When we were small, afternoon meant siesta. One had the choice of either taking a nap with everyone else, or puttering around outside the AC-wala kamra. During those long afternoons, we were completely unsupervised. Most of the time we would read, watch our four VHS cartoon films over and over or play together. Sometimes we’d open the very simple lock on the gate and go out for a little jaunt down the road, or cycle quickly to the nearest little shop for a packet of Super Crisp chips. As a parent now, this horrifies me. Kids! Alone! And not just alone in the house, but alone in public, on a road, on a bicycle! No adult knew where we were! Someone could have kidnapped us in a second, or knocked us off our bike and stolen it or just plain harassed us. The fact that this didn’t seem to be such a big problem twenty-something years ago says something very sad and important about how the times have changed, but also about how parenting has.

The world is much less safe, that is for certain. Even when we were small there were friends and cousins who weren’t allowed to walk down the road, in a group, to the park but they were the minority. Now we daren’t let kids play in a wading pool without an adult within two feet of them. Going to the park together is out of the question. What happened between our parents and us to make us such anxious parents? What happened to turn us, children raised by fairly relaxed parents, into nervous, label-reading, water-testing parents?

The internet, first of all. There really is such a thing as too much information. I don’t want to know about studies that say kids don’t really need to drink milk, and then another one about how the MMR causes autism, then yet another one that says that was all a big hoax. I don’t want to know about the horrible food colouring in the candy I let my kids eat once a week anyway. I really, truly don’t want to see photos of McDonald’s that doesn’t decompose over fifty years or all the impossible cupcakes that look like Cookie Monster on Pinterest. Oh god. It’s an onslaught of information about things we cannot really change, and it’s no wonder it is driving us nuts. Our birthday parties were balloons, a cake, some jelly and pin the tail on the donkey. Everyone’s birthday was like that, so nobody felt like a left-out loser if they had chips instead of jelly, or their donkey chart-paper looked more like a misshapen mouse than a beast of burden. But this is the price we pay for living in a global world. We’re connected to all sorts of things from all kinds of cultures and economies and we’ve been utterly sucked into wanting to belong to a world we don’t have to. Birthdays are extravaganzas now, curated in loving detail for kids who don’t particularly care as long as there’s cake and a goody bag. It’s all for us, the parents, who are anxious to make our kids happy and shield them from sadness and harm.

All parents want to protect their children, but our parents didn’t curate our lives the way we do for ours. We didn’t get treats all the time and there was no question of back-chat with any adult. We didn’t have that many choices because our parents didn’t give us many—they were the boss of us (and continue to be, in all honesty). Their primary parenting motivations were to make sure we were healthy, decently educated, clean and had good manners. The rest was extra. Happy didn’t factor into it, it came with the territory. Sometimes you were happy and sometimes you weren’t, and our parents didn’t make a huge song and dance about it. So now there is us, and we are over-informed, swamped by articles and essays and social media that tells us all kinds of contradictory, often unverified and mostly staged “truths”, and each one knocks us for a six, because we want to desperately to shield our children from the undeniable harshness of reality these days. But the terrible truth is that we can’t, any more than our parents could before us.

We can’t protect our kids from the bullies their whole life. We can’t protect them from Big Pharma because they need hepatitis vaccines whether we like it or not. We can’t ensure the vegetables will always be organic, or the water 100% clean. What we can do, however, is to realise that our parents’ goals were pretty solid ones. It’s all right if the kids don’t get ice cream every day or they don’t go to every single party. We can’t afford to raise selfish, entitled children because the world needs, now more than ever, empathy and kindness to battle the hatred that is festering all over the world. The only thing we can truly protect them from is having mean spirits and cruel, venal hearts. We want the best for our children, but that will only ever truly happen when we cultivate the best in our children.