By Anjali Enjeti
You remember childhood, don't you?
We wore our house keys around our necks like dog tags, walked home from school alone and let ourselves inside while our parents were still at work. We crossed busy intersections during rush hour to purchase bubble gum cigarettes with change from empty soda cans.
Our playgrounds were construction sites, heaps of dirt, creeks filled with snakes and turtles we collected as pets. We climbed trees, muddied our Garanimals, scaled fences between neighbors' backyards. We spent Memorial Day to Labor Day barefoot, the soles of our feet blackened like coal, dirt clumping underneath our toenails. Skateboards, roller skates and bikes defined our boundaries -- our Baby Boomer parents would scoff if we asked for a ride somewhere. They were too busy reading the newspaper, watching soaps or drinking beer on the stoop with the neighbors.
We were told to come in at dark, not a second earlier.
We had our kids late. Probably too late. Now we're cranky, sleep-deprived 40-somethings changing chlorine-free, biodegradable diapers while Dora the Explorer morphs into a hormonal teen right before our very eyes. We claim we don't regret waiting because we "needed to get established in our careers first" and "wanted to save enough money," even though we know damn well we have neither viable careers nor anything resembling a nest egg.
We cart our children to chess, robotics, baseball practice, ballet, cello, swimming lessons and birthday parties. Though they run our lives like lunatic ringmasters, we insist such activities make them well-rounded / social / intellectual / competitive / creative.
They are rarely out of our sights. They're our extensions, buds hanging off our stems, the quality, durability, and character of their bloom wholly dependent on our careful, measured, intentional nurturing. We stuff them into slings as babies, backpacks and strollers as toddlers, tie them with leashes as preschoolers and use GPS and apps to monitor their whereabouts as teens.
They sleep in our beds until middle school.
Though we started babysitting at age 9 (and were responsible only for keeping our charges alive), as parents, we hire college-educated, CPR-certified, well-referenced, background-checked Pinterest enthusiasts who don't just babysit our kids -- they construct elaborate origami, re-enact Shakespeare and tutor our children in philosophy and Mandarin.
We got picked last in dodgeball and weren't allowed to cry about it. We were told to toughen up, grow up, shake it off. Coddling? It didn't exist.
Awards were bestowed on the one kid out of 256 who actually won the race, received the absolute highest score on an exam, sold the most Girl Scout cookies in the entire state. The rest of us lost. We were losers. We were OK with that.
Medals, trophies, ribbons, and gold lamé certificates for "Best Bench Warmer" or "Best Snack Provider" cover our children's bedroom walls, line every bookshelf, convert their rooms into shrines for simply making an effort or showing up.
Our meals came from cans, boxes, and freezers. We scarfed down Chef Boyardee, Stouffer's French bread pizzas and Swanson's TV dinners in front of the evening news on a set that had four functioning channels -- three if it was raining. We ingested every food dye, additive and preservative imaginable, and extracted our daily dose of Vitamin C from Kool-Aid or Tang. We didn't dare tell our parents we didn't like the food, didn't want the food, weren't in the mood for that type of food. We had to clean our plates, polish off every crumb, and if we didn't, we'd hear about the starving children in third world countries. Our unfinished dinners would double as our breakfasts the next morning, cold as blocks of ice, rubbery as whoopee cushions.
As parents, we slave for hours in the kitchen perfecting our kids' gluten-free, local, organic, artisanal, hand-crafted, hormone-free, ethical meals, and as long as our children taste everything -- even if it means brushing it along the tips of their tongues -- they're free to dump the rest into the compost bin.
In our youths, we did chores. We scrubbed linoleum floors, folded laundry, polished silver, scrubbed toilets, ironed drapes, or washed cars. We completed chores because our parents "said so," because our parents had backbones, because they were dictators whom we feared as much as Gorbachev or Fidel Castro or nuclear warheads. There were no "chore charts" adorned with sparkly stickers or smiley faces, and we were almost never paid for household work. To earn money, we delivered newspapers, mowed lawns, bagged groceries, answered telephones, and bussed tables at restaurants.
Our own children receive allowances for merely existing. They're too "busy" to hold down real jobs. They have a dizzying array of "choices." Their childhoods resemble the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Golden Corral. They can even pick their own discipline -- time-out, restrictions, aw, hell, what does it matter? It's not like they know the meaning of the word "no."
We had to learn cursive. Did you hear me? For God's sake we learned cursive! We diagrammed sentences. Our grades were never curved when the whole class failed a test. For the most part, our parents stayed away from our schools, trusted our teachers and left them in charge of our education.
None of us was gifted.
All of our children are.
Years from now, when our kids are older, they'll complain that we loved them too hard, too much, that we didn't teach them how to earn a living, how to budget, that we should have let them make more mistakes, embarrass themselves a little more. That they needed more rules, more independence and less friendship, less screen time, less structure, fewer paranoid, fear-mongering Internet links.
We'll come to understand that our kids are probably just as f*%ked up as we are, that despite the parenting books, the blogs, the Facebook groups, the Twitter hashtags, the Pinterest boards pumping us full of so much rhetoric and infinite guilt our instincts and sensibilities have vanished into thin air -- the singular act of raising a child hasn't changed all that much over the years. It's still so damn hard. And like the generations of parents that came before us, we're all making it up as we go along.
Kool-Aid and all.