Working through the “When I Was A Kid”s

Last week, we had a storm here in the Bay Area. For days ahead of time, we got the warning: Storm Alert! There would be flooding! Winds! Horrible traffic! Be alert! (Very Advent-like, it occurs to me.) The day before the deluge, the announcements started: schools closed due to the storm. And when the storm arrived, it was certainly bad, but not nearly as bad as it might have been. People worked from home so traffic was OK – and for some people better than usual. And kids all over the Bay Area got to see something that we in this snow-deprived area never get to see: a day off from school due to weather. A rain day.

And there it was on my various feeds: “When I was a kid, we never got a rain day.” And I began to wonder about the “When I was a kid” phenomenon and how to respond.

Most of the time when I hear someone say, “When I was a kid” it implies that somehow kids in today’s world have it easy -- whatever "today's world" happens to be. I wonder how much of that is due to applying only our own subjective experience. Here's what I mean: when you are a kid, living through it, it’s a very different experience from looking at someone else being a kid, and not living through it. When you were a kid, you were a kid every day of your life; when you're looking at being a kid, it occurs to you only when the experience is so different from what you remember. 

We can’t really know if being a kid is easier or harder today than it used to be because we can’t be in that experience ourselves. We can never compare apples to apples because the experience of growing up then (whenever “then” is) cannot be fairly used as a measuring stick for now.  The context is different. And therefore the experience is different.

I realize I find myself getting pretty defensive about this because I feel that the “When I was a kid” line is directed at kids (“You have it easy”) in a way that shames them for circumstances over which they have no control. After all, they aren’t the ones who canceled school (even if they would have liked to). Kids in general are mostly powerless over the circumstances in which they find themselves – good or bad. There’s an air of jealousy about the “When I was a kid;” I wonder if what people are really saying is, “You should be grateful for this experience,” even though youth have no say over whether it happens and nothing else to compare it to.

The truth is, no two people have the same experience, even if they grow up at the same time – or, for that matter, in the same house.  What’s more, whether or not a kid’s life is easy or hard has little to do with those individual things we notice about their experience and context (“When I was a kid we didn’t have Wikipedia/had to share a bedroom/churches were full”) and so much to do with the same basics that have always been true. Do they have a secure place to live? Food to eat? A loving and stable family? Adults and friends who care about them? Access to a decent education? Opportunities to grow and explore?

What it comes down to is this: let’s be gracious. Let’s recognize that, whatever bells and whistles life hands to kids these days, life is never easy. And let’s work to make sure that children and youth get those basic needs that support them and make it more likely that they will have a happy and healthy childhood that prepares them to be compassionate adults.