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My Childhood vs. My Kids': 10 Big Changes

Photograph by Getty Images

I grew up a suburban kid in the 1970s and 1980s. I enjoyed free-range parenting before there was a name for it.

Dressing, feeding, sheltering, educating and loving their kids was what my parents did. I don't think they put a heck of a lot more thought into their parenting than that. (And they certainly never read a book about how to do it.) They stressed about paying the mortgage and putting food on the table not about whether allowing their kids to cry it out would scar them for all eternity.

Fast forward to 2015: I am raising two young sons smack dab in the middle of one of America's largest cities. I parent in a culture where it is assumed you could and should protect your child from all things. Fear is everywhere. Childhood has morphed into a series of landmines to dodge.

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It is a wonder any of us from Gen X are alive to tell our stories. And yet, here I am, alive and well at 45, writing about how my kids' childhood looks nothing like my own. Some of the differences I like; some make me want to sob. Here's a short inventory of how childhood has changed:

1. Legally, my kids are unable to be alone and unsupervised in Illinois until they are 14 years old.

I have another eight years of not letting these little ones out of my sight. That is quite a bit different than 1977, when my mom went to work outside the home. As a 7-year-old, I was left alone for 90 minutes, five afternoons a week until my 9-year-old brother got home from school.

2. We enjoyed screentime together with the one screen we had in the house—a 19-inch cathode ray television.

I was quite a bit older when we got a newer model that was color and had, wait for it, a remote control device. Because of this, our family of six watched TV together. I grew up on news, smart sitcoms with humor far more sophisticated than my own. We also watched mini-series, Monty Python and 60 Minutes. Cartoons were restricted to weekend mornings. Today, our family of four has nine screens at our disposal.

3. Queuing up whatever he wants to watch, whenever he wants to watch it, is the norm for my oldest boy.

Same thing for music. If he feels a little Katy Perry, BOOM, there she is, singing her sweet tunes just for him. When my youngest wants to see elephants, BOOM, there are hundreds upon hundreds of photos and videos to choose from, and he happily picks his elephant poison. The concept of waiting for what you want before you get it is simply unthinkable. No wonder patience is such a hard lesson to learn for them.

4. In the 1970s, I went to the local park alone, with a sibling or with a gaggle of neighborhood kids. My parents did not get arrested.

We often traveled in packs, walking in the middle of the street, stepping to the curb when a car would roll by, waving happily, since the driver was often someone we knew. The bigger kids looked out for the little ones.

There is a beautiful park just up the street from us now, but my son has never been there without at least one of his parents. I can't imagine a day he will go there alone. With 14 being the cut-off for kids being unsupervised, most 14-year-olds I know are too cool for the local park. Unless they're smoking weed in the bushes.

5. The folks we saw in the park in 1970s suburbia looked a lot like us—white and from the neighborhood.

Now when we hit the park, we see Muslim mothers wearing a variety of burqa, niqab, hijab or chador. My son thinks they look like cool ninjas. Me, I appreciate the diversity. The Jewish fathers are often wearing dark suits, tzitzits or kippahs. Little Jewish boys might have payot hanging around their ears or the little Muslim boys might be wearing what look like long dresses to my son. He will hear a variety of languages, too: Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, Polish, Hindi and on and on and on. I do not exaggerate when I say it is a bit like the United Nations at our park, less than a block from our front door.

6. They will only see their grandparents a handful of times a year.

I used to see mine every Sunday night for dinner. Can someone bring me a Kleenex?

7. We're all raising foodies.

My oldest son asks for things like goat cheese, beef lo mein and star fruit to be put into his lunch box. PB & J is not allowed because of food allergies, and my childhood lunch staples—chicken loaf, bologna and white bread are not things I would wish on my worst enemy.

8. "Funny papers" mean nothing to my sons.

We haven't purchased an actual newspaper in at least five years.

9. With car seats mandated by law, my boys will never experience the distinct joy of packing 10 or more kids in the back of a station wagon to drive across town for ice cream.

In fact, arranging to do anything with playmates becomes a bit like scheduling the Yalta Conference. After-school playdates are almost non-existent, as so many kids have two working parents. And while we're on playdates: I am pretty sure I never had a playdate in my childhood. I did, however, go over to a friends' houses to play all the time.

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10. Every day, when my oldest walks into his elementary school, he waits in line to walk through a metal detector.

Several times a year, he and all of his classmates are evacuated for a "lockdown" drill. I almost have no words about how different that is than my own childhood. Sure, way back in 1978, when Jimmy Carter visited my hometown, the Secret Service opened up my school bag to have a look-see. But that was the POTUS, you know? They were protecting the leader of the free world. Today, it's just the norm. Living in a security state is the only thing my boys will ever know.

Now, really this time, where is that Kleenex?

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