At age 6, I was married to a policeman and had twins. At age 8, I ruled over a complex society of acorn people who lived in a couple cinder blocks under my neighbor’s tree. At age 11, I was Sabrina Duncan of Charlie’s Angels, ready to follow Bosley’s instructions from my diamond transmitter ring.
A typical child of the 70’s, I used to spend hours immersed in elaborate pretend play and hair-brained schemes, usually clad in cut-off jean shorts, red-white-&-blue Converse and an awkward haircut. It was not unusual for me to be seen chopping earthworms into tiny segments on the stump outside our house on North 7th Street, because I believed that each segment regenerated into a new worm. (Years later in 10th-grade biology I developed a keen sense of remorse.) Or standing ankle deep in a large drainage pipe under Route 286 belting out Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” or Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” because the tunnel’s acoustics were “neato.”
Or climbing my favorite tree, where I perched to watch the traffic and let my mind wander. My big brother knew this about me and reveled in spoiling my fun. One sunny summer day, I skipped down 7th Street toward my climbing tree after a PB&J lunch. Approaching the tree, I initiated the sequence of moves that always placed me on the sitting branch in one fell swoop. As I reached up to grip the spot that started the climb, I heard a shout from across the street, “NO! Don’t do it!”
I looked over and saw my brother peeking nervously from behind a shrub. My initial alarm quickly turned to indignation and I whined back at him, “I can do whatever I wanna do!”
“Well, then GO AHEAD!” he retorted. My hand deftly rose to the place where I could get the perfect amount of grip to pull my chunky little body up into the tree. As I fixed my hand into position, I felt an unfamiliar sensation. A warm squish I had never experienced here before. Pulling my hand back to inspect, I realized that my brother had tricked me. Dogs can’t poo in trees.
Thank goodness, today’s kids don’t have to resort to standing in drainage tunnels, playing with cinder blocks and hiding dog poo. With the advent of modern technology, parents today can keep their children occupied, educated and entertained with a vast array of private schools, franchise day care facilities, tutoring centers, sports, clubs, music lessons, computer games and amazing toys.
We are so lucky to have all of these modern conveniences to help us raise our kids today . . . or are we? Are having all these choices really better for our kids in the long run? Perhaps not.
On my 9th birthday, my prized gift was a new Barbie Camper. I played with that camper for hours with my two Barbies, one of which I had given a very bad haircut. Even after my brother ripped the tent off the side, I just adapted my pretend play scenarios (grizzly attack) to account for the alteration, and continued to play with the camper for years. A friend down the street got the Barbie Townhouse for Christmas, and I often went to her house so my Barbies could experience the high life. I never thought to ask for one myself; I already had the camper.
For boys, the attitude toward toys was similar back then. Any kid with a couple Tonka Trucks and a sandbox was someone to befriend, especially if you had your own bargaining tool like a GI Joe with the Kung Fu Grip.
But today’s child does not have to negotiate with peers or resort to imagination. Why butter up the kid down the street or muster extra brainpower when you’ve got toys coming in from holidays, special events, and the birthday party circuit. Today’s children need toys to be entertained and they get them because they are cheap, plentiful and way cool. But when you consider the inevitable atrophy of our children’s creativity and resourcefulness, the cost is quite high.
As a kid, I remember being invited to the birthday party of a schoolmate. We gathered on the friend’s back porch. I wore a dress. We played pin the tail on the Donkey. We tossed beanbags into a target. We sang, ate cake and drank Kool-Aid. We went home happy. It was a TOTAL blast.
Today’s kid would deem that party a “snoozer” and would see it as a total rip off that they didn’t get a free movie, theme park admission or bowling game out of the deal. It is simply unheard of these days to have a party without a substantial meal (usually pizza and unlimited sodas) in addition to the ice cream cake, and a goodie bag with trinkets and treats worth at least $10.50.
When the toy box exceeds its capacity and there is a lull in the party circuit, parents entertain their kids with camps, sports, classes and hobbies. But will the extra enrichment of our children make up for the detriment to their self-reliance? I recall my own mother pulling the station wagon up to the community pool (she couldn’t get out of course because she had her rollers in) to drop me off. As she drove away, cigarette smoke trailing behind, I heard her yell, “See you at four-o-clock, dumpling!” I had an entire day to make friends, avoid drowning, figure out how much I could buy at the snack bar with $2, and be dressed and waiting out at the curb when four-o’clock rolled around. Talk about a learning experience!
So what am I saying? Are we completely screwing up our children today? Are they destined to be selfish, materialistic, over-indulgent, unimaginative little brats? Perhaps we can avoid this fate by not always availing ourselves of the modern conveniences designed to make parenting easier. Instead, we should teach the simple life lessons we learned as kids.
Like how to get the nectar out of honeysuckle. That a priority-mailing envelope with holes cut out makes a fairly decent Imperial Stormtrooper helmet. That you can only keep a jar of tadpoles and creek water a couple days before it starts to stink up your room. And that a cardboard box has endless possibilities.