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In a post a few days back about a real life red pill conversation I had with a gentleman in his 60s, I didn’t include a story he told me then that I think really illustrates how much things have changed when it comes to parenting and raising kids in the United States today.

He told the story of helping out a local farmer every summer as a kid. He’d go in the morning, starting at 10 years old, and spend the day with the neighbor. The tasks were age appropriate, for example at 10 he would ride along on the hay baling machine and jump on and off to open and shut gates, and do various other small tasks a child can easily do but that are very helpful to getting the overall job at hand done in a timely manner (if the driver is hopping up and down opening and shutting gates all day, well it slows things down versus little Jake riding alongside, spending the day outdoors, watching older boys and men work, and learning to be useful.)

As he grew, he took on more tasks. Tasks he had watched the older boys get to do with envy before. (Buck hay bales! Run equipment! Drive the tractor!) They became rites of passage, tangible signs that he was growing up. Mastering them was a privilege, not a chore.

For his help,  Jake would get $2 a day. Now this was likely sometime in the 50s, so that wasn’t such a bad wage back then, he says, and by the end of the summer he could have $100 saved up. What did he spend it on? School clothes. Such an idea today may seem unthinkable — making a child earn and buy their own school clothes? God forbid! That’s borderline abuse! But Jake didn’t see it that way, in fact his eyes twinkled as the memory came back to him of being a kid, flipping through the Sears and Roebuck catalog, and picking out “his” school clothes.

As he put it, “I could buy way better looking school clothes than my parents would buy that way, and I got to pick them out myself,” he said with obvious pride.

Jake grew up, served in the military, married, ran a small business, raised a family of his own. He’s comfortably retired now (No pension or retirement plan either mind you, he saved that out of his self employed, self created earnings!) in his mid 60s, a self made man with a loving wife and self sufficient, well adjusted kids, respect in his community, and few worries. Jake has had and lived a successful life — in many ways he embodies, “The American Dream.”

Contrast this with recent a tale from another family, this from customers in their mid 40s, a very, very nice couple, childhood sweethearts, with two teenage boys, 18 and 16. As we talked about their oldest preparing to start college next year, I said how proud they must be of him. Uncomfortable silence followed.

“Yeah, we’ve got good kids…” they said, not finishing the sentence. I sensed there was something more. So I gently probed. Was he in trouble? Acting out?

“No,” they said. In their minds it was almost worse — their son started collecting Pokeman cards as a child, and still to this day it is still one of his core activities. Their younger son, 16, doesn’t want to even get his driver’s license. They aren’t sure why their kids are so passive, so reliant on them, so perfectly OK with NOT growing up. (No offense to any Pokeman collectors, please don’t take this personal.)

As we talked it dawned on me — unlike generations before, unlike Jake, these kids had grown up in a protective parenting bubble. There is in fact actually a movement to bring back that unsupervised, just kids, roaming around outside and engaged in imaginary play, playtime. Apparently it is much more important to normal human development than anyone realized.

The mother shared of how she was always there for her boys, how when they played outside she watched them, how when they need to go somewhere she took them, how they had very little unsupervised time, how when they needed or wanted something (within reason) their parents supplied it. They were “good parents” by almost anyone’s definition.

The mom mentioned a neighbor lady who basically shoos her boys out in the morning, and spends her day cleaning house and cooking while the boys play. Unsupervised!?! Outside!?! It seems almost shocking by today’s parenting norms. Yet, this mom wondered out loud if…maybe she should have done more of that?

I mentioned how different childhood may have been for us compared to today, as Gen X kids, and asked if either of them had been latchkey kids, like myself. Sure enough, the father said he had, and that he wanted more for his kids. He and his wife worked hard and lived carefully to ensure she could be at home while their kids were growing up. And these are good people, good parents, I believe they had the best of intentions and were doing what the society at large said was, “the better way.” But now, they fully admitted, they think their kindness has crippled their kids, and they aren’t sure if it is too late or if not, what to do now? I could feel their pain, they want their kids to be happy, healthy, and whole. That’s all they have ever wanted. They don’t know where things went wrong.

It’s a common parenting reaction to one’s own lack, to go 360 degrees the other way, but I would urge the middle is a better place to aim to correct for what one considers their parent’s parenting mistakes of the past. Maybe they were too harsh, to easy, too whatever.  The gut reaction is to either do the same, or to do the opposite. I’d argue the middle is usually better than the extremes of either end.

Jake and I marveled at how today what he did would not even be possible, except on the sly. Farmers can no longer hire local children under 16 to help out. And if they hire children 16 or older, they can only do so if they can pay them minimum wage. Today, it would be much more likely that a farmer would hire migrant farm workers, than a kid like Jake.

Is all this really  progress? Is it good? Or have we lost something we may need to get back? Let me know what you think in the comments!

(Note: I also know people who are Jake’s age who worked on farms as children except unlike his experience, the kids were expected to do too much, the labor was too hard, the tasks above what they truly were developmentally ready to do. This approach, as far as I can see, backfires, and is not good, does not seem to instill the same self reliant work ethic Jake has. So again, the middle is the often the sweet spot.)