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Post Magazine
This Week: When Mom's Away...
Hosted by Liza Mundy
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, May 12, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

In classic children's literature -- from The Cat in the Hat to Peter Pan to the Good Dog Carl books -- nothing really interesting ever seems to happen until Mom's out of the picture. Why is that, and are generations of great writers trying to tell us something?

Liza Mundy, whose cover-story essay appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, May 12 at 1 p.m. ET, to field questions and comments about the article.

Mundy is a Magazine staff writer and the mother of two young children.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Liza Mundy: Hello everyone and thanks for signing on. I've scanned the list of questions and it's a very literate crowd. Lots of people remembering lots of childhood stories, some of which have mothers, many of which don't. If nothing else, you're likely to leave this chat with a reading list.....

Washington, D.C.: One of my favorite childhood books was "Pippi Longstocking." Pippi is an orphan who lives in a house with her Monkey and her Horse. Her Mom is up in Heaven and her Dad is a great sea captain who appears once in a great while to tell of his adventures.
Of course, Pippi gets into trouble, but she is also loving, compassionate, endearing, and makes a mean swedish cookie.
She does not go to school, although her friends do.
I didn't read any deep meaning into these when I read them as a child. Certainly I wished no harm to my mother, and I could never picture my Dad as a great sea captain!

Liza Mundy: That's right, I totally forgot about Pippi, who should have been included in my list of dead-mother stories. I don't think I read the book growing up; I do think I saw the movie. She sounds a lot like the kids in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: Momgone, and a fun, eccentric, semi-attentive, adventurous father who doesn't make her go to school. Not that one wants to read TOO deep a meaning into any of this; as I said, I think the dead mother in both of these cases is mostly a plot device.

Charlottesville, Va.: By failing to let our kids get out and explore the natural world because we're afraid of its dangers, we sometimes drive them to a world that can be just as dangerous -- the virtual world of the Internet. Do you think parents are as cognizant as they should be of the dangers of kids living in the e-world (obesity from lack of exercise, lurking pedophiles)?

Liza Mundy: Another something I should have mentioned in my piece--the Internet. My children are young enough that I haven't had to deal with this yet, but I can see it coming very, very soon. I can't speak for all parents, but I do think a lot are cognizant of the dangers posed to children by the Internet. Ironically, this is probably one place where you really DON't want them drifting around on their own.

Alexandria, Va.: I enjoyed your article. It's such a shame, with the world being a much more dangerous place these days, that children can't have the freedom to go about on their own the way you and I did. I remember when I was 12-13 years old (pre-Metro!), going with my friend by ourselves on a Saturday on the bus from suburban Virginia to Downtown DC, where all the department stores used to be (pre-shopping malls!), looking at the Christmas windows, buying some gifts, with neither us or our mothers dreaming that any harm could come to us. And I'd walk a mile or so to high school, by myself or with a friend, because I hated taking the school bus, and we liked to stop off at the ice cream shop on the way home for a cone (our motto was "Diet tomorrow", not that we needed to).

Liza Mundy: Sigh. We're really getting old, aren't we? To be indulging in such nostalgia? A friend of mine who is an editor here grew up in Reston, and at a shockingly young age, her mom would just put her on the bus into D.C. The plan was for her to get out at the Smithsonian, which sometimes happened, sometimes didn't. She does remember getting punched in the ear (for some reason) by a crazy man at a public telephone, but apart from that, she survived nicely.

Calgary, Alberta: I really enjoyed this article. My mother, who had 7 children in 11 years, believes that the reason my generation obsesses about every facet of our children's lives is that we have made the conscious decision (usually)to bear them and therefore feel responsible to the nth degree for the outcome. The unfortunate by-product is an unnatural ownership of the good and the bad choices our kids make. When did my child's grades become about me? But the good by-product is that I spent Mother's day being with and talking with my kids in ways my Mom would never have had. My teenagers are getting ready to fly the coop and as their Mom I have missed nothing. They've had enough freedom to get into trouble and I've had enough sleepless nights to know that I'm not in any more control than my Mom was. I just thought I was.

