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Hillary Clinton’s and My Wonderful Childhoods

Because our parents trusted us, Hillary and I learned responsibility.

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In my last post I talked about an historical change in parenting over the long sweep of human history. I described the trustful parenting of hunter-gathers, the directive-domineering parenting of medieval and early industrial times, and the directive-protective parenting that predominates in our culture today. What I neglected to say there is that the directive-protective parenting style is largely a very recent development. Now, in this post and the next, I describe an historical change in parenting that has occurred within the past few decades.

The first sixty years or so of the twentieth century was a period of expansion of children’s freedom, at least in North America and Western Europe. Both adults and children gained more free time, as labor unions helped workers achieve shorter workweeks and child labor declined; and parenting styles became more liberal and liberating, less aimed at obedience training, than they had been before. The 1950s and early 1960s were, in some ways, a golden era for children. People around my age, myself included, often, and for good reasons, wax nostalgic about the freedom we enjoyed as children, in contrast with the highly controlled lives of children today.

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Childhood

One such person is Hillary Rodham Clinton. Here, in her own words, is a description of her childhood and her regret about the lives of children today: [1]

“I was born in Chicago, but when I was about four, I moved to where I grew up, which was Park Ridge, Illinois. It was your typical 1950s suburb. Big elm trees lined the streets, meeting across the top like a cathedral. Doors were left open, with kids running in and out of every house in the neighborhood.

“We had a well-organized kids’ society and we had all kinds of games, playing hard every day after school, every weekend, and from dawn until our parents made us come in at dark in the summertime. One game was called chase and run, which was a kind of complex team-based hide-and-seek and tag combination. We would make up teams and disperse throughout the entire neighborhood for maybe a two- or three-block area, designating safe places that you could get to if somebody was chasing you. There were also ways of breaking the hold of a tag so that you could get back in the game. As with all of our games, the rules were elaborate and they were hammered out in long consultations on street corners. It was how we spent countless hours. …

“We had so much imaginative game-playing time—just unstructured fun time. I had the best, most wonderful childhood: being outside, playing with my friends, being on my own, just loving life. When I was a kid in grade school, it was great. We were so independent, we were given so much freedom. But now it’s impossible to imagine giving that to a child today. It’s one of the great losses as a society. But I’m hopeful that we can regain the joy and experience of free play and neighborhood games that were taken for granted growing up in my generation. That would be one of the best gifts we could give our children.”

Snippets from My Own Childhood

I, too, have wonderful memories of childhood freedom. Here are just a few examples.

I grew up mostly in small towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin. My mother was an adventurous person, always seeking new jobs and new challenges, and that is why we moved frequently when I was a child. Every town we moved to had its own kids’ culture, and the great challenge to me, each time we moved, was to learn to do well the things that kids in that town did, so I could fit into the social group. Here are just a few of my memories, from three different towns:

Monterey, Minnesota: bicycle freedom at age 5

At about the time I turned five, my family moved to a little town called Monterey, on the southern border of Minnesota. Monterey no longer exists; it merged in 1959 with the neighboring town of Triumph to form a new town, Trimont. My most prominent memories from Monterey involve bicycling. My best friend there was Ruby Lou, a girl one year older than I who lived across the street. When I was five and she was six, she taught me how to ride her bicycle. It was a two-wheeler, with no training wheels. The street that separated our houses was on a small hill, and she showed me how riding downhill is the best way to learn. I could straddle the bike, give myself a push-off with my foot, and coast down the hill with enough speed to keep the bike stable, and then I could pedal at the bottom to keep it going. I skinned my knee several times in the process, and Ruby Lou’s bike got some dings, but within a couple of days I could ride, and when my parents saw that, they bought me a used bike of my own.

The bike—coupled with my parents’ trust and Ruby Lou’s friendship—gave me freedom. I could, at age five, ride anywhere in town or in the nearby countryside on that bike. My parents set just one rule about it: I had to go with Ruby Lou. She (at age six) was older and wiser than I and knew her way around. I didn’t argue about the rule. I probably would have been too frightened to go far without Ruby Lou anyway. What adventures we had, Ruby Lou and I, discovering and exploring new places in and around Monterey, on our bikes.

