The REAL Miracle on 34th Street

Hi Folks! Just got this note about what happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time. As a kid, I even had the novelization of it! (The movie was so popular, someone wrote it up as a book.) Who knows? Maybe watching it made me Free-Range! Anyway, this little analysis comes to us from Elizabeth, a 29-year-old social worker in Boston. Enjoy! L.

A mom and two potential pervs?

Dear Free-Range Kids: This Thanksgiving, I watched Miracle on 34th St. with my family, which is a tradition for us.  I had never noticed how different the attitudes towards men being around children were in this movie compared to today.
At the beginning of the movie, the mother meets her later love interest after finding out that this stranger has been babysitting her daughter Susan, age 6,  for the day.  Instead of being horrified and calling the cops and a child psychologist to evaluate her for abuse, the mother is very thankful to the kind man for watching her child.  The only thing that bothers her is that he took Susan to see Santa Claus.
Later in the movie, Kris Kringle stays at the mother’s apartment and puts the little girl to bed.  It’s a heartwarming scene where she tells him what she really wants for Christmas is a house.  Again, there is no question about why this old man is in a little girl’s room.  The audience doesn’t question it either, after all, he’s Santa Claus!  I should point out that at this point in the movie, the mother is still questioning whether Kris Kringle is clinically insane.
Now, I’m not saying that we should all behave like we’re in a 1940s movie.  But I was saddened to think how a movie like this would be perceived today.  I’m sure the mother would be reviled for being irresponsible, or it would be considered unrealistic that the little girl was never abducted or molested.  And what about a old guy who dandles moppets on his lap all day? Don’t ask! – E.F.

70 Responses

  1. I had been thinking about the free-range nature of so many of the Christmas movies we watch. Here are a few others:

    It’s a Wonderful Life – The young George Bailey and friends are sliding without supervision on a frozen pond, then band together when George saves his brother’s life. Later, he’s working for the druggist and again saves the day after some innocent flirting with the girls.

    A Christmas Story – Ralphie and his brother are dropped off to await Santa for hours, apparently, while the parents are off shopping. And then there’s all the time walking to and from school in the freezing weather.

    A Charlie Brown Christmas (and almost every other Peanuts adventure) – The adults are occasional peripheral characters, unusally even unvoiced. The kids run free to do whatever they do without adults, including: skating on a pond, dispensing psychiatric advice, putting on a Christmas play (mostly involving repetitive dance), and buying a Christmas tree, including travel to all these locations.

    Home Alone – Ignoring the ridiculous circumstances of the beginning and end, and the fact that no one thought to call either the house someone in town (which would make sense even to an extreme free-ranger), Kevin manages to put together some semblance of a household. Oh, and then there’s the creepy old guy that saves him in the end and apparently shows no tendency to molest him.

    There’s probably more, but that would require a post of its own.

  2. What I always found strange about that movie were the apartment window that looked INTO the hallway, where they could see into one another’s apartment from across the hallway. Very different from the guarded up, mulit-bolted trappings you’d find in apartment buildings today!

  3. This begs the question – is the world really a more dangerous place today than 1940? Or does it just seem more dangerous because the media talks about child danger incessantly? Or because we talk about such things more openly since the 1960s? Of course, increased danger really just means American middle-class society, right? Because if we are asking about the world being more dangerous today than 1940, its hard to ignore the Holocaust, the murderous Japanese invasions of their Asian neighbors, and the racist, and the Jim Crow violence of the American South – a pretty dangerous 1940 world if you ask me.

    I can’t help but wonder if all this fear mongering about child sexual endangerment has gone beyond what we commonly refer to as a ‘moral panic.’ I mean, the argument doesn’t really seem to be about anyone’s morals does it? Morals hardly comes into the picture. What would we call what all this – this fear of child sexual exploitation and including children in sexual crime and sexual harassment prosecution? What would you call what this has become?

  4. Lenore, don’t you know? Times have CHANGED! 😛

  5. Patrick, the Home Alone scenario wasn’t all *that* far-fetched, after all it appears in one of the most widely read books in the world- the Christian bible. I believe it’s the book of Luke that has the story of young Jesus being left in Jerusalem when his parents left town for home and didn’t notice his absence for a day. When they found him three days later he was chatting up strangers (teachers in the temple). Not that I’m planning on leaving one of my kids next time we head for home after a vacation, but if free ranging was good enough for the Lord and Savior . . .

    (No, I’m not seriously implying that people should be free range because it’s in the bible, just pointing out an interesting coincidence. I’m also not pushing Christianity, really just pointing out the coincidence.)

  6. Heather..That’s very interesting! I wonder if the writers had that story in mind!

  7. Nice one, Heather!

    It’s not a movie, but a holiday tradition in my family has been listening to Dylan Thomas read his lovely and poetic childhood recollection, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (well worth 20 minutes of your family’s time, and elsewhere on the web). He describes a day of kids playing outside, unencumbered by parents or cell phone tethers, and presents that would never pass the worry-wort filter these days. Bygone bliss?

