The Organizing Of Growing Up
Comparing childhood then to today, I don’t know how so many of us in my generation got out alive. I guess when we were living it, neither our parents nor we were aware of just how dangerous life could be – or later when we were raising our own kids, for that matter.
Back then, we didn’t wear helmets or pads to ride our bikes or go skating, we just got on our bikes and rode; laced up our CCM skates from Sears or Canadian Tire and hit the ice. We fell a lot and sometimes ran into things like trees and each other. I can remember some scraped knees and elbows but somehow, whether it was just good luck or whatever, most of us managed to get through that period in our lives without serious injury.
We didn’t have car seats either. We used to sit in the back seat, or if we were lucky and it was our turn, sit in the front passenger seat hanging out the window and making screeching brake noises when our dads turned the corner or came to a sudden stop. You had to hang on when that happened because we didn’t wear seat belts either. Most cars didn’t come equipped with them.
We only played indoors when it was really nasty weather or had been grounded and then, only if we had too. We were more resilient than the mailman and it took more than rain or snow, sleet or hail to keep us from getting outside.
Sometimes in the Spring, we’d head over to the pond or some backed up drainage pool and build rafts out of scraps of lumber we had found. They didn’t float very well which usually meant we got wet and got hell when we went home. Of course, most of us could swim pretty good back then because we spent a lot of time at the pool and the beach. Typically, after teaching us somewhat aggressively not to talk back to our mothers, swimming was one of the first things our fathers taught us how to do.
We played pick-up baseball in parks and fields, road hockey on the street and a lot of other games that involved a considerable amount of running around and jumping off sometimes reasonably high things. What we didn’t do was put on much in the way of protective gear; our parents couldn’t afford it and nobody much thought about it back then.
This isn’t nostalgia for the good old days, it’s just the way things were. If you owned a pair of skates, a hockey stick, a baseball hat and a glove – you were living large. Typically when we were going to play a pick-up game of baseball, we had to wait until the kid who owned the bat came out because almost none of us owned a glove, a ball and a bat. I still remember standing around waiting for the one guy who owned a tennis ball to come out so we could play road hockey.
Kids were supposed to get a little banged up at times – it was considered part of learning not to do stupid and reckless things.
Clearly our parents were bad parents. They had only a modicum of sympathy if we fell off our bikes and while they enrolled us in organized sports, we were expected to play to try and win. Winning wasn’t everything to them but they were as interested in the outcome of the game as we were. Surprisingly, they were quite consoling when we did lose which was probably more often than I like to remember.
We walked to school in good weather and bad rather than taking buses although we did roll our eyes when our fathers would wax poetically about how they had to walk 500 miles every day through wind and snow to get to their tiny one-room schoolhouse.
We took phys-ed in school. Girls wore those clunky gym bloomer outfits and guys wore shorts and tee shirts. We did exercises, played sports and had five minutes to shower after gym class which meant we drip-dried in the next two classes. Girls, for some reason, didn’t have to shower, the lucky buggers.
Our dogs ran loose; typically getting in the way of our road hockey and baseball games or showing whoever was ‘It’ in hide and seek where we were hiding. They chased cars on our streets and pooped on our lawns and you had to be careful where you stepped or you’d be scrapping the sole of your sneakers against the curb for twenty minutes. We wore sneakers back then, not athletic shoes.
God! It was a deprived and dangerous world we lived in.
On Halloween, we went trick or treating with the admonition not to eat anything until we brought it home so that our parents could inspect it. Back then, the truly demented (and there were a few) used to put things like razor blades and straight pins in apples they handed out. It didn’t result in cancelling Halloween or our parents patrolling the streets with us, just a quick check by them when we brought home our loot. Besides, we had our own way of dealing with people like that. We’d fill a paper bag with fresh dog poop and toilet paper, set it on fire on their doorstep and then ring their doorbell; running to hide behind a bush to watch as they came out and stamped on the bag in their slippers.
