The Lost Eden of Childhood. Not Lost. Not Eden.

Jim Manzi warms to Paul Krugman’s nostalgia:

It’s difficult to convey the almost unbearable sweetness of this kind of American childhood to anybody who didn’t live it. The safety and freedom that Krugman describe are rare now even for the wealthiest Americans – by age 9, I would typically leave the house on a Saturday morning on my bike, tell my parents I was “going out to play,” and not return until dinner; at age 10, would go down to the ocean to swim with friends without supervision all day; and at age 11 would play flashlight tag across dozens of yards for hours after dark. And the sense of equality was real, too. Some people definitely had bigger houses and more things than others, but our lives were remarkably similar. We all went to the same schools together, played on the same teams together, and watched the same TV shows. The idea of having, or being, “help” seemed like something from old movies about another time.

Who doesn’t look upon their childhood with wistfulness for what has been lost?  Exile from Eden is one of the oldest stories on record. But don’t mistake personal narrative for reality.  When Manzi says “we all went to the same schools together, played on the same teams together, and watched the same TV shows.” He isn’t talking about African Americans. And was the idea of having or being help, really “from a different time”? Again, not for African Americans. In 1950 more than 40% of African American women in the labor force were domestic servants. (Moreover, given these numbers a back of the envelope calculation suggests proportionately fewer homes with maids today.) See also Megan McArdle on Manzi’s vision and women staying at home.

Growing up in Northern Virginia, my children experience far more ethnic, cultural, racial and sexual diversity and equality than just about any child growing up outside of a commune did in the 1950s and 1960s.

Has childhood freedom been lost?  No. Childhood freedom hasn’t been “lost,” it has been taken away by parents. As a child, I too was free to play in the woods but then again my parents didn’t buckle me up in the car, either.

Has safety decreased? It is true that one of the most horrible things we can imagine, homicide, is up. For kids aged 5-14 homicide mortality went from 0.5 per 100,000 in 1950 to 0.8 per 100,000 in 2005. Overall, however, kids are much safer today than in the 1950s. Accident mortality, for example, is down from 22.7 per 100,000 in 1950 to 6.2 per 100,000 in 2005 (see Caplan’s Selfish Reasons for more details). Maybe buckling up and ocean supervision isn’t so bad. Maybe parents today worry too much. Probably some of both.

There have been big improvements in accident risk since even my childhood years.  I remember those idyllic summers of the 1970s earning a few extra dollars mowing lawns–80,000 amputated fingers, hands and mangled toes and feet every year back then and just 6,000 today. Would I even let me kid use a mower from the 1970s?  Disease mortality is also way down, from 36.6 per 100,000 in 1950 to 8.6 per 100,000 in 2005.  For good or for ill, parental fears have increased even as risks overall have fallen.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of personal nostalgia but when nostalgia is taken for reality it biases our thinking in counter-productive ways. One wonders, for example, what those who look back longingly at the freedom of their childhood would say about Lenore Skenazy and her free-range kids. Skenazy let her fourth-grader take the NYC subway home alone.  Would Manzi applaud Skenazy for giving her kids the same freedoms he had?  Or would he denounce her, as many parents did, for something tantamount to child-abuse?


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