  8. My son was on a kick of watching 1950s science fiction movies this past year. One of the movies we saw was, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” One of the characters is a single mother who lives in a boardinghouse with her son, who’s about 9 or 10. An alien from a spaceship that landed in Washington, DC, who has the form of a human man, is also staying at that boardinghouse. The mom is engaged to another man and wants to go out with him. But she tells her fiancee that she can’t go out because there’s nobody to watch her son. But the alien steps in and says that he’ll watch the boy. Mom willingly lets the alien/man, who she barely knows, babysit her son so she can go out. The alien and the boy go out all over Washington, DC and nobody questions why a boy is out alone with a man. Both “man” and boy have a great time.

  9. Most movies about kids are free-range. Or, at least they used to be. Because who wants to watch a movie about kids with mom hovering over them the whole time stopping them from their adventures, reminding them to wash their hands, getting all anxious when something dangerous is going to happen. Boring.

    Sadly, those kind of kids’ movies are going out of style because they encourage kids to have their own adventures and modern helicopter parents just can’t have that. I’ve noticed more and more movies with an adult just in the background of every scene so you know the kids aren’t actually alone. We wouldn’t want 13 year olds to think they can navigate their small town on their own…they need Mommy to hold their hand while they cross the street still.

    This is a weird society we live in. I’m constantly amazed at how many people consider me negligent because my kids are independent. My 5yo has more freedom and responsibility than most 10 year olds I meet. She might not be able to read yet (which apparently is negligent, too, because I should have taught her at 3) but she can warm food in a microwave, make toast, make sandwiches, poor her own cereal and milk, help change a diaper, fold her own laundry, clean up after herself, navigate our neighborhood on her own, cross streets, get herself to and from the bus stop and friends’ houses, not need to hold my hand in a store. Oh, and Friday we were at IHOP. Not 5 minutes after I got back from the bathroom she said she had to go and gave me this look. I was like, “you don’t need me to use the bathroom.”

    She shrugged and left. Of course the bathrooms weren’t that far from our table and in our line of sight. Not that I was worried about her being grabbed but since she can’t read she can’t tell which bathroom to use so if she hadn’t just seen me come out of the ladies room she wouldn’t have gone alone. I’ve been working her recognizing “ladies” or “women” on the doors that don’t have the stick figures.

    She regularly uses the bathroom alone in restaurants we frequent a lot because she knows where they are. I don’t think twice about sending her alone.

    Meanwhile other kids her age can read like a 3rd grader but, otherwise, are treated as if they are 2, completely unable to do anything on their own. I even read a post once about a mom who not only picked her 6yo daughter’s clothes out she basically dresser her, too, because she said her daughter couldn’t do it. Um, maybe because you never let her try. Never mind choosing your child’s clothes at that age is kind of demeaning. Crazy control freaks.

  10. “One Fine Day” with George clooney and Michelle Pfiffer has many moments like this as well, and its not that old of a movie, either.

  11. Even more than the necessity of allowing our children to have a “real” childhood, we as parents NEED to develop a sense of reality. Children have ran and played for centuries near and far, developing SURVIVAL skills, without which, adulthood would have been impossible to navigate.

    Our young people are considered “children” until they are 18 in more than a dozen states now. What does that tell us about our society now?

    My grandfather was 14 when he traveled across country by himself and took possession of 300 acres in Oregon. He worked that land for 5 years, receiving his homestead certificate when he was 19. Now I realize that was a different time, but that was a great deal of work and responsibility even then. He didn’t have anyone waking him up and telling him he had to get out of bed and “oh and don’t forget to take your gun and be sure to watch out for that wounded bear down by the dry creek bed”.

    What survival skills do our children have now? What is the biggest danger they face on a day to day basis? I am willing to bet that most parents will reply, “strangers!”

    Am I the only one who wonders when the term stranger went from being a potential friend or someone to turn to when you need help, to someone whose only purpose is to somehow victimize anyone they meet? Have “good” people and “bad” people really changed? Or could it be that our great widespread media gods have realized that only the scariest, most horrifying, shock inducing stories garner the most readership? Truthfully, if you sat down and listened to the news for a couple of hours, what do YOU think would be the percentage of good and evil and which do YOU think would come out the winner?

  12. Today people would be expecting the little girl to start spouting “stranger danger” comments at the old guy. (Perhaps using “anatomically [in]correct” terminology.)

    I think unfortunately our culture sees little kids as sex objects, and while there have always been perverts, it’s only recently that this is the first path modern minds go down. The idea that a person could simply love children (in a healthy way) is pretty much gone.

  13. In “The Polar Express”, the children were picked up in the middle of the night to board a train to go see Santa at the North Pole.
    This would NEVER happen under Amtrak’s new rules!

