boomers came along, where children truly viewed as being precious?
I realize that I am treading heavily in the realm of generalities and that there are always significant exceptions to such observations, but warily continuing in this vein of possible oversimplification, it seems to me that the very wealthy may have long treated their children as precious curios. Of course, wealth can come from the thousands of hours devoted to the acquisition of it to the detriment of ignored children. Day care, nannies, and boarding school may be evidence that reflects more upon a need to rely on and an ability to pay for individuals and agencies to provide surrogate parenting, than it reflects upon the degree to which the wealthy care about their kids.
I am of the opinion that the remarkable degree of freedom most of us were granted while growing up Boomer provided us with an appreciation of the value of things, an understanding that instant gratification was not going to happen, as well as a sense of empowerment that allowed us to look at our futures as something about which we were solely responsible—not our parents.
The following link will take you to a 2015 web article by John K. Rosmond that provides an excellent yet brief summary of what it was like growing up Boomer: Pre-1960s Parenting Vs. Parenting Today. I encourage you to peruse the article, and after reading it, you may wish to ponder the same question that has been plaguing me for years: Why have we and then our children failed to employ the same positive parental practices that made us who we are as a generation?
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