It seems to me that certain standards of childcare are pretty much universal: we all want to ensure the physical safety, emotional well-being, and intellectual development of our offspring. Taking good care of our kids is one of the few fundamental values common to nations and cultures worldwide almost without exception. But when I was a kid – and it wasn’t all that long ago – I did not live in a world of $500 baby car seats and draconian bicycle helmet laws. I grew up in a world where seat belts were those twisted things with metal on the ends buried in between the cracks in the back seat; unless you were playing Pop Warner you never wore a helmet for anything ever, especially not for just biking around town. There was no such thing as hand-sanitizer, and no one had ever heard of sunscreen with actual sunscreen in it – we slathered on Coppertone like butter on a Thanksgiving turkey, objective maximum browning. Second-hand smoke didn’t exist yet: my brother and sister and I routinely watched TV beneath a toxic gray cloud in the family room that had been created by my Dad chain-smoking Kents with every door and window in the house hermetically sealed to save on the heating/AC bill. By today’s standards, it’s kind of a miracle any of us survived to adulthood.
Moon Pies were a food group; Oscar Mayer bologna and mayonnaise on white bread was in everyone’s lunch box (unless it was PB&J day) alongside the Doritos; and if you used “crudités” in a sentence with a straight face (or, God help you, had some in your lunch bag) – hell, if you even knew the word “crudités” – you’d get beat up on the playground at recess. And speaking of the playground, ours used to be totally AWESOME (-ly deadly): we had metal hanging bars that singed your palms when you grabbed them in the hot sun. Which didn’t really matter because you were probably going to crack your skull doing a cherry drop anyway – third-degree burns were the least of your worries. And all the play structures were built over asphalt; none of your fancy texturized, bouncy, space-age surfaces, just good old-fashioned tar-bound macadam or a bacteria-infested sand pit. Not to mention there was little to no supervision. If you broke a bone or someone was rendered unconscious (whether by play or by peer), you better have at least one fast runner in the group to hustle back to the teacher’s lounge for help.
So here’s the thing: obviously second-hand smoke is bad, and better nutrition is good, and we should wear seat belts at all times in a moving vehicle to avoid that whole death by projectile force thing. But with every gain there is always loss: there was a freedom to that world, when summer didn’t mean a series of well-structured educational day camps strategically engineered to better your chances of getting into the right high school/college/Wall Street brokerage/what have you, summer meant your parents releasing you for the day with an admonition not to get into trouble, and you and your pals hit the road, the creek, the movie house, the park, the dirt bikes, the ice cream shop, the adventure, with abandon. No one (usually) suffered catastrophic blood loss, limbs pretty much always came home still attached, and we ended our days with stories to tell, a few bruises on our knees, and the anticipation that tomorrow would hold even more excitement. Risk was considered a part of life, not something to be scrupulously eliminated, and it was balanced by reward. A little dirt won’t kill you, kid, and boy did we come home dirty. Something gained, something lost. And I still kind of miss Moon Pies.