Paradise Lost - a.k.a. The Reckless Innocence of My Generation’s Childhood

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Spoiler alert: politically incorrect and downright dangerous content.

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

Turns out we (that is, my generation, The Gen Xers) were damaged in childhood. We didn’t realize it at the time, but now we are enlightened. Turns out it is a wonder we ever made it to adulthood. Unscathed no less (well, perhaps that part is debatable).

Here’s just a sampling of the reckless endangerment that occurred in our childhood:

• Barbie—who knew our body image was being damaged?
• Weekends—sugar rich Fruit Loops cereal, violent Bugs Bunny cartoons, then off to play (Unstructured!) with friends (Outdoors! Unsupervised! Without protective gear!). Lunch was wherever we landed at noon (NOT gluten free! NOT organic!); be home in time for dinner or go without.
• Playing in the creek—NO fear of flesh eating microbes.
• Biking everywhere—NO helmets!
• NO sunscreen!
• NO antibacterial soap!
• NO seatbelts! NO car seats!
• NO plastic protectors in the electrical sockets!
• King of the Mountain on snow piles.
• Didn’t always make the team and when we did, didn’t always get a trophy.
• Ate peanuts and drank from neighborhood water hoses.
• Faced the wrath of teachers if we did not do our homework—alone! Without parents defending us, making excuses or demanding special treatment.

Did this break us? No.

What did this teach us? Responsibility. Independence. Time management. How to problem solve and think for ourselves and deal with whatever transpired during the day.

All those things that we are not giving the children of today—the millennials (Gen Y) and the newbies on the block, the Centennials (Gen Z). The opportunity to learn and negotiate their own way through the world around them.

We label them “entitled” and yet they face some of the greatest challenges the world has ever encountered—global terrorism, failing economies, environmental destruction—challenges not of their making, but of ours.

We scorn them for expecting praise at every turn.

And yet, who is really to blame? Just who handed out all those trophies anyway? Who were the adults calling the shots in these situations?

As the prophetic (and dated) cartoon Pogo once proclaimed, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

For the first time in history, the younger generation cannot expect to do better than their parents.

We say that they are not hardy or resilient. And yet we did not give them the chances to fail when the consequences were small in order to learn how to fail and pick themselves up and begin again.

We rescued them and now blame them for not being able to save themselves.

We lament that they are not accountable when we never held them accountable.

We defended them—even when their actions were indefensible—and now we complain that they won’t take responsibility for their own actions.

We overbooked every minute of their scheduled childhood and now wonder why they have a short attention span, want to be entertained, and don’t show initiative.

We complain that they need coddling when we coddled them.

Mind you, we did it for all the right reasons—to build their self-esteem, to avoid the shaming and performance anxiety we experienced as children, because we love them and didn’t want to see them hurt, disappointed, or in pain.

But now, after all that, we expect them to behave as we would when we never gave them the opportunities to learn how.

We expect them to save the world.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny. That was 1936 and, of course, he was describing a very different generation. But it seems to me that it sums up the paradox of the legacy we have left our youngest generations. We’ve given them much; some argue too much. And we expect much; perhaps too much.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

What Psychology Says . . .

It’s a tough balance these days. The world is a very different place to raise kids than it was when I was growing up. I can’t imagine any loving, responsible parent who would let a child skip out the door on Saturday morning to play wherever in the neighborhood for the day, not to return until dinner or the streetlights went on, whichever came first. There are just too many dangers that were not a part of parents’ reality in the days of my childhood, not so long ago.

Enter the helicopter parent, the parent who will hover over their child in every situation to micromanage their affairs and rescue them from negative consequences.

It’s all too easy to slippery slope from protective to overprotective.

But, as Jessica Lahey points out in her book, The Gift of Failure, such overprotectiveness undermines the development of independence and competence. She challenges parents and educators to help children thrive by allowing them to fail and thus learn how to negotiate the ups-and-downs of real life in order to become capable adults.

Resilience is a process of adaptation and coping. It does not mean avoiding the inevitable stress and sometimes suffering that is a part of the human condition. It means facing it head-on, bouncing back and rising from the ashes, phoenix-like, to meet the challenges of a new day.

Like many of the more important skills in life, it only comes with practice—the kind of school-of-hard-knocks practice we would rather avoid for ourselves and those we care about. But it is just this practice that makes us develop the psychological muscle, the character, the fortitude, the confidence.

In order to learn independence children must be given the opportunity to be independent. In order to learn self-reliance children must be given opportunities to rely on themselves and face the consequences, good and bad, from those experiences.

Dealing with disappointment is about knowing, on a fundamental level, that on the other side of this painful mountain you will, inevitably, be okay. It’s not an understanding you can come to without climbing that mountain. And, no matter how much you want to spare another that journey, you cannot do it for someone else.

So, rather than being a helicopter parent, what can be more helpful is to be a soft place for a hard landing.

Perhaps this is best summed up in the words of poet Erin Hanson:

What if I fall?
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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