Liza Mundy: Hi, and thanks for those observations. I think your question has a really important fact embedded in it. "My mom, who had seven children in eleven years." I think that one reason we hover so much is that modern families are so much smaller. How COULD you hover with seven children? How could you even know where they all are at one time? I find it hard enough with two; sometimes when I'm driving somewhere, and the kids aren't in the back because they're off at some (of course) organized activity, I find myself thinking, with a faint trace of panic: Okay, now WHERE are my children, again?

Virginia: When I was in college, I worked one summer at a day camp for preschool aged children. We had one little boy there who was quite hyperactive, and I felt badly for him because I knew as soon as he started school his parents were going to be under a lot of pressure to put him on ritalin. One day, his mother said to me, "I know he can sit quietly and pay attention, because he spends three hours every day playing on the computer." And this was a 4-year-old! No wonder he was so hyper, he was spending half the day cooped up in front of the computer. I wonder if this is part of the reason we are seeing so many kids diagnosed with ADD today; they never have a chance to play or burn off their excess energy, so they are just little balls of nervous energy waiting to explode.

Liza Mundy: Good point. I wonder that too.

Surrogate Mothers: As a 25-year-old woman, I am increasingly convinced that I will not choose to have children. Part of it is about wanting a career and wanting a life, but articles like yours remind me that childhood, at least in America (and, by the way, THANK YOU for including the information about the socioeconomic breakdown of intensive mothering and child supervision), is not nearly as adventurous or free as it once, perhaps, was. I am not interested in being a mom that carts her kids to soccer-piano-dance-meditation-art-whatever, but I would not want to abandon my kids to the whims of busy intersections and potential lurking nasties, either. I don´t think that current models of motherhood are particularly healthy--and I don´t know that I would feel secure enough to figure out a better way.

The most adventurous childhoods that I have seen are those of children growing up in cities like New York, where they have ample public transportation, large urban playgrounds, and, for whatever reason, a certain degree of freedom that their suburban peers lack.

Liza Mundy: Oh please, don't use my article as a reason not to have children! I mean, it's a LIGHT-HEARTED piece. Make your decision, by all means, but don't make my piece one of the criteria you use! As I pointed out in my piece, in many ways, the world is safer for children than it's ever been. Overall they have a very good life. That's what I think, anyway.

New York, N.Y.: I look at the absence-of-mom phenomenon as a metaphor for the emotional and intellectual chasm between kids and their parents. Regardless of how much either parent is actually around, there's a limit to how much the child can relate to mom and dad -- and often, sadly, to how much effort mom or dad make to relate to their kids. It's a void that children often must fill with their imaginations, with fantastic stories that come from something as simple as being left alone for a little while with the cat and the fish. Yet no matter how much time parents spend "watching" or "relating" to their kids, I think these stories will continue to serve the purpose of providing children with something they can relate to in a way that's different than their relationship with their parents.

Liza Mundy: Well-put. I certainly wouldn't argue with that.

Falls Church, Va: Hi. In response to your idea of moms being "household killjoys", I have my own spin. I think that children love reading about these whimsical adventures when mom is away precisely because their mothers are there to help keep them safe. Think how frightening it would be for a small child of 5 or 6 to truly encounter Thing 1 and Thing 2 (even as a kid I found them somewhat disturbing) or Peter Pan's pirates. We can read them to and enjoy them with our children because we are their safety net and they know it.

Liza Mundy: Doubtless, true.

Tucson, Ariz.: Thanks for the article. I felt like it was a transcript of my thinking as I'm preparing to have my first child at age 34. My friends and I (and brother and his friends) got to wander a lot as children. We knew the whole neighborhood along with every sewer pipe and dumpster and construction site. We never got hurt, but there were definite dangers and some sleazy characters I wouldn't want any child of mine to meet. I know all that exploring made me the person I am today, and I wouldn't want to deprive my child of that. But I also spent my childhood longing for more of my parents' attention and time. I think now too my parents wish they had given more time. I wonder if our generation is carrying some residual guilt from that, and we're determined not to be so "neglectful"?