Sun Prairie, Wisconsin: managing my little league team at age 9

Between the ages of 7 and 10 I lived in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. I’m told that Sun Prairie is now a rapidly growing suburb of Madison, but when I lived there, in the 1950s, it was a small city with lots of cornfields between it and Madison. The kids in Sun Prairie were involved in many activities that were new to me. For example, I learned from my new friends how to build my own kite and fly it. We used to organize kite-flying contests, with the one rule that the kite had to be built from scratch, not from a kit. Today you’d assume that parents would be involved in helping kids build the kites, but that was not at all true then. We younger kids learned from our slightly older, more experienced friends how to do it, and then we went on to produce our own innovations. We used to get shafts of wood, free, from the local lumberyard to make the frames (sometimes we asked for them, sometimes we didn’t). Some kids built truly remarkable kites, unlike any kites I have seen since.

But even more than kite flying, Sun Prairie was, for boys, a baseball town. Every neighborhood had a vacant lot, and in every vacant lot you would find kids playing baseball—all summer long and on weekends and after school in the fall and spring. Baseball quickly became my passion. Like most of my friends, I was sure I would grow up to become a professional baseball player. We all listened on the radio to the Milwaukee Braves games, and we all collected and traded baseball cards. Kids who couldn't do long division in school had no trouble calculating batting averages, in those days before calculators.

Most of our baseball was completely informal, in vacant lots with anyone who showed up. But Sun Prairie also had a little league program. I use small letters here for “little league,” because I don’t know if it had any affiliation at all with official Little League, but we called it that. Our little league had nothing like the adult involvement that you see in Little League today. A playground supervisor would get it started each year in the spring, but beyond that it was entirely kid run. Here’s how it worked:

On a certain day in the spring, kids in the proper age range who wanted to be in the league would show up at the main city park. Generally we showed up in groups—groups of friends who were already playing in vacant lots together. Groups would declare themselves to be teams, and individuals who weren’t part of a group would be added onto the teams by the playground supervisor. Each team elected a team captain, who would be the contact person to the supervisor and who would be official manager of the team. Then the playground supervisor worked out a schedule of games, so each team played each other team a certain number of times over the course of the summer. At each game a high-school kid served as umpire. That was it. Generally, no adults even attended the games. If there was an audience at all, it was mostly little kids who hoped to get into the game, as replacements, if one of us got hurt or for some other reason had to leave early. A similar league was also organized for girls’ softball.

These league games were very exciting to us, because they were a step beyond, in formality, the pickup games that we played most of the time. We played on a field that looked like a real baseball diamond, with a backstop and real bases. There was an umpire who called balls and strikes and kept an official score. But the games were also exciting because they were still really ours. No adult was telling us what to do; we had to make our own decisions.

When I was near the end of third grade, and had recently turned 9, I was elected captain of my little league team. That meant I was responsible to be sure that my teammates knew about each game and that they showed up. (We all traveled by bicycle. The idea that parents should drive kids places had not yet been invented. Parents didn’t even know when the games were scheduled.) I also had to determine the lineup for each game. The biggest trick was determining who would pitch. We had one good pitcher and several others who thought they were good pitchers. I had to compromise between letting our good pitcher pitch and letting others pitch to some extent. I was manager, but I had very little real power because players would quit if they weren’t happy, and we needed a certain number of players to keep the team going. So lots of discussion and compromise went into that lineup every game.

Can you imagine, today, putting a 9-year-old in charge of a little league baseball team? The fact that you can’t imagine it is a measure of the degree to which we, as a culture, have lost respect for the abilities of children. It wasn’t just me; every team in that league was led by a kid. The whole league was founded on the premise that kids wanted to play organized baseball so much that they would take responsibility to make it happen. And it worked! If it hadn't worked, that would have just meant that we kids had lost interest in baseball; and that would be OK too.

