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Tammy Swift, Published March 22 2014

Swift: Five reasons it’s amazing we survived childhood

As I watched a young mother strap her child into a carseat as if she were preparing to send him to Mars, it hit me.

How on earth did I survive my childhood?

Things were so dramatically different in the 1960s and ’70s. Today, children are vigilantly protected from sharp corners, trophy-less competitions and gluten. We ran around with dry-cleaning bags over our heads, which we removed just long enough to smoke candy cigarettes. Kids napped in the back of an idling car while their dads had a quick beer at the bar.

In a pre-cyber era, the rules of child-rearing seemed to be limited to whatever our parents learned from their parents and – maybe, if your mom cottoned to that kind of touchy, feely thing – Dr. Spock.

Now let me clarify here. I was fortunate enough to have very good parents. We gathered around a table at night and ate dinner together. Our dad, busy as he was with farming and ranching, helped with science projects and bought my horse-crazy sister a pony. My mom read to us, suffered through 4-H projects and always made Christmas the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s just that things were more relaxed back then. The world seemed like a safer place. The only people who were called “helicopter parents” were those who literally raised their children in a helicopter. Parents weren’t constantly hammered with a media onslaught of parenting advice, allergy and product warnings, and Buzzfeed stories on “The 10 Worst Mothers in the World.”

And so, in a Buzzfeedesque manner, here is my own list. It’s called “Five Reasons It’s Amazing We Survived Childhood.”

1. A “Lord of the Flies” existence: As I said, we spent entire days unsupervised. We left the house in the morning and returned only for meals. We would come back covered in mud, poison ivy or – on rare occasions – blood. We clamored all over rusty farm machinery, tromped up and down rattlesnake-riddled hills and tried to catch feral cats. Our guardian angels were exhausted.

My one sister, Mabel, was especially adventurous. She once instigated a plan in which she and a neighbor boy rode our lawn mower up our very steep approach and then decided to race it downhill. They lost control of it on the way down and rolled it into a deep gully. Miraculously, no one was hurt. Well, until Dad found out.

2. Child-unproof equipment: Today, playgrounds are designed with safety in mind. The equipment is built of child-friendly materials and located on pillow-y beds of sand. Swings are made out of clouds. Children are swaddled in bubble wrap before they’re allowed to go down the slide.

But our Catholic school yard seemed to have been designed by a prison architect. In this Playground of Terror, all equipment was sharp edges and forged from steel. Even better, it was embedded in concrete.

A favorite game was to slam down your side of the teeter-totter as hard as possible in efforts to “bump” your partner off – preferably onto the unyielding concrete pad below.

The monkey bars hadn’t been repaired in years, so they listed like a leaking ship.

The slide was dangerously high and honed from metal, which guaranteed the surface would be as hot as a pizza oven by mid-afternoon. (Keep in mind we were required to wear dresses.) And, just in case you made it down the slide unscathed, the end of the slide was as sharp as a hatchet.

3. Better nutrition through Synthetipolysaccharidemaldextrosinine: Food additives really came into their own in this era.

A typical breakfast included Count Chocula, Tang and – if your mom was health-conscious – half a grapefruit. We ate Jell-O, Red Dye No. 2 and saccharine by the pound. We consumed margarine on white bread. Every. Single. Day.

4. Parental guidance not suggested: True, today’s media is waaaay more pervasive, violent and sexualized. But most parents also seem to be quite vigilant about what kids are watching. Our parents really didn’t seem to care. Back then, a “PG” movie was really a “PG-13” or even an “R.” If we successfully got into one, we saw behavior and nudity befitting the Playboy Mansion.

I also remember watching “Dark Shadows” – a show about vampires, set in a creepy mansion – and the terrifying “Night Gallery” as a very little girl. My mom even let me stay up and watch “The Birds” with her. It wasn’t until we hit the scene in which the man’s eyes had been pecked out that she turned to me and said, “You’d better go to bed.” I’m sure I did – and spent the next few hours quivering under the covers.

5. Auto-autonomy: NOBODY wore seatbelts back then. If you did, you wore lap belts, which simply held you in place while your head slammed into the seat in front of you.

I recall our entire family driving to the West Coast with me basically standing up in the backseat. We were always late, so Mom would routinely fly down the highway shattering the speed limit while simultaneously writing out checks for our school lunches. When we were with Dad, we begged to ride in the back of his pick-up, with hopes that he would hit a bump and send us flying.

And yet, somehow we survived it all. We emerged with a few scars but plenty of learning experiences and great stories.

And at least our angels can now get a break.


Tammy Swift writes a lifestyle column every Sunday in Variety. Readers can reach her at tswiftsletten@gmail.com