I also appreciate your insight that oversaturated crime coverage is making us more protective without reason. I hadn't thought as much about that.

Liza Mundy: Also points very well-taken. And your point about longing for your parents' time is especially well taken. There are probably good things about hovering.

Chicago, Ill.: Greetings,
Loved the story... a quick quibble.

There are some literary figures that have a strong mother present. Some of the non-Disney variations of the Beauty and the Beast stories (usually Asian and not European versions), and the Coyote legends from the Native American stories include highly interactive mother and grandmother figures. The lack of a strong mother might be more Euro-centric than archetypal.

Judy Bloom also has several strong mother figures (Notably in the Fudge series), but the example is open for debate -- as is most of Bloom who is also delightfully subversive.

Friends in Iowa live in a small town where kids can run around and be kids. One of the draws to the area for them was that kids could ride a bike to the pool or the store. Then again, I don't think the school has Harry Potter in the library. Maybe there is a tradeoff.

Liza Mundy: Nice points. I can't speak for world literature, of course; times being what they were, when I was growing up, most of the children's literature I read was western.

Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.: Thank you for the interesting article. My mom was a stay at home mom, but my siblings and I were given a lot of space to do what we wanted in the great outdoors in our spare time. It helped establish our independence. Now that the pendulum has swung the other way, children are being raised with virtually no sense of independence, always under the gaze of adult supervision. I feel it creates young adults who are strikingly far less mature and independent than kids were growing up in the 60s. I am finding that out as an employer who tries to employ a college age student or so as a clerk - the lack of independent thinking and maturity has made this an exceedingly difficult task.

Liza Mundy: Yes, though I am always skeptical of the: teenagers aren't as mature as they used to be argument. I mean, in making these observations about parenting today, I really don't know whether it's going to result in a different sort of young adult. I tend to think that children are resilient and survive all sorts of parenting styles.

Boston, Mass.: I've always assumed the reason children are kept home now is the greater attention payed to adultless-children.

If you see a couple of kids, pre-teen or younger by themselves, aren't we all wondering "Where are their parents?"

I've personally lived in ares where children under 10 had to be under direct supervision of an adult in their own yards.

I don't have children, but I do find my trust level of anyone under 18 falling because of these issues. That's very sad.

Liza Mundy: Yep, I agree with that. Also, jurisdictions have laws about how old children must be to be alone in the house. Maybe there were laws about this when I was a kid, but I'm not sure parents really worried about them. I started babysitting when I was 11, and I'm pretty sure that in most jurisdictions in the Washington, D.C. area, 11-year-old kids can't even be alone by themselves in their own house.

And yes, I think adults who see kids alone these days DO tend to think: where are their parents?

San Jose, Calif.: Liza,

No question - just a comment. Thank you for a wonderful article. I grew up in the early 80s in Northern VA, in a neighborhood full of stay-at-home moms that allowed us childhoods full of roaming adventure. All of the neighborhood kids have grown up to be strong, independent and productive adults who mourn that we will never find a neighborhood like that for our own children.

It's interesting to watch kids - out here in Silicon Valley, especially - grow up in hyper-protective, over-scheduled childhoods of playdates and super-birthday parties (which, by the way, are nowhere near as fun as our pizza parties with rootbeer floats in the backyard).

Liza Mundy: Yes to all that, though in the 80s, "stay at home mom" wasn't a live concept, really, was it? As I mention in my article, theoretically my mom was a stay at home mom, but like all mothers she seemed to have such a rich social life outside of the house, so many things to do, "stay at home" wasn't really an accurate description. She was out of the house quite a lot, as were all the other mothers I knew. In fact, I keep meaning to ask them: Seeing as how I walked to piano lessons and took the bus to dance lessons, and seeing as how you didn't come to my sports activities because back then, NO parents felt the need to be at their kids soccer games; what, exactly, where you moms DOING?

