Headmasters Thoughts March 2019

Parenting, as a verb, came into widespread usage in the 1970s. The definition can be vague, and, in the end, each parent has to decide what the concept means for them. The big question is how they can bring up their child to best succeed in a modern competitive, anxious, and sometimes dangerous society, with the increased pressures of technology and social media?

I do know that my generation was not “parented” in the way the word has come to be understood. Let me give you an example. My mother-in-law, Jayme’s mother, is sitting at a window with a friend overlooking a Long Island beach. From afar, a horse comes into view galloping across the sand with a small child hanging on its saddlebags.

“Who”, said Jayme’s mother, “would allow their child to ride so dangerously?” To which her friend replied, as the horse and rider got closer; “Ruth, I think that is Jayme!” Jayme was in 6th grade.

Jayme had a childhood that had, as we all did then, one comparatively free of parental supervision. Her school, because of the post-war “baby boom”, was on a split session. So when her friend, who owned a horse called Lady Fee, was in school in the afternoon, Jayme, who had been in school in the morning, was free to muck out, clean, and then ride. Every day in good weather, she went and rode Lady Fee. Sometime she would pick up her friend on the horse from school, and together they would ride home on its broad back. Most days she spent at a large farm near her house. She fed the chickens and goats and ran with the cows. The farm manager, who had fewer than five fingers on each hand due to farm accidents, let her run around as she pleased. She rode her bike to the farm. The first day she got that bike, she rode it down the steep driveway and did not have enough strength to brake it. Gently she ran into a car driving in the street. She was not injured, nor the bike or the car damaged, and she apologized and explained that this was her first day on her new bike. The driver smiled, wished her well, and drove off.

Jayme went to a boys Summer Camp (since her parents co-owned it) where she learned to play sports with the boys and was one of the best athletes. She eventually went to a girl’s camp, but still practiced with the boys in Little League. She hit with the best of them but was not allowed to play in actual games because of her sex. Her parents did not chauffeur her around to activities, and, most of the time, had no idea where she was. She used to bring home injured animals that she had found on the road or in the woods. Her parents just shrugged and made arrangements to get rid of the animals while telling Jayme that they had found the animal a home.

My parents also had no idea where I was after school. None of my friends or I could play tennis (it was a poor neighborhood in London) because there were no rackets or balls, none of us ever swung a golf club, none of us skied. These would have required some parent involvement. We just did not have that.

In England, a “downhill cart” was a very crude machine. I made one (with the help of friends) when I was 9 years old. It had a front axle at the end of which were two wheels from an old perambulator (or “pram” as we called them). “Prams” would now be called “baby carriages” and have been replaced by strollers. This axle (I am back to the downhill cart) was then screwed on a longer thick and heavy board with washers so that the axle could be turned if you grasped it near the wheels. At the back of the long board was another thinner board with big “pram” wheels on its ends. That cross board could not be turned.

The cart was launched downhill by the occupier (me) lying headfirst with hands on the front axle so that it could be steered. The hill that I always used was a steep one called Stavedon Road. It has a reasonably wide sidewalk on which I flew down, and had a sharp turn at the end leading to the High Street in a gentle uphill. Perfect! I should also mention that the road was on the bus route of the number 52 and the number 46, as well as a considerable amount of car traffic. But I was on the sidewalk (pavement in England). So down I would hurtle towards the bottom. I never hit anyone, I never got hurt, even though I was about 12 inches off the ground, head over the front of the cart, with the outside wheels lifting slightly as we went around the corner. Needless to say, I did not wear a crash helmet.

My parents knew that I had this cart because it had a string when I pulled it home and left it in an outside shed at our house, but they never actually saw me go down the hill. It was 1953, and the concept of parenting just did not exist.

We all went to playgrounds and played on equipment that almost certainly would be banned today. The surface of the playground was a concrete slab. Seesaws, merry-go-rounds, swings that went dangerously high, and “whirlagigs” that were suspended so that not only did you go around, as friends pushed for all they were worth, but you also stood on bars that rose and fell with the momentum of the apparatus.

My sister and I took two trolleybuses to elementary school. The trolleybuses were connected by poles to the overhead electricity lines but were not on rails. You had to steer them. The cheerful bus driver got to know us. One day (I may have been 8 years old) he invited me to sit on his lap and drive the trolleybus between two stops. I remember that as the high point of the year. Today he would probably be charged with a criminal offense.

In quieter moments we played “conkers”. We would select a suitable brown chestnut from a horse chestnut tree, drill a hole in it, and hang it on a string. Then we would take turns in hitting each other’s conkers until one shattered. The winning conker acquired a number so that a “twosie” had beaten two other conkers, and a “threesie” had beaten three. And so on. No-one contemplated that the shattering of a conker might cause injury or that one of us might have had a nut allergy.

Until the age of about 14, I fought with my classmates most days. “Tussles” would be a better word perhaps. In a previous essay I explained the derivation of the word “fainites”, the use of which would stop a fight at any time and for almost any reason (from being hurt to having to tie one’s shoelaces). Once “fainites” was called, the fight ended immediately. There were other strict if unspoken rules. The result was that no-one got hurt. I never got a black eye, because we simply did not punch each other in the face.

Like Jayme, we climbed trees, biked (beginning at age 11) to school, played tag in the woods, and generally had the streets as our playground.

So to get back to the modern idea of parenting. I want to stress that I am not advocating the dangerous hands-off approach of parents in the Fifties and Sixties. It is certainly very different from today’s involvement of parents in their children’s lives. And, in many, many ways, today’s “parenting” is far superior. Parents chauffeur their children to games and actually watch them play. Wonderful! They arrange lessons. Wonderful! They know where they are. Wonderful! The marvels of the cellphone.

My concern is that there is a fine line now between over-protection and guiding. Of course, parents should guide their children and help them deal with the challenges that face them. Of course, we should talk to them (not something my parents were very good at) and be genuinely interested in them. But emotional resiliency is something that children have to learn, and failure is an educational experience. So parenting now is a balance between smothering and developing skills. It is a much more difficult task than ever, and my parents would not understand it. It is a miracle that we all survived. Hopefully, your children will survive with the skill of handling difficult situations, with a sense of the limits that they can go to in terms of personal danger, with an ability to self-advocate, and with a confidence that their parents will always be there for them. If that is modern parenting, then I, for one, am all for it.

Ronald P. Stewart
Head
York Prep