Kick the Can: The Loneliness of Generation X Childhood

I enjoy the Generation X content across most platforms. It is funny, insightful, and nuanced.

Generation X childhood
Playground toy from my childhood that’s overgrown by neglect.

I was born in October 1970, so I am right in that solid Gen X era. The 70s were my childhood, the 80s my adolescence.

Yes, I often drank water from a hose.

Yes, my brother and I were left home alone from a young age.

Also, yes, we were left alone in the car, kicked out of the house on summer days with only our bikes, and ran the streets and wooded areas of our neighborhood like a pack of feral cats.

Yes, I am a cat lady so I actually have a pack of feral cats in my backyard now.  The analogy is real.

These Generation X experiences did force me to be tough, but mostly tough on myself. Climbing a ladder two stories to get in your childhood home when the door is locked and parents in absentia does not build character. It undermines the sense of security every child deserves.

Kids at that age should not be dealing with securing food, shelter, or other basic needs. We should not have been left to navigate the social order. The wry content is a well-honed mechanism for processing the trauma of the neglect and the larger world experiences. It creates a bond across shared experiences that we often endure on our own.

I watched a video from Generation X content creator Real Slim Sherry this morning, I realized that even though these are shared experiences many of us were often alone.

@therealslimsherri Happy Saturday GenX! Enjoy a little trip down memory lane. Saturday’s were the best days! #fypage #genx #genxkid #saturdayvibes #childhood #memories #adventures #nostalgia #throwback #70s #80s #replay ♬ original sound – Slim Sherri

It was her story about playing Kick the Can that got to me. I remember playing during languid summer evenings. The cast of characters varied, but it was the one unifying neighborhood tradition. A Generation X milestone.

I repeatedly hid in the same spot – behind the playhouse in the Findlay’s backyard. My reasoning was sound – it was close enough to home that I could use the bathroom.

In spite of the group of participants, it was a lonesome game mostly spent crouching in dark corners. I can only remember kicking the can one time, a heady experience indeed. Occasionally, I would let myself be caught so I could mingle with the other kids.

Saturdays were not dissimilar from the one Sherri lays out in the video. One difference for the Catholic kids is every other week CCD (Sunday School) between cartoons and freedom to roam.

In our neighborhood, girls paired off into BFF units. My BFFs kept moving away, so I rotated into the back-up friend role. Like Skipper or Midge.

So I was alone quite a bit. I did the usual Generation X activities, just solo. I rode my bike everywhere. I ran through the woods, searching for nooks where I would read a book. There was a cemetery to explore. I’d often sit on the historic wall (circa 1770) and read.

I moved in and out of packs, shifting my alliances. Who was willing to walk to the store? Who had permission to invite a friend to swim? Who was in a fanciful mood, willingly fusing Monopoly with the game of Life on my front porch? Who would simply allow me to be in their orbit for a day? I was a leftover kid.

I wonder how many other kids were lonely?

There were other kids, of course, but there was a distance between us. I can only think of a few who suffered the child neglect we experienced. Back in those days, kids and adults used more cruel words: no-good, shabby, poor, dirty, grubby, grungy, dirty, etc. I remember one neighbor whose kids grew up with us, but who never invited me into their house ever. She called us unclean.

I physically recoiled from that hurtful barb, simultaneously wanting to deny it while tucking it away on my list of reasons to loathe myself.

Another time, I was at a friend’s house with my younger brother. One of the big bullies pushed him as he climbed a fence, ripping part of his earlobe off. My parents rushed him to the ER. I was left in the care of my friend’s parents. The normal thing to do would be to just keep me overnight. Instead, they had me sit in the living room after their own children went to bed, waiting for my parents. I heard them whispering. It was hard to shake their condemnation.

Scared for my brother, I tried to understand their behavior. They provided shelter, but no comfort or kindness. He was okay. We still had to deal with the bully.

I spent most of my time alone, most of it lonely. Books were my refuge, I took books everywhere. When a new magazine arrived, I scooped it up and sought sanctuary. My bedroom, the tree in the backyard, a hidden nook in the woods. I was hungry, a lot, but I could feed my mind at my leisure.

I was surrounded by all of my peers in the neighborhood, the kids who knew my stories, kids from whom I could hide nothing so no need for artifice. There were around 30 of us born between 1967 and 1974 aka Generation X. Above us was an array of Baby Boomers morphing into Yuppies, while younger Xennials puzzled us with their needs.

None of the parents in my neighborhood were Boomers (1946-1964), they were the Silent Generation (1928-1945) and that’s an important distinction.

A key factor is that they carried the trauma that dared not speak its name into parenting. Both of my parents grew up under immense deficits. My mother survived childhood encephalitis, but it permanently wiped her short-term memory. My father was born into a horrific family dynamic. They struggled to get themselves to adulthood with nothing left to parent us. Both of their fathers had daughters with women who were not their wives, both abandoned those daughters. Both of my grandmothers were pregnant before their wedding – I question if that was a consensual choice in the late 30s and early 40s.

While these things are not, in my opinion, the worst (except for abandoning your inconvenient child and impregnation of younger women) the pressure to keep the secrets was palpable. Both of my parents died without knowing they had long-lost sisters.

They loved us, but they couldn’t parent. Other parents in my neighborhood seemed to lack that balance as well.

The other key factor is that Generation X is acknowledging and processing these traumas. Because we don’t want to treat our children like this. I decided not to have or raise children myself. Many of my childhood friends are in therapy or otherwise processing. They feel comfortable pointing out the pieces of our lives that were fucked up before we old enough to say fucked up.

The more I understand my parents’ experiences with trauma, the more I appreciate that they tried. My genealogy work has also opened my eyes to the concrete traumas endured by their parents (Greatest Generation) and grandparents (Lost Generation.) War, poverty, racial injustice, disease, and more. My greatest generation grandfathers both had affairs that produced children whom they abandoned, all after inpregnating their wives before marriage when that wasn’t a socially acceptable reality. That doesn’t sound very “great” to me.

I’d enjoy if my nephews (12 and 17) drank from the hose and that they can prepare their own meals as needed. I’m grateful they don’t have to.


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