I first thought about time travel in 1961, when I saw a Twilight Zone episode called “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” in which a plane from London approaching New York’s Idlewild airport suddenly accelerates and travels back in time. Looking down as they approach the runway, the pilots and passengers see a verdant landscape with grazing dinosaurs. The plane accelerates again and returns almost home, but not quite; this time the travelers see the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 World’s Fair. “So if some moment, any moment, you hear the sound of jet engines flying,” Rod Serling intones at the end, “…that would be Global 33, trying to get home— from The Twilight Zone.”
About a decade ago I wanted to book a seat on Flight 33 and travel back in time myself, to around the year that flight originated. When I confided this desire to a friend, she was horrified. Wasn’t I excited by the energy of the new millenium, and by the technology changing our lives? I was, actually; I grew up with a rotary dial phone, an ordinary stove, a black-and-white television and a typewriter, and I was delighted to have a cell phone, a microwave oven, color television, my computer and the internet. But at the turn of this century, raising young daughters in New York, I felt that the city in the 1950s had been a better place for a child to grow up.
Childhood in my era had a slow, unbusy rhythm, with few organized activities, little homework, and plenty of play time. By the middle of the 1990s, when my daughters started school, childhood was more like adulthood– competitive, fast-paced and hard work. Children learned to read in kindergarten, a year earlier than we had, and started homework in first grade. I felt that my daughters’ curriculum was challenging, but some parents found it lacking; by third grade parents of advanced students had organized a Shakespeare reading group. Children were busy after school with sports, religious school, music lessons, dance; gifted children took their skills to a higher level, with classes at the School of American Ballet, acting work, or gymnastics competitions. Play time was reduced and tough to schedule. The childhood years seemed compressed, because marketers who created the “tween” culture nudged children into pre-adolescence by the age of eight. In third grade, precocious girls knew about fashion and other formerly “teen-aged” interests like rock music, which was then the Spice Girls. They had exclusive cliques and displayed Mean Girl behavior, once the province of middle school. By fifth grade they were going on dates with boys in groups. I’ve read that this generation entered puberty earlier because of hormones in our food, but the culture fueled the acceleration.
Children in my daughters’ generation had more “stuff” than I recalled from childhood in the post-War boom, when there were great toys and fads (the hoola hoop, to name one), but not as much merchandise advertised directly to us. Many children had vast shelves of board games, Legos, dolls, and the endless merchandise inspired by every animated film; later they added Nintendo and computer games. While girls in my time had one Barbie doll, by the late 1990s Barbie was celebrating her fortieth birthday and had multiple homes and careers, with a new doll or accessory to buy for every occasion. No matter how much children had, they saw people with more, because of the enormous, visible wealth created by the stock market and real estate booms.
Affluent parents, too, had toys—several impressive homes, private jets that jaunted to destinations of the moment, large boats, the designer trappings of a rarified life. Extravagant birthday parties were the norm, and bar and bat mitzah celebrations resembled coronations. Schools recruited students of varied backgrounds, but diversity was not necessarily inclusive. While administrators handled the hyper-affluence in different ways (some allowed cars and drivers to wait in front of the building, while others instructed them to hover discreetly down the block), most seemed unable or unwilling to address the accompanying sense of entitlement. The children who were reading Shakespeare in third grade might have read Edith Wharton in fifth grade, to complement what they were learning about social strata and the power of money.
In the earlier decades of media, when most families had one television in the living room and children didn’t watch the evening news or read the newspaper, childhood was a bit removed from world events. But as media has expanded, filling the screens we have in every room, children have routinely seen coverage of natural disasters, plane crashes, crimes, wars and the bad behavior of celebrities. When my daughters were young it was hard to filter pervasive news stories, which then included the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the untimely death of Princess Diana, and the Columbine school shootings. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought the world and its perils right into their lives. All this information, and our perceptions of danger, seemed to influence our generation to hold back on age-appropriate independence. In the late 1950s, I travelled to school alone at age nine; a New York mother who let her nine-year-old son travel alone on the subway in 2008 created a media furor. Some safety awareness, like wearing helmets for bike riding and sunblock to prevent burns, has protected children. But cautionary tales in the media, whatever the real statistics, reinforced our over-protective natures. I waited until my daughters were in eighth grade before letting them out on their own. Stifling a desire to have them micro-chipped, as the veterinarian did for our dachshund, I let them go, albeit with the tether of a cell phone.
