The man behind me was sure he was right. I knew it when he gave the verbal equivalent of a “harrumph” under his breath. We were both watching a mother at the supermarket checkout negotiating with her 3-year-old over a candy bar. As the child’s volume increased, she turned to us — apologetic and embarrassed — and said, “I knew I should have gone through the candy-free aisle.”
The “harrumph” guy weighed in loudly enough that the now-defeated woman, who was unwrapping a Milky Way, could hear him, which I guess was his goal. He turned to me in that chummy way you do with someone else your age and said, “We didn’t have candy-free aisles when we were kids. Our mothers didn’t need them. What a bunch of snowflakes.”
He wanted me to laugh and agree with him. He thought he and I would be simpatico on where this generation of parents has gone wrong. Or maybe even more to the point — that our childhoods were better.
I didn’t laugh, and I didn’t agree. And I really need my generation to get over itself. According to baby boomers, life will never be as sublime as it was when we played jacks on the sidewalk while waiting for the ice cream man to make his rounds. I guess it’s a leftover part of our general thinking circa 1968: that we knew everything then and would continue the trend.
It’s easy for those of us who grew up in post-WWII America to adopt a sort of Etch-A-Sketch version of history. That’s fine, and it certainly has its place on Facebook pages where we can hang out and post photographs of Howdy Doody or paper dolls and then take turns commenting about how idyllic the 1950s were. After all, our childhoods happened a long time ago. Memories get covered in a rosy glow. It happens.
But let’s not forget that, by its very nature, parenting evolves. You lean on people you know to guide you through. Your most common question is, “What do you do when this happens?” And then, like most things — fashion, jargon, car styles — everything changes over time. Scheduled formula feedings morph into breast-feeding on demand. Spanking gives way to a timeout chair. My mother would never have shown up to a teacher conference in jeans (even if she had owned a pair) any more than a mom of today would wear a shirtwaist dress and pearls.
Still, baby boomers — many of whom are now grandparents — love to tote out all the reasons we turned out so well, and sometimes, as with the guy in the supermarket, it’s just unkind. I’m not buying the litany of idealized recollections, or the idea that those things constituted something “better.” Those include:
Kids respected their elders. This one worked most often because physical retribution was waiting for us if we didn’t. Often we respected our elders to a fault. How many of us know someone who never uttered a word about the abuse of a teacher or a religious member of the community until they were many years past childhood? I know seven.
Kids played outside. It looks really good in the mind’s eye, all that fresh air and exercise and not going home until the streetlights came on. But kids who would have been happier cozied up with a book or a sketch pad at home found themselves instead immersed in physical play they didn’t like and weren’t particularly good at. Bullies went unanswered, even in the tranquil suburb where I grew up. They ruled my neighborhood, and I still remember their names and faces.
Kids toed the line in school and parents never interceded. True. We did, and they didn’t. For kids like me, who had no trouble learning and figured out teacher-pleasing behaviors that greased my wheel, there was no problem. But some kids who couldn’t learn to read were labeled dumb and teachers threw their hands up in the air, and that was the end of that. Boys who couldn’t sit still were “bad boys” and began believing it at a young age. I knew lots of them, too.
We were taught what “normal” was and we made sure we stayed within that box. Little boys who wanted to play with dolls or little girls who wanted to play baseball were out of luck. My career path options were teacher, nurse or wife/mother. My brother could be an engineer, a scientist or a lawyer. We both chose from the list.
On the afternoon we crossed paths in the supermarket, the young mother caved in to a candy bar and got called out by someone who thinks sound parenting stopped the year “I Love Lucy” went off the air. It was easy to see she was having a bad day, and I had a pep talk all prepared, ready to go when I caught up to her in the parking lot: “Every day with a toddler consists of 100 decisions an hour. We don’t always do the right thing. We don’t always do the wrong thing either.” I would smile and give her encouragement.
When I got outside the store, though, she was gone. I hope she reads this.
Linda DeMers Hummel is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. Find her on Twitter at @LindaDHummel.
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