  14. My parents took my 3 year old to see Santa last week. They don’t let little kids sit on Santa’s lap anymore – they sit next to him. Because apparently everyone thinks the jolly old elf is going to start feeling a little too jolly with a kid on his lap.

    Who are the perverts again? Someone please remind me.

  15. Thinking about the Boxcar Children series….the original ones written by Gertrude Chandler Warner. Kids, having adventures on their own. Adults are there for a few parts, mainly for the kids to tell there adventures to!

  16. Cindy those books were one of my fondest reading memories of my childhood.

  17. Did anyone here every read the book Escape from Warsaw? It’s also know as The Silver Sword. I read it in junior high and enjoyed it very much. Three kids from a Polish family (ages 13, 11, and 3) fend for themselves in occupied Poland. They later join up with a Polish orphan boy and the four of them make their way from Warsaw to Switzerland.
    The kids were on their own, though they talked to adults all throughout their journey. I’m sure that this book is banned in many a household with helicopter parents. There are: kids stealing food, talking to strangers, a 13-year-old taking care of her sick 11-year old brother and 3-year-old sister, kids taking a train by themselves, and kids traveling in foreign countries by themselves

    Here is the link from Wikipedia about the book with a lot more detail.

  18. Oops, I mean did anyone EVER read the book…

  19. For a more current example, think about Phineas and Ferb. They’re always talking to random adults.

  20. gap.runner, I read that book as a kid, but had forgotten all about it. Most of my kids are a bit old for that but I’ll be my 10 yo would love it. I’ll have to look for it!

  21. My oldest has enjoyed the Boxcar Children books as well.
    But our all time favorite author is Roald Dahl. Most of his main characters are very free range, and the adventures and experiences appeal to both the boys and the girls. Their favorite book is Matilda, but they also loved James and the Giant Peach and The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me (a great read aloud book).
    Great website:

  22. The REAL name of the little girl in the movie, (best known as Natalie Wood ), was Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko.

  23. Wow! That is really different. I’m a man who works with children, but I feel I often get a free pass where others get scrutinized because I’m a karate instructor. I also enjoyed The Miracle on 34th Street movie as a child, and it saddens me to think that the same story couldn’t be told today.

  24. The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the book “The Snowy Day”. The book is important for many social reasons but each time I read it to my 3 year old daughter, who absolutely loves it, I can’t help but think how Peter’s day out in the snow would probably never happen today. He has to be 6 years old or so and he’s roaming around a big city, probably New York City, all on his own. You know he’s alone because he tells his mother all about his adventures when he gets home. The next day he goes out with another little friend all on their own. My own upbringing – out in the country on 20+ acres to explore (but no where to really ‘go’) was very different than Peter’s or my daughter’s here in the Chicago suburbs. We were outside, we walked in the woods, we climbed the fences and trees very much unsupervised with Mom never worrying that we might fall in the pond or get lost – that wasn’t going to happen. I’m not sure we were really “free range” raised but more “common sense” raised. But I think of Peter’s experiences and mine and I know I want my daughter to be able to experience that. She also needs to get to come home from her snowy day and be able to tell her mother about her adventures! I will make it happen.

  25. Free-range raised kid here, currently 20 and a successful college student.

    My absolute favorite kids movie ever is UP, and the little boy’s adventure in that movie is about as free-range as it gets! He’s FR from the start, knocking on doors offering assistance in his wilderness scout uniform, nary a parent or background-checked troop leader in sight. He befriends (or at least attaches himself to) a single, older gentleman, flies in said gentleman’s house to South America, has a grand adventure, and makes it home safe, sound, and un-molested. Even the creepy old man villain doesn’t molest him! In the end, the gentleman who he shared the adventure with becomes a father figure and much needed friend, and the little boy is much better off for having his adventure.

  26. I wonder what Ebenezer Scrooge was up to after his transformation, becoming friends with Tiny Tim like that.

    And even right after he woke up, paying a little kid to buy his turkey for him and *bring it to his house*….ewwwwww. He was obviously grooming him, if not outright luring him. He went from being a safe person who knew better than to get involved with children, to the point of chasing them home if he found them out on the streets doing dangerous things like caroling without their parents (a responsible citizen indeed!) to a real creep.

    When you think about it, Pixar’s really horrible. First it teaches kids that you can get accidentally kidnapped by two apparently male monsters and *actually make friends with them,* and then it shows an example of a parent who learned to be more Free-Range after overprotectiveness backlash almost caused the kid to get lost forever and wind up in the hands of a murderess. Really, those movies should be banned, or at least rated R.

  27. I’m constantly amazed at how older shows can give us a window into how much more freedom kids had in the “olden days” (Pre CNN!) In season one of Leave it to Beaver, the boy goes missing and is parents have to turn to his older brother just to find out where he hangs out after school so they can start looking for him. One of the place they look is the garage of an older retired fireman that Beaver likes to hang out with after school!
    I think the fact that such scenes are now considered “unrealistic” is one of the reasons that children’s television is so boring these days. I know that one of the reasons my daughter loves Curious George so much is that the monkey is actually allowed to go out and do all the fun things that kids used to be able to do: explore the city, get dirty, make new friends and hang out with interesting adults, etc. Its a bit of a shame that its considered less preposterous for a monkey go out and have adventures on his own than a child!

