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Our Parents Didn't Parent Better, They Just Parented Less

Photograph by Twenty20

If you've been seeing the same email (and meme and Facebook post and newspaper and magazine think-pieces) repeatedly saying how different—and better—parents in the '60s, '70s and '80s are from today's parents, you're hardly alone.

Back when we were young, kids could ride bikes without helmets, cruise around in the front seat of a car without a seat belt, stay out past dark without letting anyone know where we were, watch TV from dawn until dusk, and drink Coke with our Fruit Loops in the morning—and, hey, we turned out just fine.

But for every story of a mom who smoked and drank while pregnant and then let her toddler play with matches and still didn't burn the house down, there are even more stories if you dig deeper, past all the hyperbole.

How much did our parents talk to us about bullying? Sex? The importance of drinking responsibly? To love ourselves above all else?

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My daughters are now 4 and 7, and they don't leave the house each morning without hearing from me how their top priority for the day is to be kind. They don't have to like everyone or play with anyone, although they must be respectful. I stress this to them not because I'm a descendant of Mother Teresa, but because as a kid, I wasn't always kind to everyone, and everyone wasn't always kind to me.

I got dumped by my best friend in fifth grade. I dumped a few elementary school friends in seventh grade. I slut-shamed other girls in high school. I was slut-shamed in high school. I hated my body. I had sex too young. I smoked and drank way before I really understood the consequences of my choices.

No one was paying attention. Our parents trusted we'd get by, and they were right. Isn't that desperately sad?

All of this—despite growing up in a loving and affectionate upper-middle-class, educated home where family time was a priority. My parents are still married. I was adored (and still am). But no one ever spoke to me about the importance of treading lightly in my approach to others (and myself). I wasn't taught to accept my body. In fact, the only things I learned about my body were through two books my mom gave me in sixth grade: "Where Did I Come From" and "What's Happening to Me." She told me to come to her with any questions. The end.

When I went on the Pill at age 17 to curb menstrual cramps, the only information I was given was that it wouldn't protect against sexually transmitted diseases, not that I shouldn't be having unprotected sex—or any sex—at all, or should save sex for a person whom I cared deeply.

My suburban friends and I could simply tell our parents we were going out with each other at night or sleeping at each others' homes; questions beyond that were nil. Everything we did was pretty much stuff we knew we weren't supposed to do. We survived, yes. We had fun, yes. I'd still argue, though, that none of it contributed to making us into anything resembling good people—we still figured out how to become people who we're proud of today, but we all wish we'd started sooner. Whether we were picked on or picked on others, whether we conducted ourselves in a manner harming no one but us—it didn't matter. No one was paying attention. Our parents trusted we'd get by, and they were right. Isn't that desperately sad?

Despite what free-range and hands-off parents will shout from the rooftops, we're not over-parenting our kids if we watch them on the playground, accompany them on buses, give them cell phones to stay in touch with us, monitor their online activities, and ask their teachers why they got a B instead of an A on a project. That's actually just parenting.

I see plenty of grandparents scoff at what they say is the excessive hand-holding of their grandchildren, but what they fail to see is how little they held our hands.

It's what we signed on for—to show (instead of just tell) we love our children by guiding them through their most vulnerable years. We buckle them correctly, ensure their helmets are on, ask them where they're going and when they'll be home. Our job is also to teach them when it's appropriate to start becoming more independent (which is after they've learned about the terrific responsibility that comes along with it). None of this means they can't also have fun.

What's fun for kids may not also be fun for parents, but then again, did anyone really think keeping another human being alive and raising them to stay on an emotionally healthy path was going to be a 24/7 party?

I see plenty of grandparents scoff at what they say is the excessive hand-holding of their grandchildren, but what they fail to see is how little they held our hands, and the result is we're now doing what we wasn't done for us. Are there some parents who are too overprotective? Sure. However, is that really worse than parents who don't talk to their kids enough, or at all, about safe sex, stranger danger, bullying, positive body image and being a good citizen?

When did ensuring a kid just survives become a reason to pat yourself on the back? Can't a kid be tough while also knowing they're loved, cared for and given a foundation to go out into the world and love and care for others? Having guidelines and boundaries doesn't strip all the fun away from a child's life; it tells a kid someone cherishes them enough to want them to figure out how to have fun and be physically and spiritually protected.

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I guess the hay is in the barn for our parents, so looking back with fondness and nostalgia may be what they need to do to get them through the night. Me? I get through the night knowing I helped my kids get through their day.

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