Were the Good Old Days That Good?

A question online asked whether kids in the U.S. today, with cell phones, social media, and other technology, have childhoods that were better than ours were, or worse. Almost everyone who replied said absolutely that our childhoods, in less technologically connected times, were way better that childhoods are today.

I was one of the few respondents who did not. I didn’t say today’s children have it better, either. I think they have it better in some ways and worse in others. So many people over age forty romanticize their own childhoods, or fail to acknowledge that the privileged childhoods they remember were not so privileged for everyone.

I think that in many ways we had more freedom as children than our kids do, learned more self-reliance, and used more creativity in deciding how to spend our time. We spent more time in nature. I remember joyful, focused hours taking water samples from the creek, fixing up an abandoned tree house, searching for wintergreen berries in the woods, playing with snails or box turtles, or just reading under a tree. I wish my son had had more of those kinds of opportunities.

On the other hand, today’s kids have the whole world at their fingertips through the internet. When I was a child, if I wanted to know something about World War II, or Ancient Greece, or covered wagons, I had to get a ride to the library and research the subject in books, slowly and painstakingly. While I love that kind of research and still do it, I admit that it takes a lot of time. And the difficulty of finding that time and of getting a parent to take me meant that casual inquiries often had to be abandoned or to wait until the next scheduled library trip, if we didn’t happen to have the necessary research materials at home.

There is a lot to be said for spontaneous access to information. Today, if my son has such a question, he can locate the answer in moments on the internet, from wherever he happens to be. Of course, we have a home library of thousands of books that also might have the answers he seeks, but his first stop is almost always his phone or computer. I think he misses out on the joys of research — the fascinating facts you didn’t know you were looking for, the nuances you can’t find in Wikipedia, the tangents that open up whole new areas of study. But he would roll his eyes if I told him so. Unlike me, he’s a just-answer-the-question-and-don’t-waste-my-time-with-all-that-other-information kind of a person. Kids today have a wider but shallower pool of knowledge than we did. They know something about so many things. But do they know those subjects as deeply as we did? And is that better, or is it worse? Or is it just different?

Besides the ease of finding information, modern times have brought other advantages that we did not have as children. Advances in science and technology make 21st century kids safer than we were: when I was a child, more children died of leukemia, measles, and other diseases that we can now vaccinate them for or treat more effectively than we could a generation ago. Bike helmets and car seats keep today’s kids alive through accidents that would have killed them a generation ago. Children who are being abused at home have more recourse; domestic violence is no longer just a family matter, but is a legal one.

While our country is still rife with discrimination, some things have improved; hatred and systemic barriers are still there, but some forms of discrimination that were legal when I was a child are no longer. While we are far from equity, it is true that girls, children of color, children who are not cisgender, and children with disabilities have opportunities that would not have been available to them in the past. I’m not old enough to have attended segregated schools, but many of the online respondents who looked back with nostalgia were. Either they actually preferred segregated schools, or their own whiteness blinded them to the fact that the “good old days” were not as good for those who did not share their privileges.

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