  28. I like the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books. The kids are very capable and free range. Their parents are dead. They have to care for themselves and they do a very good job of it because all their guardians stink. The movie is good too.

    I really like “Up” too. Several parents ranted and complained about it because of the infertility and his wife’s death at the beginning. They were all whining about not wanting to have to explain that to their kids. My kids never questioned it. It kinda explains itself. I see it as a positive thing for parents to have to talk about infertility and for kids to see firsthand how much it can devastate someone. The movie did a good job of that. I think that movie made people more sensitive to infertile couples with just a few short scenes. Pure genius.

  29. deanne: You really have to be wary of concluding too much about how family life and childhood used to be by watching fictional TV shows, particularly from the 1950s. In fact, several of the actors in shows like “Leave It To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” expressed concerns, at the time, that the shows were portraying an idealized version of family life that few families could actually live up to. It’s particularly important not to think that the 1950s represented the epitome of American tradition when it came to domestic mores; most competent sociologists actually consider the 20 years or so after WWII to be a very unusual period in American culture.

    All that said, even the reality back then didn’t involve today’s super-intensive parenting and “mompetition”. And today’s notions of “realistic” childhood fiction tend to be needlessly dismal; it’s as if you’ve got therapists demanding that all stories emphasize their importance.

  30. What a great point! Attitudes may have changed but you have to ask, has reality? Is the world really a much more dangerous place when it comes to people, if not how come we’ve become so untrusting? So sad. Miracle is such a beautiful old Christmas movie and having read this I’ll watch it with new eyes. And ask the kids what they think about that ‘strange man’ !! Thanks

  31. When my (adopted) kids saw Up, they picked up on the whole infertility thing and immediately said “I wonder why they didn’t just adopt kids instead?” I explained that not everyone feels like they can deal with the uncertainty of adoption, to which they rolled their eyes and said, “That’s stupid.” Love those guys 🙂

    I’m also a big fan of Miracle on 34th Street. The scene where Santa sings to the little Dutch girl brings tears to my eyes every time.

  32. ebohlman — it’s true that the TV shows portrayed an idealized view of culture, but they probably portrayed an idealized version of family interactions *as they really were,* if that makes sense. “Idealized” isn’t generally the opposite of the things were, or the way people wanted things to work, it’s just too perfect a realization of it.

    That is, it’s not reasonable to conclude that families always ran smoothly with a talk from Dad resolving every minor crisis perfectly.

    But it’s probably reasonable to conclude that if a show portrays kids going off on their own to play after school and relating mostly happily with neighbors, that’s how it really was. For one thing, we know that’s how it was from the experience of older relatives. My oldest brother is just a few years younger than the Beaver was supposed to have been, and that sounds pretty much like my brothers remember their childhood — and we had some of the “stricter” parents around.

  33. @ Claire53

    I was born in 1942, and so I was a child in the 1940s and 1950s. The world isn’t significantly more dangerous for children (in the U.S.) now than it was back then, except for one or two big things: there are many more cars on the roads, going faster than they did, and many more TVs in the homes, turned on for more hours than they used to be. In one big respect it feels safer now: children no longer worry all the time about the ever-present threat of an all-out nuclear war, as we did in the later ’40s and the ’50s.

    Yes, children died back in the ’40s and ’50s, and we other children knew about their deaths, often in some detail. It was a simple fact of life. When I was in the 8th grade, our class was invited to an end-of-the-year party at the home of one of our teachers. He had a new swimming pool, and the water was murky. We were very clearly told not to go into it alone. One of my classmates did just that, and he drowned. We all discovered this when some other classmates went swimming, and one of them bumped into the dead boy’s body underwater. There were no grief or trauma counselors back in those days. We all coped, mostly by talking with one another, and moved on. I did my share of the talking.

    Not one of my classmates were traumatized by the event. Children’s deaths were a natural part of our lives back then. And hardly anyone ever went into therapy or counseling for anything — those things were widely regarded as BS or even con-artistry aimed at rich people.

    Whenever I told this story to my students, back in the days before I retired from university teaching, their first question was always, “What did they do to the teacher?”

    “They” did nothing to the teacher except sympathize with the shock and horror he felt at the loss of one of his students on his watch. My students always found this unbelievable. How could “they” not harshly punish a teacher whose student died on his watch, at his home?

    That is a measure of how greatly times have changed since the 1940s.

  34. Ever see “Pop Up Video”s on VH1? A music video plays and trivia boxes pop up all over the place. I’d love to see someone do that for old movies like the ones mentioned here. Go through a classic and point out every example of “bad parenting” by today’s standards.

