Why I'm not living like it's 1982 (and other parenting rants)

Julie Maclellan

OK, that’s it. I have to do it. I have to rant.

I officially can’t stand it anymore after reading, time and time again, about all the ways I, as a 21st-century parent, am doing it wrong because I’m not raising my kid like it’s 1982, or because I’m programming her life too much, or because my child’s brain is being rewired by screen time, or because my child is so coddled that she’s going to head out into the world with no idea of how to cope with reality when Mommy’s not there to tie her shoelaces.

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Just stop. Right now.

Newsflash: I’m not raising my kid like it’s 1982 because, well, it’s not 1982. And, for better or for worse – and, really, it’s both at the same time – that does affect the way we parent today.

Remember “latchkey kids”? That was a big catchphrase in the 1970s and ’80s, identifying that breed of child who, for one reason or another, didn’t have a parent home after school and so would let themselves in to their own homes and look after themselves until the parent got home. It may come as a great surprise to those now advocating for a return to the free-range days that being a “latchkey kid” was actually considered to be a bad thing at the time. Back in those dark ages of my childhood, it was actually considered to be a positive thing to have a parent at home.

Now, apparently, it’s consigning me to the depths of poorest parenting if I confess that I actually rather like spending time with my child. Yes, you read that right: I like my kid, and dammit, I want to spend time with her. I don’t want to set her free to roam the neighbourhood (let’s be clear, she’s just about to turn four, so roaming is likely some time away in any case) because I have a crazy idea that it’s good for families to spend time together.

But, you object, surely there’s room for both.

There should be. In a perfect world, there would be. But this is where my reality, in 2016, is different from the reality I grew up with. I had a mom who was home full-time with three kids. She was probably pretty happy if we wanted to roam off to the park, or ride our bikes around the neighbourhood. She got enough of us as it was.

I’m not home full-time, and neither are a lot of mothers these days. And before the chorus raises the very obvious, “But you chose to work full-time,” let me say that’s not always true. Questions of feminist philosophy aside, in many cases, the decision to work full-time is a financial one. And by “financial,” I don’t mean the ability to keep my BMW roadster and my hybrid SUV side-by-side in the garage of my gigantic house and take exotic vacations to Bora-Bora.

I mean the ability to eat. And pay the mortgage. And take the occasional camping trip.

I grew up with a pretty simple, ordinary middle-class lifestyle: a modest home in a quiet suburban community, where our vacations were road trips with the pop-up trailer. (Long road trips, as it happens, since I had a dad who worked in the education system and therefore got summers off.) I’m raising my kid with a pretty similar lifestyle – but with a slightly smaller home, and with shorter vacations that have not yet involved anything more exotic than road-tripping to visit family in Saskatchewan. I’m not hard done by. I’ve got a good life. But my “second income” isn’t about some desire to life in luxury, as many critics seem to think it is these days. It’s merely a practical reality of 21st century living in the Lower Mainland.

The world has changed since 1982 – especially in Greater Vancouver and other similar metropolitan centres.

Housing is more expensive – even allowing for the rise in income levels. Commutes have gotten longer as people are forced to move farther away from city centres to afford to live. Certain kinds of jobs have gotten scarcer, especially secure, well-paying jobs for those in what would have been called the “working class” in the 1970s and '80s – the kinds of factory jobs that provided steady employment for many among my friends and family and that allowed a big chunk of people to have comfortable one-income lifestyles.

It used to be true, yes, that some households opted for the second income as their ticket to luxury – to the “upwardly mobile” lifestyle that saw the move to bigger houses, bigger cars, and more conspicuous consumption in the 1980s. Today, that second income is far less likely to be a ticket to luxury and far more likely to simply be a way to keep a roof over kids’ heads and shoes on their feet.

All of which means we have less time together than we used to. And in order to get our kids home in time to feed them healthy, home-cooked suppers (because everyone knows 21st-century parents rely too heavily on fast food) and get them to bed in time for a good night’s sleep (because everyone knows 21st-century kids are sleep-deprived), we ain’t got much time left for letting our kids roam the neighbourhood in search of free-range play.

