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Lyons: ‘70s, ‘80s anarchy summers don’t translate today

Published: Sunday, June 29, 2014 12:09 a.m. CDT

There’s a direct correlation between a child’s giddiness about school ending and a parent’s anxiety over what otherwise well behaved schoolchildren metamorphosize into when the sun lingers well into the evening sky.

Each generation thinks it’s the first to walk on Planet Parenthood, but in speaking with other Generation X parents I’ve discovered a relatively unique gap, for better or worse, between how we were raised and the controlled childhood culture of 2014.

In the summer, there was Little League, softball or volleyball. Maybe some rich kids went to camp, but no one I knew did. We were lucky to get city pool passes. After that, you were on your own. Boy vs. bugs. Boy vs. snakes. Boy vs. siblings. Boy vs. boy, etc.

Hang around the house too long and somebody’d shove a lawnmower into your hands. Halfway through a third “Brady Bunch” rerun, you’d find yourself staining a fence. The heat was no excuse for dull wits. Get outside and out of sight if you know what’s good for you.

Get out meant just that. Parents didn’t care much where. And if you were being driven anywhere, it was to a dentist’s appointment.

Come home around lunchtime when you’re hungry and be back for dinner. Most days, you grabbed a baseball mitt and hung it from your handlebars while pedaling off to a park or a schoolyard for an unorganized ballgame.

Could be wiffle ball in the street. Strikeout on the school wall, or you might find enough kids for a real game with pitcher’s hand out or closing right field.

Maybe you’d shoot hoops. Hang out for hours at the pool. Catch bluegill, turtles, snakes, crayfish or toads. Thirsty? Grab somebody’s garden hose.

If anyone mentioned a “play date,” we’d have assumed it was: a) arranged by a probation officer, b) an emergency childcare crisis, or c) orchestrated by the mom of a kid who hoarded a weird toy collection you weren’t allowed to touch.

You hung out with whomever you found and mixed things up so you wouldn’t get bored and want to clobber each other. At night, you stayed closer to home but were out playing ghost in the graveyard and putting lightning bugs into jars – possibly for crude experiments.

There are always exceptions, but kids’ suburban lives today are considerably different. Kids are used to rules. They’ve spent more time in day care with more two-parent working families, and they crave organized activities. They also want an adult to lead them or at least participate.

We wanted nothing to do with adults, and they wanted little to do with us. Not a perfect system, but it kept the peace for three months.

So now these same parents accustomed to these laissez-faire summer parenting practices find ourselves confused by our own children who don’t have this freedom and likely wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did.

Let’s not glamorize it too much. We also bounced around the back of station wagons like Ping Pong balls, never heard of sunscreen, and helmets were only for playing Army and organized football.

We dragged ourselves behind bicycles on skateboards, were reckless with fireworks and BB guns and generally got into or narrowly escaped the sort of trouble you would expect unsupervised street urchins to get into on occasion.

But we also weren’t facing a juvenile court judge for accidentally leaving a pocketknife in our backpack after a weekend camping trip or being ordered to see a psychiatrist for fidgeting in our desks or drawing inappropriate doodles.

And there were only three or four working TV channels. No offense to Ron Howard, but another episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” or other decades-old sitcoms weren’t tantalizing motivation to stay inside. But imagine if we could have conjured up “Speed Racer” on a handheld device whenever we felt like it?

Parents of our generation do our best to let our kids explore and experience the magic parts of summer, while keeping them safe. We’re convinced the world is a more dangerous place. Maybe, maybe not. We’re certainly more aware.

It’s not easy, but parenting never was – in any generation.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.

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