Culturally insensitive, we participated in Christmas pageants and concerts at school. We played shepherds and wise men, Mary and Joseph. Sometimes our teachers thought it was cute to dress some of us up like cows and sheep for the stable but most of us thought that was pretty corny. We sang Away in a Manager and Little Drummer Boy at Christmas Concerts and even my buddy Simon, who was Jewish, used to sing in the junior Christmas choir with us.
Simon was one of the lucky ones in school and considered quite cool because he got to celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah. Most of us were quite envious although we didn’t much understand what Chanukah actually was but anything that involved getting presents had to be good thing.
Sometimes we got into fights with each other, usually shoving and wrestling matches with the odd wild punch or slap but mostly just acting tough without actually doing much. Occasionally there’d be a rock fight although if you lived on the prairies and had access to it, spear grass was great. If you opened up the stalk, all the five inch shoots that would later be released as seedlings could be extracted.
One end was barbed and the other kind of feathery and those shoots made great little darts to throw at someone who had annoyed you on a particular day.
Like today, we had bullies back then but we learned to deal with them on our own. If you couldn’t outrun them, you banded together and taught a bully by a little laying on of multiple hands that it was better to leave us alone than try to beat us up. We protected each other and when we couldn’t our parents did. They didn’t form committees and hold meetings to discuss the problem, they dropped around to have a chat with the parents of the bully; sometimes somewhat aggressively.
We learned how to make bows and arrows out of willow branches and a kind of zip gun out of sawed off hockey sticks, garter elastic and clothes pins. You could shoot a half a clothes pin about 25’ with one of those suckers.
At Christmas and on our birthdays, our parents bought us chemistry and woodburning sets, board games, Barbie dolls, figure skates, BB guns, bows and arrows; lawn darts and hunting knives, hockey sticks and hockey skates among other things. Our grandparents bought us socks, new shirts or blouses and underwear.
We were enrolled in Scouts and camped outdoors in winter where we learned how to create lean-tos out of pine boughs and make a fire with wet branches. Girls were enrolled in Brownies and Guides where they learned how to work together as a team and earned merit badges for everything from cooking to sports.
We played Monopoly, Parcheesi, Risk and Sorry which was kind of a cheap version of Parcheesi; girls skipped and joined us in games like tag and Red Rover. Girls had this weird game where they put a rubber ball in the toe of one of their mother’s stockings and tied the other end of the stocking to their ankle and then somehow got the ball spinning around them along the ground in a circle . They hopped over it every time it passed their feet. Guys never played it – we not only couldn’t figure it out, we could never get the ball going around us in a circle.
Our families had televisions but we seldom watched them even though we had fewer channels but more actual choice. It didn’t mater, we were too busy to watch television. If it was light outside , we were outside.
Sex was a distant mystery for us and didn’t concern us much until we hit puberty at which point it became a fairly significant curiosity for us. It was our parents who taught us about sex until the government decided to introduce Sex Ed in health class where they taught that you could get an STD from toilet seats among other things.
Our parents weren’t always comfortable talking to us about sex but they certainly seemed to understand it better than the government.
Our parents loved us but they didn’t smother us in bubble wrap to keep us safe. They kept an eye on us but they expected us to learn by making mistakes and sometimes getting hurt. They knew the value of learning how to lose at a game and they understood, just as wild animals do. that play is part of how you prepare children for the adult world.
They taught us manners, respect for our elders and laid down rules. They didn’t rely on the advice of experts or parenting books although some did try the Dr. Spock child rearing method for a time. They relied instead on love, discipline and a lot of common sense.
We were taught how to make our beds, how to shine our shoes, iron our clothes and even how to cook. We were expected to help with the dishes because our parents understood that chores were how we learned to take care of ourselves.
Today, we don’t even teach our kids how to operate a bank account or write a check. They apply for credit cards when they’re old enough without benefit of having been taught how to budget or manage their money. We got weekly allowances, if we lucky (and hadn’t broken the rules during the week) and it was expected to last.
And there were rules; lots of them. Curfews extensions were a privilege that was earned and there was discipline if you broke the rules.