Germantown, Md.: I find with my own two kids (7 and 5) that because of all the pre-arranged play dates and activities, they really have no idea of how to occupy themselves when given the opportunity. If I'd let them, they will turn on the TV, nine time of out ten. I often wonder why we spend any money on toys for them, since they almost never play with them!

Liza Mundy: I agree. Sigh. Sometimes I think I need to just give my children a "detox" weekend in which there are no playdates and no television; in which I simply gesture around on a Saturday morning and say to them: Here is a house, and a yard, and a neighborhood. Figure out what to do in them!

Somewhere, USA: I think that part of the absent-mom phenomenon in kid-lit also has to do with the way children--maybe even adult children--view their own mothers. Kids often see their mothers as entities that exist solely for their convenience, their pleasure, their food, their safety. It takes some time for children to psychologically distance themselves enough from the image of mother as provider to see parents as having their own identities. In many versions of Cinderella, Cinderella´s biological mother dies only to resurface as a fairy godmother, providing Cinderella with the dress and carriage for the ball. In other stories, the mother dies in sacrifice for her children. The dead or absent mother becomes the embodiment of the ultimate sacrifice, giving her life for her children. Psychologically, I think a lot of mothers feel like they are killing themselves for their children; these stories simply represent that in symbolic ways.

Alternatively, we could talk about Freud...for whom all of those dead mothers are the logical outcomes of Electra complexes, or the result of male Oedipal guilt!

It is also interesting to think about bad mothers in children´s literature--for example, Mary´s mother in The Secret Garden, who virtually abandoned her to her Indian ayah. Mary´s unpleasantness in that text is in part the direct result of her mother´s inattentiveness; her personality blossoms only when she herself becomes a "mother" to her garden.

Liza Mundy: Good points; I'll simply post them. I never realized that the fairy godmother was Cinderella's mom resurrected. And then, of course, there's always the question of what to make of all this evil stepmothers, all those angry, resentful older women, all those unpleasant witches who resent the young beautiful heroines; all those disheartening portrayals of the relationship between older women and younger ones. But that's entirely another topic.

Reston, Va.: Like the 25-year old woman who wrote in earlier, I also am dismayed by the pressure to be on the "soccer-mom" track, but I know I do want to have kids. I think that this varies a lot by neighborhood... on nice days, there are lots of kids playing on my street. I think it is possible to reject the hover-mommy model, but you have to work hard to overcome the snide looks from other people who think you are denying your child "all the advantages" of kiddie yoga.

Liza Mundy: Yes! Have kids! Have kids!

Actually, I have started encouraging my daughter to walk to playmates houses, and it seems to me that other parents are relieved and glad to do the same. Perhaps we could all band together...and at an appointed time fling open the doors to our house and say: Go play! Perhaps we could start a National Turn Your Children Out-of-doors Day.

Somewhere, USA: "Orphaned" at Age 37: How much of this dead-Mom trend is the desire to be freed of motherly strictures, and how much is actually an expression of the fear of losing one's mother?

Liza Mundy: I assume you're talking about literature, and I would say: Both. I mean, I really do think that in some cases the absent mom is a plot device and nothing more; and in others, the story really is dealing with the deep childhood fear of losing one's parents. And there are some books, or at least movies--The Lion King--where the fear is of losing one's father.

Lyme, Ct.: Children's stories are very important part of their development. Have you ever read any German children's stories at the beginning of the century? Sometimes, I think we can explain World War II just from German children's literature, where children were being treated viciously for their misbehavior. Maybe the other extreme-stories with too much adult supervision-can pose dangers as well. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Liza Mundy: Nope, I haven't read the stories you cite, but I'll post this in case others are interested.

A 'magic' mom...: One book you didn't mention is "The Silent Garden" which is about an orphan growing into understanding about herself and others. Her mom is already dead, but the mother figure in the book is a person of some magic herself with hidden knowledge and she encourages the secret adventures behind the scenes.
"The Little Princess" is also about a parentless child having to make her way without adult help - or even with the opposition and malice of the adults around her. Frances B. Hodges seems to be kind of stuck on motherless kids?