Hill City, Minnesota: fishing, skating, and running the printing press at ages 10 and 11

When I was 10 we moved to Hill City, a little town on a big lake in northern Minnesota, where I lived my most glorious two years of childhood. We were quite poor when we lived in Hill City, because my parents had spent all of the little money they had purchasing the local print shop and newspaper. My mother had always wanted to run a newspaper and this was her chance. This was at a time when small town newspapers everywhere were going out of business, and the Hill City News was clearly in its death throws; but my mother hoped she could revive it. We lived in a house that my parents bought for $2000; it was big enough for the seven of us, but it had no indoor bathroom. Can you imagine an outhouse in northern Minnesota? Sometimes, if one of my brothers had missed while doing #1 and I had to do #2, I would freeze to the seat. We took baths every Saturday night in a tin tub in the middle of the kitchen floor. This was not uncommon for Hill City in the 1950s. Some of my friends also lived in houses without an indoor bathroom.

Kids’ life in Hill City centered on the lake. Fishing quickly replaced baseball as my passion. On a typical summer day my friends and I would take our bikes, loaded with our fishing gear, down to the lake or to the river that fed into it, catch frogs or seine minnows for bait, and then spend the whole day fishing. Sometimes we’d fish from a dock or from shore, and other times we’d take out the old wooden rowboat that seemed to be communal property for kids in that town. We were all good swimmers, so none of our parents were worried that we would drown. We would row miles to check out various spots for fishing. I became a good fisherman, catching mostly crappies, northern pike, and bass; and, because we were poor, my family really appreciated the fish I brought home. A rule in our house, though, was that whoever caught the fish also had to clean them.

In winter we skated on the lake. If the snow was deep, we shoveled off our own skating rink. We used to skate in the evening, and we’d make a fire on the lake for light and to keep warm. In the second winter that we lived there the snow was light enough and the wind strong enough that the whole frozen lake stayed clear of snow for several weeks early in the winter. We took advantage of that to take skating trips the whole length of the lake (about 5 miles long). We’d take our lunch with us, and matches to make a fire to warm us when we rested and ate. Sometimes we’d also collect ground pine, from islands on the lake, to bring home to the mother of one of my friends to make Christmas wreaths.

One final memory from Hill City that I want to convey involved my running the printing press. The Hill City News was a weekly paper, and it was printed every Thursday. My parents would often stay up all Wednesday night to meet their own deadline and then, on Thursday morning, they would get me out of bed and ask me to run the press while they took a morning nap. I was proud, at age 10 and 11, to be trusted to run that huge and seemingly dangerous press, all alone in the print shop, where I had to feed the papers in by hand, one at a time, keeping up with the operating speed of the press. I felt important; the whole town awaited the News, which I was printing. It didn’t matter that I regularly missed school on Thursday mornings while I ran the press. It didn’t matter to my parents, or my teacher, or the school principal. Everyone knew that I was learning more running that press than I would have learned during those hours in school.

I have recounted these memories as stories about myself and my friends, but the real stars were our parents and the other adults of the community, who were wise enough to trust us and to stay in the backgrounds of our lives rather than the foregrounds. Because of such trust we lived adventurous childhoods, and from every adventure we learned. The most important lesson we learned, which is also the most important lesson anyone ever learns, was how to take responsibility for ourselves. That is a lesson that cannot be taught. It must be learned anew by each person, and the learning requires freedom, including freedom to make mistakes, to fail, and sometimes to get hurt.

What about your childhood? What memories do you have of adventures that would be forbidden by most parents today? And, what ideas do you have for reviving childhood freedom? I would appreciate your thoughts and stories, in the comments section below. In next week’s post I will continue the topic of trustful parenting by outlining some of the forces that have caused its recent decline and by suggesting possible routes to its revival.

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[1] The quotation is from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “An Idyllic Childhood,” in S. A. Cohen (Ed.), The Games We Played: A Celebration of Childhood and Imagination. Simon & Schuster, 2001.

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