    I once had an idea for a children’s adventure story but couldn’t figure out how to make it work because I kept thinking of how unpublishable it’d be with the 5-year-old lead doing so many “dangerous” (and actual dangerous) things.

  35. I know a mother who won’t let her kids watch “ICarly” because it shows kids functioning without a hovering parent. She is so opposed to independence for kids that she doesn’t even want her kids *imagining* what it would be like to a be a teenager making your own decisions.

  36. “Several parents ranted and complained about it because of the infertility and his wife’s death at the beginning. They were all whining about not wanting to have to explain that to their kids.”

    I guess people just have different sensitivities. I can understand the death thing being hard — human death of positive central characters is not a common theme for children’s animated movies, and death is hard for most people to talk about (whether it should be or not.) But what is so hard about, “Some people can’t have babies. The doctor told them they couldn’t, and that made them sad”? I realize in real life, it’s a very tough issue and “not that simple,” but to explain it on a level a child can grasp doesn’t seem to be that difficult, nor should it be that upsetting for a child to see from that emotional distance.

  37. Marley and Me has a pregnancy loss. My youngest was almost 2 when we saw that movie. She understood what was going on. Her eyes teared up.

    I would rather my kids know these things happen throughout life than be shocked to find out later on.

  38. Lenore, not sure how to e-mail this article to you.

    Few teens sexting racy photos, new research says
    By LINDSEY TANNER AP Medical Writer The Associated Press
    Monday, December 5, 2011 12:49 PM EST

    A very unusual article that reassures rather than terrifies parents, as well as an unusual quote from an expert in the field stating that kids will be kids and some of the things they do are just dumb and shouldn’t be stressed over.

  39. and what about the Little House books – the girls are left at home while Ma and Pa go to town, and save the house from burning

  40. PS: the last Law and Order SVU had me thinking of you, Lenore. I was annoyed that the child who was taking the subway to the school for the first time ended up being murdered. It is shows like these that feed the fire!

  41. The Ingalls girls also bring in the entire woodpile when a blizzard flares up!

  42. Laura, oh yes! I love those books! I re-read them all every year during the holiday season!

  43. @Maureen — kids around here are allowed to sit on Santa’s lap. Many 3 year olds are scared to, so a parent is allowed to cuddle in there for the photo op. But I have a hunch not allowing toddlers to sit on Santa’s lap proper might have as much to do with toilet accidents as any concern about him feeling them up. Especially in the middle of a shopping mall.

    @Pentamom: I suspect old movies are just like modern sitcoms. I know nobody who lives like that (or even close) in real life, just a lot of people who think they should because they have missed the point that this stuff is FICTION. But it’s lovely fiction, that’s why we’re all still watching it.

    Just for the record: my grandmother, who died age 105 last year, was horrified by some of the premises we’re applauding as so free range, though she liked the movies anyway. She was the polar opposite of a helicopter, being a farmer’s wife and schoolteacher in the wilds of Saskatchewan.

  44. Other movies about “other” times:

    “Iron Will” Set about 100 years ago. Would you let your adolescent son participate in a dog sled race alone through the wilderness? If you did, would CPS yank him into care and seek to have you prosecuted for child endagerment?

    “October Sky” I got the willies watching the scene in which a few high schoolers are melting together the ingredients for their rocket fuel and then pouring it into the rocket tube. Under adult supervision, I participated in a high school rocketry club. We used materials similar to what Homer Hickham and his “October Sky” friends did in the 1950s in West Virginia. Fast forward 50 years, and those guys would have been arrested and slammed into juvie for a good long while.

    My great grandfather ran away from home in Quebec when he was 10 years old. He survived just fine. Both his forebears and descendents, myself included, have wandered far and wide into all sorts of places where we could well have gotten very badly hurt or dead. Yes, there was risk, but we gained so much more in terms of self-reliance and personal capability. It saddens me that our governments want to increasingly insulate both children and adults from this level of exploration.

  45. Thank you Robert Mathiesen. That is as I suspected. Children are in no more danger now than in the 40s and 50s. Most of this panic is a revolving dance between media-fueled hype and parental fear.

    Free Range readers might be interested in an excellent new book by Cultural Studies/Anthropology Professor Roger Lancaster, ” Sex Panic and the Punitive State.” It not only discusses the insidious nature of moral panic, where modern fears come from, and how we have changed in punishing offenders, but also, very importantly, discusses the nature of innocence and childhood and how the way we perceive childhood has changed over the last 60 years.

  46. And Almanzo and his brother and two sisters, the oldest of whom is about 13 at the time, are left alone for a whole WEEK to run the farm (though I guess it’s a light work season — still, there were the stock chores and everything) and keep house. But they REALLY messed up — they made the pig sick and ate up too much of the sugar.