And please don’t get me started on extracurricular activities. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford them (and I am), then you’ve gotta figure out how to find the time to schedule them – without, of course, overscheduling them, because you have to figure out how to raise the most well-rounded little human you can without programming her too much. Music and dance lessons are great for their emotional, cognitive and intellectual development. She needs to learn to swim, of course. And what about sports? Every kid needs to do a team sport because look how much they learn from sports. And don’t forget Girl Guides or Scouts; kids learn so many life skills from those kind of organized activities.

You can’t let your kid miss out on those kind of opportunities. You don’t want to be the parent whose kid is left behind. But whatever you do, don’t pack too many things into your kid’s schedule, lest you be written off as one of those parents that just can’t “go with the flow” the way parents used to back in the good old days.

But wait, there’s more. What about screens? I mean, clearly screen time is bad for kids; most of the experts and all of the armchair parenting critics online say so. Then, on the other hand, if you don’t let them learn about the world of smartphones and social media, how are they going to navigate these new and relatively uncharted waters? Again, parents, buck up; you’re clearly just overreacting. Obviously they had it figured out in 1982, when you were just free to turn on as much TV as you wanted as long as your homework got done somewhere in there.

And can we please talk about this overprotecting your offspring thing? Listen, they clearly had this figured out in 1982; what’s so different now? Why are all our kids so coddled? Oh sure, we live in a world where you’re likely to find some stranger calling the cops on you if you dare to live your kid unattended in the car while you dash in to the corner store to buy milk, but that’s a small point.

Let’s not overlook that self-reliance deal: Clearly, 21st-century parents are screwing up completely because kids these days are so soft and sensitive and can’t handle the real world. All this “anti-bullying” education and “empathetic parenting” claptrap is just producing a generation of marshmallows.

As it happens, kids these days are also probably the most aware generation ever: they understand the impact of their actions on the world around them – in large part because technology has connected that world in unprecedented ways. Today’s kids care about the environment and are concerned about issues of social justice in ways I never could have dreamed possible in the 1970s and 1980s. They’re more aware of human rights and issues of diversity than any generation before them. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and family units, and so do their friends, and it never occurs to them to think the world should be any other way.

But yeah, we’re screwing them up pretty badly by raising them to be so “sensitive.”

Sigh.

Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m whining. I’ll suck it up. If you’re privileged enough to be facing the kind of questions I’ve detailed above, then you’re living the definition of #firstworldproblems. And let’s face it, none of these issues are new; in its own way, each generation has dealt with all the same challenges.

But you know what’s changed? The fact that every time you turn on your computer, you’re assailed by yet another article or blog post or comment section questioning your choices as a parent and letting you know how you’re basically letting down society by failing to embrace the latest expert wisdom on topic X, Y or Z – or by failing to throw all that expert wisdom out the window and just sending your kid out barefoot to drink Tang in the backyard.

The real truth is, there’s good to be found everywhere. There’s good in finding ways to let your kid live a free-range, carefree summer, and there’s good in family vacations to exotic destinations or weekends in the campground. There’s good in signing your kid up for camp and for singing lessons and for soccer, and there’s good in lazy Saturdays in the backyard. There’s good in letting your kid navigate the world of technology and in turning off the computer to go outside and look for caterpillars. There’s good in intervening to help your child to grow up to be a concerned and caring human being, and there’s good in leaving your child to make his or her own mistakes.

The trick is in finding the balance that works for you and for your family. And in knowing that, no matter what path you choose, two facts will always be true:

1. Someone will find something to criticize about your choices.

And

2. It doesn’t matter at all, because it’s your kid and your life, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

So, yes, I’m going to keep allowing screen time and my kid is going to be programmed sometimes and coddled sometimes and overprotected sometimes. And I’m most definitely not going to live like it’s 1982. (I mean, seriously people, check the hair. The glasses. Would you go back there?)

Because it’s 2016. And this is the life we’re living.

And you know what? It’s pretty awesome, and we’re doing just fine.

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