The free-range parenting debate ignited by children wandering around neighborhoods and on subways by themselves brought an interesting conversation to Facebook the other day. The big question is: Why?
Why are we so paranoid about our children exploring by themselves or looking after their younger siblings. That’s not how it was in the old days. The rule used to be “come home when the streetlights come on.” My response was it has something to do with the loss of our neighborhood networks, social isolation, and lack of community policing. Yet another way to go was that we live in a more dangerous world.
But here’s the thing with that, we don’t. If you look at crime rates, they’re down. Across the board. Murder, violent crime, property crime. Yes, there are more people now. But the crime rate itself is pretty much back to where it was in the 1960s after a spike from the 1970s to 1990s. You can blame the news cycle for the constant stream of negative world events. It feels bad even if we’re living in a time of relative peace and safety. It’s easy to point to the horrors in Syria, Ukraine, Africa and think we live in dark times. But really we’ve made a lot of progress.
And that got me thinking about what it’s like to be a parent in a wider context. Do we live in a “Golden Age of Parenting”? Not saying we’re the best parents who have ever lived in all of humanity. There are clearly exceptions and our kids clearly face obstacles. The shrinking middle class. The education gap. Problems finding jobs. Problems paying for education. The healthcare system is still broken despite efforts to reform it. Blah blah blah.
That’t not my point here. My parenting point is twofold:
- We tend to judge “bad” parents by their deviation from the commonly available network of family-related opportunities.
- Those family-related opportunities are, generally, wider and more readily accessible than at any other time in human history.
The easiest way to illustrate my point is vaccines and the debate over them. We live in an age where most childhood diseases that would have otherwise killed thousands just a few generations ago have been eradicated. Those diseases are making a comeback not because we lack technical or medical know-how. They’re back because a few people have deviated from the Golden Age of Parenting mainstream.
You can apply the same premise to almost any topic. Despite ongoing issues, we live in a time when education around the nation is perhaps the best it’s ever been. We still have huge problems with poverty, but today’s low-income problems are not the same in absolute terms as just a century ago. Think of a poor child in 1915. That’s World War I. Here in Chicago the immigrant neighborhoods were … a good word is “festering.” Today’s crime, drugs, and incarceration are, relatively speaking, improved. No excuse to call it quits, obviously. But my point here is: progress.
Dads no longer are trapped in the factory or office and can spend time with their children. Moms can have careers and are no longer socially forced into staying home. We’ve made strides with gay rights, adoption, race, gender, religions, and we can network with people around the globe. This serves as a counter to that neighborhood isolation in the beginning. We may be physically isolated, but we’re connected by technology like no time before.
We often fight back against our tech gods these days and it’s fashionable to dismiss technology as evil or somehow ruining us. But that same technology also lets us send photos of the grandkids, instantly find strange animal facts, telecommute to our job so we can spend more time with our children, and whatever else we can dream up. Just yesterday my 3-year-old daughter wanted to see photos of neurons under a microscope. Kids in 1915 weren’t asking to learn about brain chemistry while snuggling with their dads on the couch.
If you asked me what era of history I’d like to be plopped down in to parent two children and generally live a decent quality of life with great freedoms, tolerance, education levels, lack of disease, and overall happiness, the 21st century would be a pretty prime candidate.
This is a good time to be alive. And probably the best time ever to be a parent.
A version of this first appeared on Newfangled Dad.