How in God’s name did we survive childhood?

Have you ever wondered how we survived? And by “we,” I mean the group of us common referred to as “generation Y” or whatever other catchy name they’ve come up with for us. I’m talking about the thirty-somethings who somehow, despite all the torments we tolerated, managed to live in the world long enough to be able to even have children of our own.

Nearly everything we had or did as a kid could pretty much be considered child abuse in some form today. Whereas parents couldn’t wait to send their kids out of the house in the morning, now they can’t wait to corral them and make play dates. No kid is allowed to play, unaccompanied without an adult. No kid shall walk without an adult three inches behind, and in some cases holding onto said kid with some sort of leash-like device, and no one will ever dare talk to a child if they’re not directly related to the child, lest they be labeled a pedophile.

It’s really gotten scary out there, but mainly because many of these new-era modern parents have forgotten where we came from ourselves.

When I was a kid, my parents had numerous vehicles, but the one I remember best was the 1971 Plymouth Valiant (the header image is the same car, but a year newer and yellow instead of red). That car was so cool to us. It was shiny red (for the most part, but after it being one of our two family cars for approximately 20 years, that shine wore off pretty substantially) and had a black interior made of a synthetic leather that Cher would be proud to use a single strap of to cover her girl parts. In the summer, after trips out during the day or to the beach, the car always needed to “air out.” Translation? The car needed to cool down to a temperature where human skin could touch the seats without becoming part of them.

And the black roof didn’t help, either. In the eyes of a young child, that car could be classified as a torture device, and rightfully so.
What truly made that car stand out, at least in my reflections on it, is how unbelievably unsafe it was, and I’m not just talking about the broiler that was the interior during summer.

In 1971, when the car was manufactured, there were very little in the way of safety considerations. There were no airbags, no anti-lock brakes, no traction control, and certainly no crash detection system. Even more astonishing, however, was what the car did have. The front seat belts were lap straps. Hanging from the ceiling, and tucked safely onto clips, were the shoulder belts. Nothing retracted on this car, and it was pretty funny seeing the unused belts attached to the roof.
In the back of the car, the side was lined with steel. That’s right, steel. My sister and I used to regularly bring magnetic letters in the car to stick to the steel sides. One wrong move and you were getting your head whacked.

As if that wasn’t fun enough, the back windows rolled all the way down. Flat. And in the back seat there was no shoulder strap, just a lap strap. Before New York State passed their seat belt law, kids in the back seat were left to freely ride around with no belts, windows rolled down, surrounded by exposed steel in a car so hot that their skin blistered.

Does this sound like a situation that would even be tolerated today? Of course not, and yet we survived, didn’t we? Those old clunkers our parents had where everything in them was unsafe somehow managed to carry us through childhood and for many of us, they were our first cars when we got our licenses. It’s often interesting to wonder how, without the benefit of tons of safety enhancements, we survived at all.

And yet we did, but don’t tell parents today that.

What strikes me most about parents today is how they seem to have forgotten all of the insanely dangerous things they did as kids.
In the 40’s and 50’s many toy soldiers were made of lead and even though they weren’t officially “banned” at the time, shopkeepers simply started buying plastic toy soldiers to sell to save on shipping costs and lost money due to breakage in transit, but had plastics not been “figured out,” we’d still be playing with our nice lead toy soldiers. Now, if a kid even looks at a lead paint chip we freak out and sue, but by the logic of people today, shouldn’t kids have not been able to survive?  That’s not to say lead isn’t harmful, but the disproportionate reactions to things are so out of whack with reality they’ve become comical.

It’s not just lead, either. Children now are treated as if they’d perish if they dare experience anything aside from extreme comfort. Coffee table? We have bumpers for that. We have covers for outlets. We have plastic ties for the cabinet doors. Playpens? Gone. Too dangerous. Drop-side cribs? Congress recently decided that they should be outlawed because 32 kids died in the past 9 years in crib-related accidents. As tragic as that is, stairs (1,300 deaths a year), eating (70 deaths a year), and venomous spider bites (5 deaths a year) are all more dangerous. In other words, the chances of your kid being the one to die are so low as to be statistically insignificant. Something tells me you’d have an equal chance of having a fatal baby sling accident.

Common sense tells you that these are concerns that rational people shouldn’t have, but often parents aren’t exhibiting the best common sense when they act. In fact, more often than not, when you confront a parent with a statistic, their reply is often “you can never be too careful.”

I would stipulate that if you’ve padded your house like a room in an insane asylum, you’ve already been too careful.

This isn’t to say prudence isn’t smart and being careful is stupid.  It is, however, important to put our current pattern of panicking over every single thing in perspective, particularly the perspective of people who somehow managed to survive a much less cautious childhood.

Header image via Greg Gjerdingen on flickr.


4 thoughts on “How in God’s name did we survive childhood?

  1. We had a 57 Chevy, well, we had two, but my dad’s, instead of having a backseat had this pleather cover thing that covered up the trunk from the back seat “area” of the car, which was covered in orange shag carpet. Ohyeah.. we totally road back there rolling around from the back area to the trunk, hiding behind the pleahter curtain. *SIGH* those were the days.


  2. And yet we did survive. Amazing, huh? The dashboards on those old cars, too, was a huge chunk of unforgiving steel.

    I remember sitting on my dad’s lap while he drove down mountain roads so I could have my hands on the steering wheel and pretend to drive.

    But when you become a parent it’s so easy to fall into the overprotective trap. I find myself doing it now. There were things that my 11 year old did that I’d shit my pants if my 11 year old son did the same thing. And the steering wheel-lap thing? Nah, I didn’t do that with my son. Why? Because of the damned airbag. An airbag exploding into a toddler’s face is a safety feature that wouldn’t be so “safe.”


    1. It’s funny you mention the dashboards being steel. I totally remembered that after you said it. I remember going to the Concours in Greenwich last year and marveling at how the dashboards of the cars were all wood and steel (and usually painted the color of the body). On one hand you think “Man, hitting that thing would hurt,” but then you realize that if something hit your 20 ft Cadillac, you probably didn’t move much anyway!


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