I Survived a Childhood of Neglect
I think about it often
It wasn’t the Tara Westover kind of neglect—but as a kid my parents did not pay much attention to me. My father left for work by the time I got up. My mother pushed me out the door at 8:45 with a quick peck on the forehead, admonishing me to hurry up and not be late for the school bell.
At the end of the school day, I was free. If it was rainy or cold, I watched my favourite TV program Razzle Dazzle—a Canadian program in the 1960s starring Howard the Turtle who told jokes called groaners—please someone tell me you watched this program too, and I am not making up this memory—or I got lost in my library book. But of course, I preferred the nice days or summer vacation when I could ride my bike with wild abandon at breakneck speed, even if it meant the occasional scraped knee.
Those were the good old days.
The outdoors offered freedom and no parents watched over us. The kids were drawn together like metal bits collected by a magnet — nobody made plans to meet — we just did.
We roamed the streets on our bicycles like a pack of Hell’s Angels, occasionally descending on the corner store in hoards to buy our penny candy. We played cards by the creek in the woods behind the school. We oogled a Playboy magazine some kid had stolen from his father’s closet; ten kids jostled each other to get a look.
But I must have had an inner clock because I was always home for dinner at six.
At 6:20, the cacophony of screen doors banging shut indicated a mass exodus of kids back out onto the streets, where we stayed until the streetlights turned on.
My benignly neglectful mother did not schedule activities, play dates, music lessons, summer camps , Singing with Sandy— and tutoring was unheard of. She had no idea of my feral life and how I spent my days. And who knew what she thought of the dirty bathwater swirling down the drain at the end of the day.
I was allowed to walk to school on my own, cross a busy intersection, take care of my school projects without guidance or supervision, climb trees, and put my own bandaids on. Spit was great for cleaning up a cut.
My parents never read a parenting book—in fact, beyond Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book on child care, the genre didn’t really exist. Yet they brought me up to be independent and resourceful. By the age of twelve, I was babysitting other kids in the neighbourhood, and from that point on I earned my own money. At seventeen, I left home to go to university seven hundred kilometres away.
So how did a free and wild child survive and do reasonably despite such benign neglect? And even more significantly, how did I become a helicopter parent always ready to rescue my kids at the first sign of trouble? What was it that changed in one generation?
We want to protect our children from dangers and give them every advantage possible in an increasingly competitive and dangerous world. Intuitively, we know the best thing to do as parents is to step back and let our kids figure it out for themselves.
Yet there I was walking my kids to school, speaking to the teacher, helping with homework, planning play dates, filling their schedules up with activities and generally wringing my hands with constant worry some horrible fate would befall them.
My kids are in their late 20s and more or less launched into the world. If I had the benefit of hindsight, I would have been less present and less hovering.
It’s easy to say I wish I had done things differently. But it’s a world where terrorists fly planes into buildings, school shootings are commonplace , a tiny virus makes everyone sick and authoritarian thugs invade neighbouring countries.
Yes, easy to say.
Share your stories or tell us your thoughts about getting older at any stage of life. And thanks for reading!
Thanks Alice. As you described your childhood, I could shut my eyes and picture similar scenes in my neighbourhood. I would add the sounds of 'thunk, thunk' as the tennis balls hit the garage doors in preparation for road hockey. Our parents (like ourselves) tried the best they could at the time. Yep, our kids already recall the whooshing sound of their parental helicopter above them.
This so resonated with my own parallel experiences..and pivot to helicopter mom! Thank you Alice.