Monday, December 14, 2009

Paranoid Parenting

A couple weeks ago, Time magazine ran a cover story entitled "The Case Against Over-Parenting". (,8599,1940395,00.html) Most Friday afternoons when I pick up the mail, I quickly toss out the junk mail, (pretty much anything without a first class stamp), look futilely for anything personal, file away the bills and glance at the cover of Time. The cover story is usually some hot button political issue that rarely draws me in immediately. (I have become such a news junkie that I am often on overload by the time Friday afternoon comes around.) But this headline grabbed me. I dropped everything and immediately read the entire essay, which was excellent. It is a well-written expose of the current generation of "helicopter parents" who hover constantly around their children. Most of us are all too familiar with this phenomenon and probably guilty of it to some degree. The focus of the article, however, is on the emerging backlash against over parenting, a growing rebellion against the "almost comical over protectiveness and over investment of moms and dads". Time received more letters on that story than on any other story posted that week and the responses ran ten to one in favor of the article. It's about time!

Like most Americans of my generation, my six siblings and I grew up in a household with a very different parenting dynamic than that which our children are experiencing. Make no mistake about it, my parents defined with painstaking clarity the limits of acceptable behavior and there were swift and significant consequences for our errant ways. But we were given the opportunity to prove ourselves within fairly wide physical boundaries that we navigated independently. However, we clearly understood that our personal freedoms were a function of our personal responsibility. As most of our peers had even greater latitude, we thought our parents were hovering too much.

When Emily was a newborn and we were preparing to leave the hospital, I anxiously looked around for the supervisor who would assess our abilities as parents and authorize us to take her home. I was sure we could not just leave and take her without some kind of permission slip. But our only parting words came from a lovely German nurse named Helga who offered this profound advice: “Love the baby. You cannot spoil the baby with love.” As simple and obvious as it seems, we took it to heart. We made a lot of mistakes but we seemed to have enough wins to offset them. Of course, we also got caught up in the whirlwind of sports, school and social activities and our kids have far less control over their daily lives than we did as children. But we are ever mindful that ultimately our goal is to not raise children but to raise adults, to not only deliver them safely from their childhood but to release upon the world three amazingly talented, resourceful and responsible individuals.

Shortly after the Time article ran, Al and I were chatting with a young couple expecting their first child. They are everything you could hope for in future parents. They have a strong marriage and an obvious respect for one another. They are smart, personable, fun and responsible. They both come from in tact families of origin and have great childhood memories. They made a thoughtful decision to have a child and they are very excited about beginning this new chapter of their lives. They are also terrified. She has a stack of books on her bedside table, mostly gifts from well-intended friends and family, outlining everything she needs to learn about being a “good” parent. She felt the challenge seemed almost insurmountable. My only advice to her was to put the books away and use them as occasional reference rather than for daily consultation. Yes, there are those who need real instruction to be effective parents. But two loving people with common sense and good intentions should not be shamed into adopting a parenting style that is finally being called into question. Over parenting takes child rearing to a logical extreme and risks delivering into adulthood a generation that is ill prepared to fend for themselves.

In 1981, David Elkind published "The Hurried Child" in which he warned of the dangers of accelerating a child's academic learning in advance of the development of his cognitive abilities. Parents were undeterred. As more and more children started dazzling us with their seeming academic brilliance at younger and younger ages, the fear grew that our children would be left in the dust if we did not push them toward the same early successes. Perhaps in our effort to foster scholastic achievement and how it reflected on our own parenting prowess, we relaxed our expectations on the development of personal autonomy and responsibility. "You just focus on school, sweetheart, and we'll take care of everything else." We handpicked our children's friends and scheduled and supervised their play dates. We arbitrated their interpersonal conflicts and made sure every child had equal access to resources, often negating the need to negotiate, compromise and share. Our children never went anywhere without a responsible adult -- with the appropriate background paperwork in order -- and we armed them with cell phones with GPS so we could track their every move and always be in touch with them. No one stayed after school any more to play with friends and we closed rank against those reckless parents who allowed their children to walk home alone. Clearly, the best parents were the most protective parents who sacrificed everything for their kids. The peer pressure among parents can be intense, leading to a gradual cultural shift from raising responsible adults to forever managing children.

So, join the rebellion and stand up to the forces that dictate that we supervise and manage every waking moment of our children’s lives. We have to learn to distinguish between when they really need us versus when we are obstructing their development. Our kids can learn perhaps even more on their own than they can with us hovering over them.

Monday, December 7, 2009

My Last Christmas List

It is amazing the lengths to which some of us parents will go to create and perpetuate the legend of Santa Claus for our children. Starting with Emily as a toddler, we eagerly filled her head with stories of Santa's midnight ride on Christmas Eve, the elves toiling away in his workshop and the importance of being a good girl. There were lots of presents under the tree the night before Christmas, but those were all from Mom and Dad, some for our family and some for extended family and friends. They were all carefully wrapped in several coordinating papers with curled ribbons and colorful gift tags. Santa's gifts, always wrapped in different paper after Emily noticed one year that he had the same gift wrap that we did, did not appear until after all the kids were asleep. Like most children, our kids had a hard time falling asleep as they were filled with anticipation for the next morning. Emily was especially restless because she was a bit freaked out by the thought that a fat man in a red suit was going to soon be shimmying down our chimney. We had not considered that side effect of our subterfuge. Once they were all finally asleep, we dragged out Santa's presents from their many hiding places. We would set out the plate of milk and cookies, making sure to spill a little milk on the plate and to leave bite marks in the cookies. Al drafted a letter from Santa to the kids, complimenting them on their accomplishments of the past year and thanking them for being so good. In one letter, Santa apologized for taking a banana for his hungry reindeer. Al threw the banana peel onto the roof as evidence of Santa's petty pilfering. The kids were absolutely mesmerized. When Joey was about 9 and beginning to doubt, Al showed him the NORAD website that tracks Santa's progress around the globe on radar. He was dumbfounded. If the US military believed in Santa, who was he to question his existence?

