on the way it used to be
When I was ten-years-old, if you asked me what I would want to make me happy I would have listed the following items: a pony, my own bedroom with a TV, a dump truck full of Tootsie Rolls, and to play “pitch and catch” with the Cincinnati Reds’ Johnny Bench (with my friends watching in envy of course). Oh, and money. Enough to buy a boat load of toys. Give me all that and I would be happy.
Well it turns out I didn’t get any of those things and I had about the happiest childhood a kid could have. So how did that happen? Just lucky I guess. Or maybe, like you, I grew up in a simpler time. See if any of this sounds familiar.
When I was a child families were bigger and houses were smaller. That meant sharing a room with your brother or sister. Sure you argued and got in each other’s way but you also had someone to talk to when the lights went out at night. And if you woke from a nightmare there was a familiar voice in the darkness asking if you were okay.
Your friends all lived within shouting distance of your front porch. That way when your mother yelled, “Come on, dinner!” you heard her whether you wanted to or not. Oh, and dinner was whatever she cooked that night. This was not a restaurant where you could select from a variety of entrees. Monday was pork chops. Don’t like pork chops? That’s a shame since the next meal coming out of this kitchen won’t be until Tuesday. Kids learned to eat what was put in front of them, unlike today where children think the food pyramid consists solely of grilled cheese, chicken nuggets and Spaghetti O’s.
You had one TV in the house and in the days before cable that meant just three channels. It also meant sharing and compromise and families watching a single show together. Do you remember when families all sat in one room for more than five minutes? We didn’t have computers and PlayStation. If you wanted to slay a dragon you had to use your imagination. If you wanted to play baseball you didn’t sit in front of the TV with a game control in your hands. You actually went outside and played baseball. Is it any wonder kids were thinner back then?
Play meant going outside in the sunshine and gathering with the other kids from the block. Every child should know the joy of playing a game of Kick The Can or Hide and Seek. We built forts and climbed trees and if you skinned your knee there were no HMO’s and co-pays. Mom or Dad sprayed you with Bactine and sent you on your way. And yes, as cliché as it sounds, you knew it was time to go home when the streetlights came on.
Everyone’s parents knew all the other kids in the neighborhood—no matter where you were it was like your mom and dad were watching. If you stepped out of line your parents knew about it before you even got home. You also knew that if you were in trouble you could knock on any door and someone would help you. It was the original neighborhood watch program.
We didn’t have a lot those days, but we were happy. Kids today have everything, yet many are not happy. In my opinion they suffer from “too much” syndrome. They have too much to do with soccer, dance, piano lessons, karate and baseball all in the same week. Too much to play with, with rooms filled with toys; some still in the original boxes. And sadly many children have too much power, deciding when they’ll go to bed, who they’ll spend time with and how they should be disciplined when they do something wrong.
Our parents weren’t our best friends. They were our parents—the cop, judge and jury. They had the final say. They expected you to do household chores without argument or expectation of some reward. Parents also lived within their means. If they didn’t have the money for something, they didn’t buy it. If they even had a credit card it was used for emergencies only, not to make little Schuyler or Sebastian happy.
If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at home movies of any American family on Christmas morning 40 years ago compared to today. You probably received just a few gifts and treated them like all the gold in the world. Today it is stunning how much children are given and how little they value what they get.
I’m not pointing any fingers here, as I’m as guilty as the next guy. Somewhere between our blissful childhoods and today, we forgot what made us happy in the first place. Maybe it’s time to put away the credit cards and throw away the palm pilot with the aggressive after-school schedule. Maybe it’s time to plan a day of doing absolutely nothing. Boredom is the fuel for a child’s imagination.
As smart as parents like to think we are sometimes it’s the children who teach the lesson. One day last fall my kitchen table was covered with junk so I went outside and threw a blanket down under a tree. The kids and I sat in the cool shade and devoured tuna sandwiches for lunch. Call it an impromptu picnic. Just the other day I asked them what they wanted to do for fun—go to the mall, ride bikes, whatever they liked. My son asked if we could eat outside again. The one thing that didn’t cost a dime is the one thing he remembered and enjoyed.
Each generation a new set of parents vows to give their children more than they had before them. Maybe it’s time to give less. Or at least give the right things like the gift of time, discipline and higher expectations. And maybe we can learn what our parents always knew, that when it comes to children sometimes the most loving word in the English language is no.
John Gray is a Fox23 News anchor and contributing writing at the Troy Record. He can be reached at email@example.com