Because of the way we were raised, we learned to be careful (at least most of the time), to be tolerant of people who weren’t like us and most of us were pretty fit. The only fat kids we had typically stayed inside rather than coming out to play.
It was not a perfect time and lots of mistakes were made but I feel sorry for kids today. Their lives are organized; at least until they become teens and give their confused parents the middle finger salute. Other kids grow up without any structure at all. It’s like we’ve lost the idea of a happy median.
Kids just don’t just go out and play, they have arranged play dates. Their toys must be CSA safety approved and the family goes nowhere until each child is strapped into their car seat so firmly, they can’t move. They wear helmets and pads to ride their bikes or use their skate boards, are not allowed to play on the road, even on backstreet cul de sacs and they don’t understand why they’re playing soccer when nobody is keeping score. It seems like an awful lot of effort for very little reward to them I’m sure.
We ate junk food – especially if my mother was cooking dinner. She was a dear lady, a great baker but couldn’t cook to save her life or ours. My father did most of the cooking when he got home from work which meant that most of the time we got a balanced meal but on the nights Mom cooked; God alone knew what we were eating.
The thing is that even though we did eat candy and drink soft drinks, we burned it off. We were active because we were allowed to play. We weren’t told how to play, we were simply allowed to go and play.It allowed us to develop our imaginations and we could create a new game at the drop of a hat.
We went to church or temple or to a mosque every week. We thought our Sikh buddies were pretty cool because they got to carry a ceremonial knife and some of them knew how to play this weird game they taught us called cricket. We sang the national anthem to start the school day and we decorated our schools and wore poppies on Remembrance Day. In other words, faith, respect and national pride were part of what we were taught as we grew up.
We lived in neighbourhoods back then. The kids we went to school with were the kids we played with in our neighbourhoods. It made it easier for us to identify strangers from someone who belonged in our neighbourhood.
Today, kids are bused and driven everywhere and they have no sense of community. Their school is way over there and their soccer and hocky, gym, dance and arts classes are somewhere else completely. We buy our homes based on status rather than community, size rather than neighbourhood opportunities for our kids and our families. We move into a neighbourhood but we don’t integrate into the community. Few of us really know very many of our neighbors any more and neither do our kids.
There were no progressive experts analyzing play and directing how we should do things, we simply played and in that way we learned, we satisfied some of our curiosity, burned off a lot of energy and, most important of all, we had fun.
In society’s earnest attempts to protect its children, it has taken away all of the fun and curiosity that comes with being a kid. We have turned them into little whiners and complainers, more intent on getting their own way or spending hours with their video games than with each other.
The concept of children being different than adults is relatively new in terms of human history. Back in the Middle Ages, children were expected to do their share of the family’s work – survival took precedence over play. When the work was done, children and adults played the same games like leap frog and often played them together.
We changed that during the Industrial Revolution with the introduction of child labour laws and mandatory schooling.
The concept of being a child had evolved and along with it, how we treated children. It became all about preparing children for the workforce rather than for life. Now we don’t actually prepare them for much of anything at all. That’s the state’s responsibility in the eyes of many.
Over the years we improved on protection of children and that is always a good thing. But there is a difference between protecting them and smothering them and we, my friends, are smothering children today. Kids now live in a society where all of the fun is being removed from simply learning how to grow up.
It’s a shame because we aren’t doing them any favours; we’re simply educating them to believe that there is no danger if they follow all the rules – we aren’t allowing them to learn how to deal with failure, or danger. We are teaching them to think they can have anything they want simply by demanding it from others and that life owes them.
Bullying is on the increase as is intolerance. Our children are lonely and increasingly feeling isolated without anchors. Teen suicide rates are increasing at an alarming rate. When I was growing up, I never heard of one kid in any community in which I lived taking their own life. Educational literacy is plummeting at precisely the time expectations have become disproportionately unrealistic. But it isn’t our children’s fault; it’s ours.
We are building a society that is failing them because there’s a hard cold reality waiting for them when they leave school – a reality they are not expecting and for which they are unprepared.
© 2013 Maggie’s Bear
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