The Universal Notebook: The kids will be all right

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I was a fairly permissive parent. My parenting philosophy has always been that if you treat your children respectfully as equals, they will grow up to be normal, well-adjusted adults.

So when our girls were young, I tended to let them do what they wanted as long as it wasn’t likely to hurt them or anyone else.

As a grandfather, I am inclined to be even more liberal, eager to spoil my five grandchildren. But my two married daughters do not always look kindly on Grampy’s permissiveness.

I got a kick, for instance, out of letting the little ones loose in the garage to draw all over the wall with markers (I’m planning to paint it in the spring anyway). But I could tell the girls weren’t all that pleased, repeatedly stressing that the kiddos were not to draw on any other walls.

My daughters and their spouses are not authoritarian parents by any means. They are very good and loving parents. They tend to reason with their children rather than lay down the because-I-said-so law. But contemporary parents do strike me as overly protective in some ways.

Take food, for instance.

My daughters are much more careful about what they let their kids eat than I was. Not too much meat. Not too much dairy. Not too much fruit. Lots of veggies. And certainly not too many sweets. I fixed cinnamon toast for one of my granddaughters one morning only to be told by a 2-year-old that “honey toast” was a treat reserved for Saturdays.

I understand the concept of eating a healthy, balanced diet, but what sometimes seems to get lost on my daughters is that they managed to grow up fit and healthy on a much less controlled diet than they follow with their kids. A few Happy Meals never hurt anyone.

And that’s really what I’ve been thinking about since we had the house full of children and grandchildren over the holidays: A lot of things that this generation protects their kids from didn’t really seem to hurt them.

While, for instance, I applaud the effort to keep Christmas from becoming a consumer orgy, I don’t think it permanently damages a child to be showered with gifts once a year. When I was a boy, we would wake each Christmas morning to a mountain of presents stacked around the tree, but I didn’t wind up greedy or overly materialistic. These days, I am happy with some new socks.

This Christmas, I watched my grandchildren tear into the modest haul of Christmas presents with varying degrees of greed and glee, anxiously searching for more, more, more, but I was not dismayed. The kids will be OK. Our kids didn’t grow up to be particularly materialistic, and neither will theirs.

It may be counter-intuitive, but a lot of things you’d think might not be good for children don’t really do any lasting harm.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I played cowboys, cops and robbers, and war all the time. I had a veritable arsenal of toy guns: 45s, six-shooters, rifles, machine guns. My favorite was a Fanner 50 designed so you could gun down enemies simply by “fanning” the broad hammer. But gunning down all those outlaws in my 10-year-old imagination did not turn me into an adult gun nut. On the contrary: I’m not the least bit interested in firearms.

And it’s the same with television. These days there is so much violence, both real and fictional, on TV, not to mention a level of coarseness that would make a cabbie blush, that I don’t blame my daughters for carefully regulating what and how much their children watch.

But my grandchildren don’t watch any television.

When I was a kid, I got up in the morning and watched the test pattern until they began broadcasting for the day. Then I watched “Captain Kangaroo,” “Romper Room,” Howdy Doody and Looney Tunes. My girls grew up watching “Sesame Street,” “Shining Time Station,” “Reading Rainbow” and “The Electric Company.” My grandchildren know who Thomas the Tank Engine is, but they are otherwise innocent of the vast wasteland that is television.

I suppose no TV is a good thing, but I can’t help thinking my daughters might have an easier time of it if they occasionally plunked the littles down in front of the tube so they could get something done. That’s what I did, and it doesn’t seem to have stunted their growth.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.