The myth of the "good old days"

Was just reading an op-ed on the NYTimes by Judith Warner about how nasty moms are toward each other. The sad reality of it and the anecdotes in the comments that followed convinced me to click away before I ruined my entire day. I ended up on yet another opinion piece, this one about Jon & Kate (seems none of us can escape articles about this particular couple). As I read through the educated opinions, I came across this one by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer:

When children had more freedom to play outside, and families’ front doors were left open for the neighborhood kids to traipse through, grabbing meals from which ever mom was handy when hunger hit, children would regularly see how other families lived. “

I want to know: who has ever lived like this? I just had a conversation with someone last week about this utopian vision of life. People talk about it all the time, but I certainly didn’t grow up in world where I could just pop into the neighbors’ houses. In my neighborhood, the kids stayed at home by themselves as our moms and dads worked at the factories around which the economy of my hometown was built. I would’ve been in big trouble if I rambled over to the neighbor’s house, and most especially if I’d begged food! You do NOT ask for handouts because that implies your own parents cannot take care of you. Big time no-no. Still, I wondered if someone, somewhere had a childhood like this. I asked my mom:

“Well,” she said, “I used to be able to hop into my cousin’s apartment.” My mom’s mom worked in a factory and her dad was a butcher. Her grandmother took care of her and her cousins.

“That doesn’t count,” I insisted. Really, it doesn’t. The whole extended family lived in one house and they had doors that opened into each other’s apartments. That’s a bit different from playing with the neighbor’s kids in a sort of suburban utopia.

I asked my dad. He just looked at me incredulously. His dad was a coal-miner, his mom worked in a factory. I asked my husband. He was in day-care when he was a kid. I asked my mother-in-law. Nope. My father-in-law? Not even (the family was a wee bit concerned with escaping North Korea when he was a kid).

I asked an old friend: she was in boarding school. Another friend was in day-care. Another friend told me that she and her friends ran wild in the streets and that she’s lucky she made it to high school. I asked a bunch of other people and none of them lived like this either. How far back into the past must one go to find this lovely childhood? If you go too far, you run into child labor and hideous infant mortality rates. Hmm. Before WWII a lot of people didn’t even own their own homes where kids could dash to and fro because the culture of the single-family house wasn’t yet built.

So, where did this particular vision of the wonderful good-old-days come from? I think it’s a collective yearning for better than what one has. There’s always someone or sometime that was or is better than your life now, and you want it, desperately. You want it enough to paint the past with lovely colors over top of the grim reality. I suppose this is not surprising. It’s much more pleasant to repress the horrible details of the past than it is to remember fully just how difficult life has always been, otherwise the future stretches ahead of us too awful to bear.

Or perhaps my sample-size is just too small and really, paradise existed in small-town America. I don’t know the location of this town, and I haven’t met any of the kids who grew up there or their kids, but maybe, just maybe it was real.

Yeah, NOT.

ETA: I just realized that last week the neighbor’s grandkids came by unannounced, as they often do, to play with my boys. I put a bowl of strawberries on the counter for them to eat. A few hours later the girls went home and the bowl was empty. The “good old days” aren’t in the past, they’re today and tomorrow!

5 thoughts on “The myth of the "good old days"

  1. Interesting post. It's weird. I grew up in a small factory town and we did run around the neighborhood, in and out of houses and each others' backyards. We didn't "beg" for food, but it wasn't unusual to eat at each others' homes. And we never locked our doors. Some of us even left our car keys in the ignition of our vehicles! Not sure if I lived in the good old days — my friends all came from blue collar households, so I guess you could say we were all broke together? Does that make sense? I know that I didn't understand or even know people with money until I went to college!

  2. While I agree with your general thrust about people having rose-colored glasses regarding the past, your last paragraph about small sample size is also correct. I had a childhood somewhat like you describe, living in a small peninsula town where I could wander fairly freely, walk to school from grade school on, etc. In our neighborhood, there were 5-6 houses I would go in and out (but never when they weren't home, that would be rude!) having lunch with my friends, playing, etc. I would never have though of asking Mrs. Globicky or Mrs. Clarke for lunch as "begging". We could cut through each other's yards and play there if they weren't home. In some ways, having this past can be sad, as I can't provide the same experience for my daughter.

  3. Well, everyone is different — there's a few books that talk about those myths of the good ol' days, including a book titled The Way Things Never Were. I haven't read it, but I've picked it up a few times at the bookstore to look through the pages! It looks good.

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