We drilled down on people who were born in the ’70s—the last generation before the Reagan-era panic began—to see what the difference was between what they were allowed to do as kids compared to what they allow their own children to do. The differences were most clear on two measures: When the ’70s children were kids, most of them were allowed to go to the playground alone and walk between 1 and 5 miles alone by second or third grade. When these kids became parents, they were more cautious with their own children, waiting until their kids were in fourth or fifth grade to let them be outside by themselves.
Overall, there is a sense among respondents who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s that they were the last era of children to roam free. “I'm a college professor, and my students often kid me that I must have had a bleak childhood without computers, Smart Phones, and hundreds of TV channels. But I often tell them they were the deprived ones, for, as a Baby Boomer, I had the last golden childhood, where I was free to be a kid,” one woman wrote. Another, born in 1967, wrote, “We did all kinds of things we probably should have gotten in trouble for out in the country. … I'm glad I was raised then and not now. I'm sad my sister, who is 9.5 years younger than me, missed out on the types of experiences and freedom I had growing up.”
Older respondents reported hopping on railway cars, stealing gin from their parents’ liquor cabinet, walking on barely frozen ponds, pouring chocolate milk on cars, and setting a whole roll of toilet paper on fire in the bathroom “just to see what would happen.” They reported a lot of sexual experimentation—sneaking into seedy bars, meeting older men, stealing a credit card to get a subscription to Playboy. One person reported going out with a neighbor boy and stealing a pistol to shoot a chipmunk out of a tree, and added: “PS. He didn’t grow up that well.”
But many respondents also thought their parents should have been keeping a closer eye on them. One, born in 1973 to a working-class suburban family, wrote that she was left home alone at age 4, and that she stole 300 pennies and walked down to a doughnut shop by herself. Another, born in 1965, described her parents as “increasingly detached,” and added, “I'll never forget in high school—my junior year—not seeing my parents in the morning and leaving notes all day long about where I'd be with never a reply. I finally got home around 1 a.m. Yes, it was a school night. They never noticed.”
As Debra Harrell’s experience and our respondents show, there’s a major class wrinkle here. Single parents and poor parents often do not have the resources to keep a close eye on their children, regardless of what era they were born in. One respondent, born in 1980, illustrates this point well:
My mother had three jobs, one as a bar tender, that created a pretty strange schedule. After returning from AM kindergarten while she was sleeping I had a routine of skateboarding, roller skating and then walking around with my stuffed animals around our apartment complex everyday and then going into “neighbors” (I didn't know their name and they hadn't spoken to my Mom) apartments for snacks. I stayed out until I went back to wake her up around 5:00 to pick up my 2 year old brother from daycare and go to work. She did the best she could as a single mother but HOLY SHIT I look back and gasp at how trusting I/she was, and how kind those strangers in a south Denver, one shaky step up from section 8 housing, unit were. I never mentioned anything to her because it seemed normal and even at that age I understood there weren't other options. When you grow up poor you learn from an early age to find the cheapest item on a menu and be grateful for many things those raised in another socio-economic group don't even take for granted; they've never considered it an option NOT to have. “Of COURSE you'd have childcare! Just hire a teenager if you're desperate.” Often times that's even out of reach.
This reader doesn’t totally regret her freedom, however. She lets her second-grader bike alone to a friend’s house, although neighbors complain. Another woman, born in 1960, says she used to hike mountains and explore all day long in the suburbs where she grew up, something she’d never let her own kids do: “I would freak out if my kids had roamed the way I did. But that’s because of the inundation of information we have about dangers to children ie: Child predators, kidnappers, etc,” she writes. A lot of readers expressed that they’d be more upset that their children didn’t feel comfortable sharing their transgressions than they would be about the transgressions themselves. One woman who used to sneak her boyfriend into the house said she doesn’t want her kids to have to do the same things. “I'm trying to cultivate a better relationship with my kids so they don't feel they have to sneak around,” she writes.
Despite the nostalgia, most people, when pressed, don’t want to return to the detached, divorce-boom 1970s era of parenting. But they also feel a little ambivalent about how hovering they’ve become. As one woman, born in 1972, puts it, “Sadly, I find myself parenting from a newspaper headline point of view. If something bad happened after a parenting choice I made, how would it sound when reported in the papers? It makes me more conservative than I'd like to be and my kids miss out on the independence of open-ended play, like I had.”
Maybe a happy medium would be relishing the closer ties between parents and children now, but also recognizing that part of being a good, caring parent is letting children discover things on their own. What’s the harm of setting a roll of toilet paper on fire? After all, there is a sink in the bathroom.
If you wrote us about your childhood experiences in the survey and wouldn’t mind being contacted, please send an email to email@example.com. Put “survey” in the subject line and a sentence in the email about what you wrote so we can match you up to your survey answer. Thank you!