  47. Right, nobody actually lives like the sitcoms then or now — but OTOH, the characters act in a way we can relate to, not like space aliens. That’s what I met — you can kind of get a sense of what’s “normal behavior” from them, though you certainly shouldn’t conclude that life is like that every day for most people.

  48. I am a free range mama of 3. My kids go out by themselves, stay in by themselves, and are treated like the intelligent people they are.

    And I believe there is a place in parenting for caution.

    Would I leave my 5yr old daughter with a man I didn’t know for the day? No way!!! I believe there’s a difference between not smothering and plain old obliviousness. My parents were oblivious – I learned a lot from the space but I also got raped by one of those friendly great adults in the neighborhood that everyone here seems to think children should spend the day with without a second thought!!!

  49. Look at a sitcom like The Big Bang Theory. The personalities of the characters are completely off the wall, and they get into funny situations. But their daily lives are very normal. They go to work, they eat out at a restaurant where their friend works, they hang around their apartment watching TV and playing video games. Pretty normal and relatable, IMO.

    FrancesfromCanada, I would be very interested in hearing what things your grandmother disagreed with — and were they things she never would have allowed her children to do, or did she believe times have changed?

  50. You are very welcome, Claire53. I think I will take a look at Lancaster’s book, which seems quite relevant to my own experience as a university teacher for the last 40-odd years. When I started, in 1967, first-year students were still officially young adults. By the middle of the 1990s, graduating seniors [even!] had come to be regarded by the university as children in need of much official protection.

    I knew a little about this shift in the idea of “childhood” from my own family stories. One of my grandfathers left home when he was 13, entirely on his own. He signed on to a ship out of Copenhagen Harbor, left ship in the United States, managed to work his way from the East Coast to to California somehow (probably as a side-show apprentice in a traveling carnival), and then found work as a stuntman in early Hollywood in the Buster Keaton era. He was always wholly on his own, without any relatives or family anywhere in the United States. Yet he survived, and even prospered to a modest degree.

    But here is the most startling of our stories, when judged by modern standards. One of my great-great-great-grandmothers, back in the early 1800s, in Joliet, IL (still very much a small frontier town), when she was about 12, set her cap for the most eligible bachelor in town. He was the only banker and lawyer in town as well, a man in his early 30s. She successfully beat out all her girlfriends, who also found him attractive and darkly mysterious, and married him when she was 13. She had the first of her eight children when she was 14 (and was still playing with dolls on occasion). Her father was the county sheriff, and wealthy, so there had been no need for her to marry young; and she also had servants to tend the children when she didn’t feel like doing so. But she was also anxious to get on with her own independent life. Despite her very young age at marriage (by our standards), she spent a long and happy life with her much older husband, whom she also outlived by decades. Her brief memoirs, written in her very old age and published in a local newspaper, emphasized how fortunate she had been and how much she had enjoyed her life. It seems that no one in frontier Joliet thought anything was at all odd or wrong about a girl — or should I call her a young woman, according to the standards of her own era — marrying when she was 13, or marrying a man so much older than she.

    Now, of course, these matters have changed out of all recognition. Moreover, we tend to think that the way things are now is the way they always have been. But it is never that simple.

  51. Yes indeed Robert – our standards about “protected childhood innocence” and the sexlessness of teenage women (not boys mind you, as our sex offender records demonstrate) have only grown more rigid since the 1980s. I certainly cannot imagine any of the 1970s movies about underage sexuality (Pretty Baby, Blue Lagoon, Manhattan) getting made today!

  52. @ Mike, does your family also know about the made-for-TV movie of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”? It is my own family’s tradition. Around 11 or so on Christmas day, we pop this one in, make snacks, and turn off all of the lights but the Christmas tree and some candles. It’s very well-done, and probably one of the best book-to-film adaptations of anything I’ve ever seen.

    @ Dolly, I also love “Up”. It’s silly, IMO, to complain about things in movies, but some adults had a tough time with that opening scene, too, including my ex-wrestler fiance, who said somewhere during the funeral scene that he wasn’t in the mood to have a depressing evening and left the room.

    On another message board, I saw a father complain when “Bridge to Terabithia” came out as a movie about how wrong it was that they “snuck that death scene in there” and that he now had to explain death to his 6-year-old. I replied that it could be worse: when I was 6, my parents had to explain death to me when it happened to my grandpa.

  53. Mitchel — I don’t believe the point is that anyone really believes we should let a man we don’t know babysit our young child for the day.

    It’s just that we’ve become so accustomed to viewing everything through the lens of “safety” and so forth that if you hear about someone doing that and it turned out fine, people don’t think, “that’s nice, it turned out fine,” they think, “Oh, gosh, what COULD HAVE HAPPENED!!!! THAT’S TERRIBLE!!!!”

    IOW, we’ve learned to measure every interaction on the scale of “what terrible thing could happen or could have happened to this child” instead of “what good came out of it” or “that was kind of an unrealistic setup for a story, but who cares, it’s a story.” When it comes to fiction, we really should chill.