Liza Mundy: Well, yes, there often is that magic mother-surrogate, isn't there? All those fairy godmothers, as the above reader observed. In the background, gently guiding. Sort of a nice model, when you come to think of it.

Forest Glen, Md.: With a stay-at-home mom and working dad myself, I spent much of my youth in the company of nuns and priests at school and afterward in choir activities. How naive to think I was in "safe company!" Although the time I spent away from home did develop some "street smarts" which did help me deal with unsavory characters. Will our kids develop the same "radar?"

Liza Mundy: Good points. As a rule, though, I think it's important to keep in mind that most teachers, guides, babysitters, and religious figures are loving and responsible and important role models. I do think that our generation is much, much more cognizant of the dangers posed by third-party adults--in part because of the priest scandals, and other high-profile abuse cases--and while it's a good thing to be aware, and to warn our children, I think it's important not to fear ALL third parties. I do think that the hysteria surrounding some of the preschool scandals, which turned out to be witch hunts with no basis in fact, IS a reason why parents today are afraid to let children out of their sights. I think it's one reason we've evolved the way we have. And I don't know what to say about it. One wants to be attentive and aware, but not paranoid. I think.

Tucson, Ariz.: I see kids wandering or biking around Tucson, but it's mostly boys. Do you think girls are now more protected, that we're in some New Victorian kind of era? I have to say, though, that as a girl I was afraid to wander by myself, and with good reason, as I sometimes found out. But with other kids I felt protected. It helped me make and keep friends, which I think may be another important function of letting kids fend for themselves.

Liza Mundy: Hmmmm. I haven't notice the boys-wandering phenomenon in my neighborhood, perhaps because NO kids wander in my neighborhood.

To Virginia:: Don't be so quick to judge the parents of the "hyperactive" 4-year-old who spent hours "cooped up" on the computer. You think the parents are forcing their kid to sit at the computer every day? They probably can barely force him to get off! A child who may not achieve much success in outdoor activities--maybe he's not as athletic or coordinated or competitive as his peers, maybe he's more artistic or sensitive--can find much to enjoy, and, yes, learn, from a computer. And why, may I ask, is a 4-year-old expected to "sit quietly and pay attention" at a summer day camp? And how does the writer know the kid doesn't get a chance to play or burn off energy? It's a complicated world for both parents and children; many of us are doing the best we can, people shouldn't jump to conclusions about other people's parenting choices

Liza Mundy: I don't think the previous poster was judging anyone's parenting choices. Just pointing out that in today's sit-at-your-seat world, there are fewer chances for energetic children to use their energy. This is another topic, I think, but at my daughter's school, the time they get for lunch and recess, combined, is 35 minutes. They spend so much time at their seats. But yes, I see now that this IS another topic.

Silver Spring, Md.: When I was growing up in the 80's, my parents wouldn't let me stay inside the house during the summer (daytime, of course)....it was quite effective - my friends and I HAD to be creative outside (we constructed forts, did crafts, played a gazillion games of tag), because we had nothing else to do and really nowhere to go. On the other hand, we lived in a semi-rural area and a lot of the moms stayed at home, so they could easily enforce the 'don't come inside' policy. Even if the internet had been around during the 80's, I wouldn't have been allowed inside to use it.

Liza Mundy: I like that. "Don't come inside." I'm going to try that.

Syracuse, N.Y.: In the mid-70's, my sister and I used to wander freely all over Wheaton, including long walks to and from Wheaton Plaza. Then, two girls our ages, the Lyon sisters, disappeared while at Wheaton Plaza and were never seen again. That incident had an immediate, chilling effect on all the kids and parents in our neighborhood. Our freedom to wander unsupervised was sharply curtailed after that, but I don't remember anyone protesting.

Liza Mundy: Yes, exactly, and one certainly understands why parents reacted the way they did. There was also the boy who disappeared while waiting for a school bus in New York City; I believe he was one of the first high-profile cases. And I have to say, I'd react the same way. It's impossible not to. But as more and more of these things are publicized, the pressure gets stronger and stronger to keep children inside.

