Is every generation of children less independent than the previous one? When I talk to mothers of my generation, many bemoan the way childhood has changed into an overscheduled, chaperoned, playdate-studded sanctuary. They remember whole summers when they were children, playing Mother May I, but never needing to actually ask for permission to wander their neighborhood, all day until supper.
But when I read Joan Didion’s most recent memoir, Blue Nights, I was struck by how much she thought her childhood had been free, but her daughter’s had not. Her daughter, who died recently, would have been my age.
“It so happened that I was a child during World War Two,” she says, “which meant that I grew up in circumstances in which even more stress than usual was placed on independence. . . There was a war in progress. That war did not revolve around or in any way hinge upon the wishes of children. In return for tolerating these home truths, children were allowed to invent their own lives. The notion that they could be left to their own devices—were in fact best left so—went unquestioned. Once the war was over . . . this laissez-faire approach continued.”
And she’s not just talking about children being allowed to walk to school by themselves. “I remember getting my learner’s driving permit at age fifteen-and-a-half,” she writes, “and interpreting it as a local mandate to drive from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe after dinner, two or three hours up one of the switchbacked highways into the mountains and, if you just turned around and kept driving, which was all we did, since we already had whatever we wanted to drink in the car with us, two or three hours back. This disappearance into the heart of the Sierra Nevada on what amounted to an overnight DUI went without comment from my mother and father.” It’s a wonder any of them survived to have their own children!
Her generation of parents, by contrast, are naggers and coddlers. “Parenting,” she says, “has undergone a telling transformation: we used to define success as the ability to encourage the child to grow into independent (which is to say into adult) life, to “raise” the child, to let the child go. If a child wanted to try out his or her new bicycle on the steepest hill in the neighborhood, there may have been a pro forma reminder that the steepest hill in the neighborhood descended into a four-way intersection, but such a reminder, because independence was still seen as the desired end of the day, stopped short of nagging.”
Didion is my mother’s generation, a generation that became parents not during World War II, but Vietnam. In my memory, it is my mother’s generation that encouraged independence, while my generation of parents coddles and nags. Maybe every generation feels this way. When my daughter becomes a parent, will she look back at her childhood as relatively free? Will she be wistful for the way things are today?