  54. Library Diva, on December 6, 2011 at 05:31 said:

    On another message board, I saw a father complain when “Bridge to Terabithia” came out as a movie about how wrong it was that they “snuck that death scene in there” and that he now had to explain death to his 6-year-old. I replied that it could be worse: when I was 6, my parents had to explain death to me when it happened to my grandpa


    I heartily agree. We had a rather morbid phase when my daughter was about 4. She found a dead vole on the drive way, and we spent a few months discussing death daily. Thank goodness we did. It was much easier to discuss my grandmother’s death with her when she already had some idea what death was.

    This is another case of over-protection being harmful, imo.

  55. @Michelle — possibly Big Bang Theory is the exception that proves the rule…at least they wear normal clothes and hair and might actually be able to afford their rent.

    My grandmother would have said “just think what could have happened!” about leaving her kids alone with a strange man, or about forgetting a child someplace, or about leaving children alone to run the farm, even when she was raising her own. But then, she lost her baby girl to pneumonia when she had to leave the kids for a month, with their dad and a cousin, while she was in hospital in a then-distant city. Her awareness didn’t stop her from allowing her kids freedom, but she also taught them to pay attention.

    I don’t think she thought times have changed, because where she lived, they really haven’t. Kids still roam around all over town, and kids still get in farm accidents, and there are still an alarming number of teenage boys killed in car crashes where “speed and alcohol were a factor”. And there are still some people with whom others don’t leave their children.

    And we all still watch old movies and don’t pick apart the parenting!

  56. Oh Jeez, seriously, people are talking about great movies with free range kids and no one mentions The Iron Giant!!!!!?????? =oP Come on, the mom of the main character lets her son run around alone while she works, and even suggests he show the special agent renting her room around the town, lol.

  57. pentamom, on December 6, 2011 at 07:01 said:
    Mitchel — I don’t believe the point is that anyone really believes we should let a man we don’t know babysit our young child for the day.

    It’s just that we’ve become so accustomed to viewing everything through the lens of “safety” and so forth that if you hear about someone doing that and it turned out fine, people don’t think, “that’s nice, it turned out fine,” they think, “Oh, gosh, what COULD HAVE HAPPENED!!!! THAT’S TERRIBLE!!!!”

    Pentamom – I wrote this letter, and that was exactly my point. Would I knowingly let a man (or woman) I had never met babysit my child? No, I wouldn’t. I was just pointing out that this scenario, nothing bad happened to the child. In fact, she met her future stepfather. Many movies and TV shows these days would have used this scenario to set up a kidnapping plot, which only adds to parents’ fears and belief that this sort of terrible thing happens all the time, and that’s sad.

  58. FrancesfromCanada, thank you for sharing. That is very interesting about your grandmother’s life, and so sad about her baby. 😦

  59. Library Diva, how do you “sneak” something in to a movie based on a book that was published in 1977? We all had more than thirty years to find out the plot of Bridge to Terabithia before taking our kids to see the movie.

  60. Off the free range topic, but related to “MIracle…”: I’ve always been impressed that the main character is a divorced working mother, with a responsible job. When this was made, that situation had to be fairly uncommon.

    And I just love the depiction of Macys back in the day. Many floors, elevators, huge number of employees, all dressed in shirts/ties/dresses, meetings with Mr. Macy, and a store psychologist! (Always reminds me of a book I read as a teen – “Cherry Ames, Department Store Nurse.”) Department stores, at least in my medium-sized midwestern city, are nothing like that now.

  61. Re: Bridge to Terabithia:

    I have VERY vivid memories of my elementary school librarian showing us a slide-show type version of that story in 3rd grade. That was about 1990… She didn’t check with our parents to make sure it was okay to show us something that involved a death. She didn’t explain it or talk to us about it, either before or after the viewing. She just had us watch 20 minutes of it a week during library time, until it was done. I remember being unbelievably sad about it, and almost everybody in the class cried. It’s not a scarring memory, by far. Just a strong one.

    Admittedly, it wasn’t my first experience with death. Just the year before, I lost a great-grandmother I was very close to. And around that same time, I lost another great-grandmother, to whom I was not as close due to her severe Alzheimer’s.

    I can’t imagine a parent complaining that they “snuck” the death scene in, since my biggest concern with the movie would be that they would try to pretty it up and take that scene out the movie, to avoid upsetting kids. Now, my daughter is only 2 1/2, so she’s a little young for it yet, but I fully intend to introduce her to the book and movie when she’s old enough.

  62. There was a Jerry Lewis movie made in the 1950s featuring this very funny American GI (played by Jerry Lewis) befriending a young and homeless Japanese boy during the war. The GI falls in love with this kid (no, not sexual) and wants to be with him at all times because he finds this kid to be very witty and fun to be with. It’s very funny how they interact with each other in the movie but to make a long story short, Jerry Lewis’s character ends up adopting this kid. Goodness gracious, nowadays, it would be assumed that the GI is a child predator and pedophile preying on this poor and naive homeless boy. After all, why else would an adult have such an interest in this homeless kid whom he just met? Even though, there is no evidence OR valid indications of a sexual interest! Of course, that movie was made in the 1950s but nowadays, an adult cannot do ANYTHING nice for a kid he doesn’t know or take any interest in him without being branded creepy and dangerous and weird.

