The Upside (and Downside) of a Protected Childhood

Leave It To Beaver, TV show We came home from church and were still in our Sunday best. My two older brothers raced upstairs to change. Mom headed for the kitchen. My sister and I were in the living room with Dad when he turned on the TV to check the news – not a habit in our family, but then again, the previous few days had been unlike any others.

As we stared at the black and white screen, what looked like a fistfight broke out between a group of men, with lots of shouting and a sound like “pop!”

Without saying a word, Dad strolled quickly to the TV set and switched it off. We had just seen Lee Harvey Oswald – the man believed to have killed President Kennedy – himself shot and killed on live television.

My sister and I were not even sure what we had just seen. When we asked Dad, he said, “Just a couple of men fighting. Nothing you need to see.”

And that was that.

We accepted Dad’s vague explanation, although we suspected there was more to it than that. The message was this: Something had happened in the world of adults. It was too scary to be put on our young shoulders.

It had been a singularly horrible week. You might not think the assassination of the President would have an impact on a five-year-old, but I remember every minute of that day. My kindergarten teacher was called into the hallway by the principal, and returned weeping uncontrollably. We were told to collect our things and were sent home early. Most jarring of all was the sight of our normally-grumpy school bus driver silently driving us home, tears spilling down his cheeks.

The well-defined line between reality and “what children should know” had been breached.

Where is that line now? I often wonder.

My life was completely protected. Mine was perhaps the last generation of American kids who lived in a bubble.

I know that my parents wanted us “to be children as long as possible,” which was the generally-accepted parenting methodology of the time. This was the hope and dream of their generation, which experienced childhood during the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by the most destructive war which had ever occurred, and led directly into the Atomic Age. I can’t say I blame the “Greatest Generation” for wanting to protect their children from the realities of life, as long as possible.

My dad served overseas in the Army during World War Two, but the only stories that ever reached my ears were the goofy stunts and mishaps, and the friendships and camaraderie, that sound right out of a Bing Crosby-Bob Hope road trip movie. When I was old enough to actually read a book about that war, I was shocked.

The whole culture participated in the charade that the world was a better, simpler place than we wanted to admit. Shows like “Leave It To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” assisted in our cheerful worldview.

The downside? I suspect it made my teenage years more difficult. I was unprepared for the real world. And I am still shocked – shocked! – at the cruelty of human beings. No one told me!

On the other hand, I did have a lovely childhood. I knew who was in charge – my parents. I had structure but also kindness. I really was living in a “Leave It to Beaver” kind of world.

I could write volumes about how that has changed. Children today know more about the world at seven than I did at seventeen. I suppose that being exposed to some of the realities of life has made them stronger, and more prepared to adapt as they grow up.

And yet, I cringe at the level of violence to which children are increasingly, and thoughtlessly, exposed. The coarsening of our culture – the decline of civility, and the acceptance of vulgarity – makes me wonder if we are raising increasingly desensitized children.

What is your opinion? How were you raised compared to the way children are brought up today?

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Filed under family life, Remembrances

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