As a lover of history I find myself reading the news and trying to determine whether an event, innovation or social change is significant or just part of a predictable pattern that we have seen in the past. I tend to hope that it is a predictable pattern so that I have a reference point for how to handle the change and reassurance that others have lived through similar experiences.
Outside of watching the news, I also try this exercise on topics that cause me anxiety, primarily raising children. I often hear from my plus-50-year-old friends, “I can’t imagine having to raise kids today with cellphones and school shootings and…” My heart races a little faster and I wonder: Is raising kids today a significantly scarier prospect than it has been throughout history?
A part of me thinks yes; yes, there has been a historically significant leap from the previous norms and challenges of raising kids. My parents and grandparents never had to navigate appropriate screen time nor the effects of cyberbullying. Kids didn’t have to go through metal detectors to go to school or practice active shooter drills. Kids could ride their bikes all over town and respond only to a dinner bell or a cue from the street light that it was time to go home. No GPS units attached to your child or a cellphone in their elementary-age pocket.
However, the other and louder voice inside of me responds that I am not considering the big picture. Parenting in America today is one of the safest times medically to bring children into the world. If a child is premature they have a significantly higher chance of surviving and thriving. As they grow, we bring our children to regular well-checks and immunize for a slew of diseases that killed or maimed children of previous generations. Economically, our children are protected from working in factories and mines. When I take the time to reference history I know that parents have always had reason for anxiety, that this again is a predictable pattern.
I recently watched a documentary about Mr. Rogers and he talked about the troubles plaguing youth in the 1970s. What stuck with me was his emphasis that while the external world of children is rapidly changing, what is going on internally for children remains timeless. Kids need to know they are safe and loved. And families need the support of the community in raising children. One form of support is simply providing perspective.
Generational perspective is a wonderful gift. But it is important to not just recount how much better the good old days were but also how some things were still scary or uncertain and how kids still misbehaved and even rebelled. I know as a parent I am relieved to hear the retelling of the have-you-lost-your-mind behavior of teenagers in the past. One such story that has stuck with me is of my own grandfather, who came from a super strict home, getting kicked out of high school for putting Limburger cheese in the vents of the school. Another story involved my uncle’s rebellious stage, when he frustrated his parents by refusing to cut his long hair and wore obnoxious bell bottom pants to FFA events. And yet both my grandfather and my uncle went on to be great members of the community.
I also think about anxiety filled stories seniors have shared with me of going to school during the Cold War and practicing putting on gas masks and drills of hiding under their desks preparing for a nuclear bomb to drop. While it doesn’t alleviate my fears of an active shooter, it gives me a comforting perspective that parents have continually had to swallow their fears and allow their kids to be part of the bigger, scarier world. And, kids will be OK. And, eventually, they too will become worry-filled parents.
Mr. Rogers once said, “Parents are like shuttles on a loom. They join the threads of the past with threads of the future and leave their own bright patterns as they go.” I like to think about how the experiences of my grandparents have shaped my parenting approach and someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll hear my voice come out when my daughters chastise their offspring.
Liz Cassiday is the executive director of the Sheridan County YMCA.