  63. That’s interesting John, and it makes me think about this: at a moment in our social history where parents’ worlds revolve around children (instead of the other way around as with my own Baby Boomer generation), and society is all about the sanctity of the child and elevation of childhood to pedestal status, we are, at the same time, turning this interest and focus in children inside out, corrupting it, poisoning it, and in some cases, criminalizing it. Interesting paradox, don’t you think?

  64. I had this exact same feeling the other day watching “Miracle on 34th Street” the other day after the Macy’s Parade. My thought: In this day and age, there is no way a little girl would be left alone in a room with a strange older man with the door closed, tucking her into bed.

    In fact, it felt odd watching it just because it’s been so long since I’ve seen a natural scene played like this on tv. In modern movies, there’s always some sort machination to make sure that men are rarely shown as being alone with a child to the point that men being clueless about childcare is a comedy staple.

    Not that men being clueless about childcare hasn’t always been comedy fodder, but today, it seems it’s for a much different reason than it used to be – it used to be assumed that women had total care of the children. Now it’s assumed that men are not to be left alone with any children other than their immediate offspring and even then, they must be left complicated instructions, lest they accidentally lose or come into any contact that could cause them to be accused of molesting them.

    It’s weird, how we regard men in this day and age.

  65. Went back and read more comments. The comments about Free Range Kids in Little House are spot on. Anne of Green Gables is another particularly series of books about Free Range Kids.

    While Anne is a girl, she & Diana walk to school by themselves and Ann is nearly always seen wandering around, enjoying nature on her own. She is forever fetching the cows – a girl of 11 bringing home a whole herd of cows! are they mad? And once she nearly drowns and another time breaks her ankle playing, but the only thought is that all’s well that ends well. She’s alive and she’s punished, but that’s all.

    Also, the girls in these books are taught to keep house as a matter of course. The attitude in these books isn’t so much that “girls should keep house” it’s more that any girl who can’t take care of herself has had her education sorely neglected. She’s expected to be able to wash dishes, fix meals, sew and do chores.

    In the later books when Anne & Diana are grown, Diana brags on her daughter, saying that she can get dinner for a group of grown men harvesters as well as Dianna can, even if she is only 11.

    And later in the series, we see Anne’s children hanging out on their own by a pond, fishing, and frying up fish to make their own lunch. There are no adults anywhere in sight. Her youngest daughter at age 5 or six is sent on her own to take a cake to a church fund raiser.

    There’s even one particularly weird story about an orphan who stays with the minister’s children for weeks, never going to school because she prefers to stay home and do the housework. It takes nearly a month or so before anyone really questions why she’s there, who she belongs to or how this strange child just pops in out of nowhere and makes herself at home.

    These books show me, that we really treat our kids as if they are helpless, rather than teaching them to navigate their world as a matter of growing up. They are capable of so much and we dumb down their world and treat them as if they are incompetents.

  66. Claire53 – It is like the paradox where children are treated like infants who are expected to have the intellectual ability of college students. We won’t let them cut a piece of meat, but expect them to be able to appreciate Shakespeare at 7. It seems as though we really don’t know where children fit in society anymore.

  67. @ Jen and Michelle, that was the first thing I thought when I saw that guy’s complaint! How could you not know what that book was all about? In my elementary school, EVERYONE read it. It was like the “Edgar Sawtelle” of my 3rd grade set. My first thought when seeing that complaint was to wonder if he also complained about how Stuart Little was all about a mouse. I think what he meant was that from just watching the commercials, it looked similar to the Narnia films and you don’t know that it’s about a girl dying.

    My sister teaches a course on children’s literature at a university and the subject of death in books came up, and explaining death to children. She made the point, how exactly can anyone explain death to children? You tell a child that it means the person goes to sleep and never wakes up, never talks, breathes, eats or does anything again, but who really has a more sophisticated understanding of death than that? It’s an unknown, that’s why people worry about it so much.

  68. Speaking of death, there is an old Sesame Street episode where Big Bird finds out about Mr. Hoopers death. Shows how much we changed towards kids:

  69. Our paranoia is not so new. In the 1950s they were telling BOYS BEWARE adult males who were “too friendly” [] since “homosexual” and “paedophile” are after all just the same thing… but no-one thinks like that anymore, right?

    Apparently we have to watch out for hipsters, too.

  70. […] blobs.” IMHO a must read take on Child’s Play! Lets read more about kids, it’s a real miracle! Every child should learn how to jump rope, then maybe one day, double dare someone to do it […]

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