Note: An audio version of this article is available.
Criticism of traditional parenting methods is typically met with suspicion, resistance, and hostility. Were this fundamental conservatism of human nature to express itself in words, it might say something like this:
If the old methods worked well enough for past generations, they’ll surely work for the next. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken. Don’t mess with success. Sometimes children just need a good smack on the bottom to get their attention. It never did a child any harm. That’s how I was raised, and I turned out okay.
But just how well did we really turn out? Sooner or later we have to admit that perhaps not all family traditions are created equal. Maybe, in some cases, they’ve made our lives more precarious and unhappy than they need to have been. And maybe – just maybe – we haven’t turned out quite as “okay” as we’d like to believe and have others believe.
When we praise our parents’ treatment of us when we were little, are we merely fishing for approval of our own similar behaviors now? Are we trying to reassure ourselves that the way we want to remember things is the way they really were and ought to remain?
Let’s test the I-turned-out-okay argument by examining a few real-life examples from my own childhood. See if they apply to you.
- There were ashtrays in every room of our house. My parents smoked, as did most adult visitors to our home. The aroma of cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke was always present. Nobody minded. In fact, not one day passed in my early life when I was not exposed to tobacco smoke. I was even exposed in the womb because my mother smoked when she was pregnant with me. And I turned out okay.
- The first family car I remember was a 1937 Chevrolet sedan. It had no seat belts. When we traveled, I was merely plunked down on the back seat with the expectation that gravity would keep me there. It did. And I turned out okay.
- All the places in which I lived as a child were painted with lead-based paint. And I turned out okay.
- I used a bicycle throughout my childhood and teen years, but never wore any kind of protective headgear. And I turned out okay.
Was my family wise or just lucky? Today, we don’t do those things anymore. We don’t take such risks, and we don’t expose our children to such risks – not if we know the facts.