Boomers and Safety: Let’s Be Careful Out There

The notion of safety is yet another in a long list of things that have dramatically changed since the 1950s and ’60s. It makes Mister Boomer recall the before-and-after poster that was circulating after the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) was passed in 1970: on the left of the horizontal poster was a cowboy on a horse, and on the right that same cowboy after OSHA. Various safety belts and devices had been attached to the cowboy, and a safety net was suspended from the horse.

A decade or two earlier, parents viewed safety as more of a “let’s be careful out there” teaching moment than a pro-active sheltering of their children. From an early age, “no” was sufficient to train us from sticking things into electrical outlets or handling pots on a stove. Many boomers have noted how we were free to come and go, especially in the summer months, without either parent knowing where we were or what we were doing. True, and probably inevitably, what Mister B and his neighborhood were doing wasn’t always the smartest activities, like riding bikes (or sleds) down impossibly-angled hills; jumping off swings at the peak zenith to the rocks or asphalt below; building tree houses in the woods with found materials; climbing and playing on heavy construction equipment; and many more.

It’s not that the notion of safety was absent from boomer lives altogether. In school they’d see safety films (complete with rattling projector noises and garbled voiceovers) about electricity safety, fire safety, swimming safety, street-crossing safety and most notably, bicycle safety. It is the latter that brings a chuckle to Mister Boomer, because his school once saw a bike safety film that had Mister B’s brother in it. Somehow, the local police had filmed neighborhood kids — including Brother Boomer — riding their bikes no-handed in the middle of the street.

It was common practice for neighborhood kids to be riding no-handed, attempt “wheelies” and other tricks on their bikes in the street, so Brother Boomer could have been filmed at any point. It’s a mystery why the filmmakers chose to use him as an example, though.

Mister B recalls one no-handed ride by Brother Boomer that was part of a game the neighborhood kids had devised. Since the block had a hill that sloped down to a highway, the kids would use it for sledding in winter, and bike or homemade go-kart riding in summer. In this particular game, the kids — mostly boys — would ride down the block as fast as they felt was “safe,” then jumped off the bike across the street from Mister B’s house near the bottom of the hill. The object was to lift the bike up the curb, jump off and land in the grass. It was fun. Extra points were obtained if the riderless bike went on to hit the tree at the edge of the neighbor’s property. Brother Boomer did a run no-handed once, upping the ante for participants.

The film did not show the game and the jumping off part, but made a point of showing that riding without both hands on the handlebars was not a safe thing for kids to do, even on a side street.

Mister Boomer has written previously about how the building of the Interstate Highway System became a playground for him and his neighborhood boomer friends. Whenever construction was finished for the day or week, the kids would be on the sites — which were not fenced off — climbing on equipment and playing in construction trailers and on mounds of dirt. Hazards were everywhere, and the mere thought of kids on construction sites would be unthinkable today.

Chances are these and many of the activities of boomer kids would not have been sanctioned by their parents had they known, surely all in the name of safety, but they did not know, and the kids weren’t going to tell them. There were occasional consequences to their actions, resulting in some blood, cracked teeth, shattered glasses and broken bones, but for the most part, the kids walked away from their fool-hardy tossing of safety caution. When these incidents occurred, the reaction of parents was often one of concern, but in the end, supportive healing and a lecture to not do whatever it was again was their response.

Helmets were never required for bicycle riding, there were no knee pads available at the sporting goods store, unless your child was to be a baseball catcher or hockey goalie, and a few bandages and a couple of broken bones were thought of as part of growing up. Safety was taught and older siblings might intervene in some instances, but it was up to each child to internalize the lesson to keep themselves safe.

By comparison, today’s helicopter parents are more like the cartoon drawing of the cowboy after regulatory assistance: it seems they would prefer to bubble wrap their children head to toe if they are to be allowed outside at all. Kids are often not allowed to be on their own these days. One of the things that made that possible in our boomer days was that most families had several kids. The oldest were often charged with watching the younger ones, so it was not unusual to see a group of kids ranging in age from seven to 16 all playing together. In retrospect, that may not have been the wisest thing for safety as the harebrained schemes of the older kids filtered down to the younger ones.

Today there are more than 100 million additional people in the U.S. than fifty years ago, and with more people come more problems — so some measure of caution is in order — yet Mister B feels that surely there is some middle ground that should be the target for keeping kids safe. Perhaps our boomer experiences were the extreme on the other end of the spectrum. It is true parents today have more to think about in terms of safety; add Internet safety to the list of usual kid safety themes of watching out for strangers, fire, electricity and water safety, bike safety, traffic safety and even playground safety. Nonetheless, Mister B feels sorry for today’s kids who can’t wander around, come across a stick with a nail it and have some fun for a few hours.

What was safety like for you, boomers?