Washington, D.C.: I grew up in the 50s with a go-to-work Mom, and I definitely had more adventures in the nearby woods than my stay-at-home Mom friends. Having now brought up two step-daughters and a son in Washington while being a go-to-work Mom myself, I think the person who said that city kids really have it better is absolutely right. Because you still can get to stores and perhaps even school walking when you are little, and can use public transportation to get lots of exciting places when you're bigger, and can ride your bike to visit your friends when you're bigger but still not old enough to drive, there's so much more opportunity to explore than in the suburbs. And this even though we did all the scheduled soccer and other sports and music things, and took family vacations.

Liza Mundy: Having grown up in a smaller town myself, I often wonder how my children are going to perceive their big-city upbringing. I tend to think that what you say is true, but, as the cliche goes, only time will tell. Then again, I live in the close-in suburbs, where many things, for kids, are "almost" close enough to walk. Which may not be good enough!

Paramus, N.J.: Your article actually made me sad. I remember roaming the neighborhood as a child in the mid-1970s...and I'm smiling at all of the "adventures" I had doing that with my friends. I've noticed there are no children roaming, in search of adventure these days.

I live near an elementary, middle, and high school and I never see any of the little ones walking, although crossing guards are all over the place.

I think our kids are really missing out...

Liza Mundy: Yep, I agree.

Springfield, Va.: Great article, thanks. I remember being taken aback a few years ago when it hit me how many Disney movies had no mom or moms who died early on in the story. Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi, Little Mermaid, Pinnochio, Beauty and the Beast. Guess the story is more fun if the kids have no mom around?!? How sad...

Liza Mundy: Well, of course, most of those Disney movies are based, however loosely, on classic fairy tales. Though it has always seemed to me that Disney is particularly obnoxious in driving home the idea of the female as boring, domesticating force.

Maryland: I wonder WHY kids can't be left alone at 10 or 11. That's crazy - I was, and never had problems. I knew who to call if I had an emergency. My mom and dad expected me to be responsible - and they started testing me at a much earlier age. The degree to which parents interfere with their children is horrible. Kids need to learn to settle their own arguments, to fight their own battles. Now we're even seeing parents call college professors to argue about the grades - the kids don't call, the mom and dad do.

Liza Mundy: Yes to all that.

Selfishly, I find myself wondering NOT when my children will be old enough so that I can leave them home alone, but rather: when will they be old enough so that I can send them on the two-block walk to Safeway, to pick up this or that cooking item I need?

Liza Mundy: Sorry, everybody; there has just been a Post evacuation drill; I'll continue the chat for five or ten minutes after we're allowed back in the building.

Alexandria, Va.: Loved your article, mostly because it made me (5 months pregnant with first child) think back to my childhood and all the freedoms I enjoyed. I grew up in Reston in the '80s, which wasn't too long ago (I hope), but yet I think my childhood was so different from that of the kids in my cul-de-sac now. We were always playing kickball or tag in the street, always walking somewhere unaccompanied by adults. So long as one adult knew where we were going and about what time we'd be back, there were no hassles at all.

I hope I can be more like my parents in that sense, allowing my kids some freedoms depending on how old and mature they are. I hope I don't turn into those parents who drive behind their bicycling child!

Liza Mundy: Congratulations on your pregnancy, and I'm sure if you start practicing now ("Don't come inside!") I'm sure that by time your child is seven or eight, you'll be able to say it.

(Incidentally, so as not to start mass panic, it was something about the water level dropping in the Post's pipes--whatever that means--that caused us to be evacuated. And now we are back, and so, I assume, is our full water pressure.)

Cincinnati, Ohio: Your article only presents one side of things: that all of the stories mentioned in article present mothers as being expendable.