Along with changes in the quality of children’s lives, there have been changes in parents’ roles, many of them beneficial. People who had children in the 1950s were “providing” and “raising,” and were not necessarily very involved in their children’s lives. Our generation, having made “parenting” a verb, has focused more attention on children, integrating them into our lives and guiding them with our new understanding of emotional issues, learning styles and differences. Parents in my day had simple and clear expectations: we were to be respectful and polite, responsible for our belongings and for doing our homework. Our own expectations of children have shifted from the basic (respect and responsibility) to the sometimes demanding (excellence and achievement), while our standards for their behavior have become ambiguous. Schools and sports leagues might say that parents now are overly invested in children, and compete through them as a measure of our own success.
It was this climate—of academic pressure, social competition, and the effects of affluence and privilege—that fostered my longing for the simpler days of my New York childhood. As I was thinking about it, I heard an independent school head say, in response to a parent’s question about stress: “If you don’t like competition, you’re living in the wrong city at the wrong time.” I could have considered moving away, in search of a less stressful, more down-to-earth lifestyle for our family. But New York is my city. I love walking its streets, going to the theater and the movies, having great food from many countries available on one avenue. I also knew from my friends’ experiences that living in a town that looks like Mayberry is no guarantee that children will be immune to the changes in values that pervade our culture. There are so many worlds in New York—a different world in every neighborhood, on every block, sometimes in every room—that I was sure I could find places that felt more comfortable.
Looking back in time for inspiration, I revisited other decades for qualities that resonated to me. We backtracked to a New York childhood that was less competitive, stressful and acquisitive by way of the 1970s, a decade in which we learned that we didn’t have to conform to the prevailing culture. The first thing we shed was some of the busy-ness, eliminating activities except for the most rewarding. As children grow older the clamor for toys decreases, but we did buy fewer things. In middle school, although my girls saw classmates wearing Prada dresses and carrying Fendi bags, they understood that we would not make those choices. We found academic environments where expectations were more compatible with ours, and each girl got involved in an activity (a youth chorus and acting classes) that attracted a diverse population. We spent time with friends who live outside of New York— from Maine and New Hampshire to France and Italy— where the “givens” of the New York world were not known. My daughters love their city; they have explored almost every neighborhood. But they understand that New York is part of an increasingly complex global picture.
We all move forward, not backward, and my daughters belong to their time, not to mine. They have grown up with their technology and media, the global world of the Internet; they love their music, popular culture, and the “anything goes” fashion today. But they accepted our family’s somewhat retrospective rules and values. While it would have required genetic engineering for my husband and me to produce girls who were stars of the “in crowd,” it still took effort to keep them on an independent path. As teenagers they had money to buy clothes and to go out, but they understood that their budget didn’t include designer labels or dinners at expensive restaurants. They did not go to parties where alcohol and drugs were available; they found friends who went to inexpensive places downtown, to movies and plays. We expected them to work hard at school, and valued manners, consideration, and inclusion. Whatever their conflicts with peers, they did not join a clique or bully a classmate. They learned some lessons the hard way: if you neglect to do homework, your grade will likely be lower, and if you post a regrettable photograph on Facebook, there may be repercussions. They learned how to study and to cultivate their talents, but they did not join the echelon of legendary students who are the managers of their own brands or authors of their own blogs. They moved from childhood and into adolescence with grace, which they continue to display now that they are in college.
No one can predict what will happen to children of their generation who raced through childhood, indulged with luxuries and privileges beyond their years. Will they reach adulthood less prepared for its vicissitudes? Will they postpone the challenges of independence, buffered by extraordinary support from their families? We can’t yet see how the trends of our era will play out in individual lives. But I would encourage any New York parent who longs for the quality and values of another time (even more recent than mine), to search the city for places and people that resonate. If you hear the jet engines of Flight 33 overhead as I did, don’t imagine that it’s lost in the Twilight Zone—it can take your family wherever you want to go.
Aimee Garn is a writer and designer and a publisher of children’s books (www.prettypleasepress.com). She is the chairman of NYC-Parents in Action, Inc., (www.parentsinaction.org), having served as president for the past four years.