You know, I can still remember being very young and how much fun it was. Or at least I think I remember it being fun. I felt safe, lacking stress or pressure, and was interested in what the great outdoors had to reveal.
Now, you have to know that I lived in a pretty nice neighborhood, where the family ate dinner together, we all went to church on Sunday, and where it was OK to play in the street, ride your bicycle, climb trees and build forts. If you skinned your knee, the neighbor called your mom, and by the time you got home she had the bandage and tincture of iodine ready.
I did my homework, the dishes, and played. Period. Oh, yeah, I had my sports (I rode horses), played golf, figure-skated, bowled, played badminton and croquet, and was on the rifle team. But did I run from activity to activity, requiring an appointment book for scheduling “play dates” with my friends? Absolutely not.
What did I have? A “normal” childhood for the time. You see, I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in the U.S. It was post-World War II and Korea, the America I knew was booming, and we had a revival of the happy days that you see on Andy Griffith, Leave it to Beaver, and Superman. This was an era where we were taught that life was fair, that the good guys win and that if you followed the rules, you would be safe and happy. And, oh yeah, everything was resolved in less than an hour. Remember Bonanza? Even the most awful circumstances were fixed by the end of that show.
What happened to those times? Were the good old days actually better? No. They weren’t. We were just naive, didn’t have the stuff that is now on the news 24/7 (that began by televising the Vietnam War with nightly body counts and gruesome images), and didn’t have to worry about terrorist attacks, bioterrorism, cyberspies or identity theft.
But we did dive under our silly desks at 1:00 every Monday afternoon as the air raid drill was sounded. We were afraid of Russia dropping The Bomb on us (er, just like we had done to Japan. Twice).
We had only two antibiotics, and my doctor used to come down the drive to give me a shot of penicillin once a day when I was sick. I was, and am, allergic to the other one, sulfa. I remember taking the Salk vaccine for polio, since it was still a problem in the United States. We also took paregoric (ohh, gag!) for nearly everything from tummy aches to sleep problems. What did that mean? Only the physically tough survived. The flu was expected; so were measles, mumps, and even whooping cough (although that was on the way out). Our parents feared polio and scarlet fever. My fourth grade buddy died of pleurisy (look it up!). I still remember that.
Why am I talking about this? Well, I reflect back on the “good old days” and they weren’t so good for adults. Just for kids. And the kids lived completely in a fantasy world that had nothing to do with the cigarette smoke-filled, boozy happy hours that our parents enjoyed. My parents remembered the Great Depression, they knew about war, and they had often lost family members to disease and disaster.
Mental health was never spoken about, barely whispered. Depression was seen as a weakness, and never treated, unless you became so depressed that you couldn’t function, but could afford going into a sanatorium. I live near one of the most famous private mental hospitals in the country, where Zelda Fitzgerald and Jonathan Winters recovered from depression (or bipolar disorder, in Winters’s case). Only the rich could go there, and only the rich were treated fairly.
Just down the freeway from my home is a state hospital that was shown on TV in 1961 as still being cruel to the insane, as we used to call those poor people who suffered from delusions and hallucinations. I remember the show very clearly and it shocked even my youthful mind. They were strapping people down, or to the hospital room walls, naked. It was easier to clean them if they didn’t have soiled clothes. Imagine that. Only 48 years ago, and they were still treating humans more poorly than they were treating their own pet dogs.
We didn’t get the Civil Rights Bill signed until 1964. At least my generation fostered some of the change we wanted. This bill fostered change for everyone; men, women, children, black, white, red, or yellow. The mentally ill, and those unable to care or protect themselves. Everyone.
Life was a fantasy for kids, but not for adults back then. But how do you think your kids are going to look back on their childhood, especially because instead of playing with a large cardboard box (that could be anything from a castle to a fire house), riding bikes, fishing, and playing miniature golf, they are watching movies like “Dragged Into Hell” and playing video games where you blow things up and murder people (or androids, same thing). These kids are isolated and getting more depressed and angry as the days go by.
Maybe your childhood wasn’t as “magical” as I thought mine was. Perhaps it was. But you have the power to change your kid’s childhood (or even your own, if you’re still a kid) by getting out there and doing things. Riding a bike (where it’s safe), going to the playground (with supervision) and playing Wii with others can foster truly great memories, no matter how accurate. Get up, get out there, and have fun. Childhood is gone as quickly as your breath. This is the time that you can build a great adult.
I invite others to write about the goodness in their own childhood, or talk about how they are helping to build positive memories for their children. There’s always time. But it is time to make that difference, take that step, for better mental and social functioning for our kids and ourselves.