I see it as quite the opposite. From Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, it seems to me that these stories present the awful alternatives to not having the protection a mother provides; but also that even in death or temporary absence, there are certain things mothers give to their children that give them strength, courage, and tools to survive without them

Liza Mundy: Yes, but they're all bildungsromans, in which the child emerges more mature, and stronger, after going through all those adventures. At least I assume that's what will happen to Harry Potter. To be sure, coursing through all of these narratives is a powerful longing for Mum. It's not pleasant, having her gone, but it does make for interesting plot developments.

Washington, D.C.: No question...just a BIG, BIG thanks for a wonderful article that I am sending my mom as a be-lated Mothers Day article. I read it twice it was so good.

My mom not only let us wander from sun-rise to sun-set, but let us learn and grow from our mistakes. I am convinced its a reason we (my three brothers and myself) are all happy and well-adjusted adults.

Thanks again and I always enjoy your articles.

Liza Mundy: Thanks a lot. I appreciate that.

Boston, Mass.: Thank you for such an interesting article! I am only 22yrs old, yet have also noticed the phenomena you wrote about in your article when babysitting for various children in surrounding suburbs. Their childhood is much different from my own, 10-15 years ago.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the toys of today. I have been in houses where the entire finished basement is devoted to the children's playthings. ALL of these things either sing, dance, talk, blink, flash, or a combination of three. How do you think children's imaginations are being affected, if at all? What does it say when 6yr olds have a difficult time imagining a make-believe land?

Thank you again!

Liza Mundy: Glad to have your babysitter-point-of-view.

Don't get me started on flashing, noise-making toys. I don't know how they affect children, but I know that because of them, my house is full of rogue sounds. Because eventually said toy gets buried in some toy basket, and some other toy will press on it, and you'll be lying in bed only to be awakened by Sally Sickbaby, or whatever her name is, pitifully calling out: "Mommy! I feel sick! Give me medicine!"

Re: Evil stepmothers: That may be easier to explain than a lot of other literary devices. It was only in the early years of the 20th century that women began to outlive their husbands. In the past, many women would have died relatively young, in childbirth, leaving their husband with the children. So many men married several times. The wicked stepmother may have been as real then as... the wicked stepmother (of divorce) is today...

Liza Mundy: Well, yes, but there were also (and are also) loving stepmothers. My grandfather was raised by one, after his own mother died in childbed. And I know quite a few stepmothers, these days, who try very hard. Yet in stories, they're always evil.....

Somewhere, USA: Maybe I'm just getting old, but the times (and attitudes toward children) really do seem to have changed. It wasn't that long ago that (in many areas) people thought nothing of kids riding in the back of a pickup. Kids who misbehaved at school might well get paddled. Dad's role was to bring home the bacon and that was (often) it. On the other hand, kids could wander more freely, had more time to play and "be kids." Schools weren't so chaotic.

Today, kids in some ways have it better, and now I read that "adulthood" starts at 26. Most parents try to be more patient, and Dad makes it to a soccer game now and then. But they're more likely to have to wear uniforms at school. They have to take high-stakes tests with amazing frequency and from a very young age. They probably can't have a paper route or mow lawns for safety/legal reasons. They're under pressure to build a "resume" to get into a good college from the time they're in junior high.

Which is better? I'm truly not sure. But it's certainly not a simple question.

Your comments?

Liza Mundy: My comments are: (1) We are all getting old and (2) That is an excellent summary of the pros and cons of modern-day child rearing. My conclusions are the same as yours, I think: In general, things are better for children. Our increased attentiveness to their safety is hugely important, and it's definitely a good thing that children can't ride unbuckled in the back of pickup trucks. I also remember that in the first grade, my teacher used to literally tie unruly boys to their chairs, with rope. It's good, too, that teachers can't do that any more.

But obesity and excessive web-surfing are also bad, so the message, I guess, is for us to be attentive to new dangers as they evolve, and to deal with them by, as suggested above, regularly banishing our children to the great outdoors. After, of course, making a call to Child Protective Services to find out if they are old enough to be there.

Liza Mundy: Thanks, everyone, for writing in. It seems to me that, as a whole, we are all getting VERY old.

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