The Christmas list tradition began when Emily was about 6 or 7. She and Joey would scour the Toys 'r Us catalog from the Sunday paper. I told them that Santa would not bring them more than 4 things and had editorial discretion if their lists were longer than that. Furthermore, he would not bring anything of which we did not approve. Emily questioned how he would know. Without skipping a beat, I told her that I could write a letter to Santa just as easily as she could and that he and I communicated all the time. She was in awe of my inside track with the big guy at the North Pole. Joey and Jack have embraced the same rules of engagement and I have never received an unacceptable Christmas list.

The lists quickly evolved into an invaluable tool for this time strapped elf. The kids would cut out the pictures of the items they wanted and paste them to a sheet of paper. I taught them to include item numbers, prices and sale dates so Santa would know when was the best time to purchase that which he could not produce in his workshop. Christmas lists were due by December 1, leaving me plenty of time to go to and place my shipping-free order. As the years rolled on, the lists continued to evolve with the kids' improving usage of Word. I eventually was presented with full color laser printed lists, complete with clip art in lieu of cutouts. Last year, Emily did not make a list as she said there was nothing she really wanted. I still received lists from Joey and Jack. This year, I only have a list from Jack, age 11, and I am realizing that it will probably be the last one I receive. To a certain extent, I am ready to let go of the charade. It can be exhausting. But with its passing comes the realization that my kids are leaving behind childhood and one of its most memorable traditions. Intellectually, I am ready to move one, but it still very emotionally conflicting.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Billboards with Boobs

We went to the Laker game the other night at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Jack was very excited because the Lakers were hosting the Houston Rockets, who recently acquired Trevor Ariza, his favorite player, from the Lakers. Before the game, there was an emotional ring ceremony during which Trevor received his championship ring from last season. Jack was riveted and I was so moved by the intensity of his admiration for this player. Jack is an impassioned basketball player. He still plays baseball each spring, mostly to please his father, but his true love is basketball. He has informed me that he will provide for us in our retirement years with his big NBA salary. Thus, we encourage his love of the game. He spends many hours each week down on the driveway working on his jump shot. He has beautiful form and thinks that Joey could learn a thing or two from him. As Joey towers over Jack by at least a foot, he is not inclined to take him up on his offer.

The Lakers came out strong and quickly posted a commanding lead at the end of the first quarter. As I sensed the game was going to be a blowout, my attention started to wander and I began focusing intently on the Laker Girls. I realized that Emily is just a few years younger than most of these girls. As a mother, I wondered about the journey that had brought each one of them to this time and place and if they were satisfied with the fruits of their labor. During the pre-game activities, we had seen a video of their auditions, and the skills and talents they displayed impressed me. As I watched their live performance, however, I was underwhelmed. Although there was lots of "T & A", the routine was mostly boring and uninspired, resembling nothing more than a well-executed drill team. All those years of training and practice had culminated in this, the pinnacle of their careers, shaking and spinning in silver skirted bikinis.

After the first performance, the dancers trotted off court and headed to the locker rooms for a wardrobe change. They returned a few minutes later wearing shorts and black tank tops with some writing across the chest that I assumed said "Lakers". However, as they took center court for their next set, the multiple overhead video monitors lit up with trailers for "Ninja Assassins", some bloody R-rated movie due in theaters later that week. I realized that the script across the Laker Girls' shirts was actually the movie title. They were no longer dancing for the team, they were promoting a crappy action film that the critics described as "awash in blood" that "spurts and sprays in geysers". The dancers kicked their legs high, shook their big hair and flashed their beauty pageant smiles as the monitors rolled a relentless sequence of fight scenes and a ridiculous torrent of flying blades. I am sure I was not the only one who was stunned by this display of obvious incongruities but I held my tongue and waited for the game to resume.

At the start of the second half, the Rockets had cut the Laker lead to a slim margin and we had ourselves a real ball game. The Laker Girls returned in a new costume, some sci-fi looking leotard with a black body and bright yellow sleeves. I strained to see the writing on their backs, finally realizing that it said "Carl's Jr." At the next commercial time-out, the dancers again bounced out onto the floor, kicking and waving before they settled into formation, facing away from our seats. The lights dimmed and all the marquees in the arena flickered with "Carl's Jr." logos. A pulsating bass beat filled the center as the girls awaited their cue...5, 6, 7, 8. They sprang into action, lifting their heads and greeting the fans across the way before spinning around to greet us. Now regarding them in full frontal, I was immediately drawn to the Carl's Jr. star logo placed strategically at the top of each of their pubic bones. “Fire crotch” was the first thought that came to mind. I looked around for a woman, any woman, who shared my disgust and finally spied an older mom a few seats away whose mouth was agape.

I remember being a freshman in high school the first time I saw the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders on Monday Night Football. Incredulous, I asked my dad when pro sports added cheerleaders. He had not seemed to notice them before I pointed them out, but reassured me that it was a fad that would never last. While professional cheerleading seems to be here to stay, at least it has less commercial origins in high school and college athletics. But with the newest mutation that I witnessed that night, commercialism seemed to have achieved a new low. These women were no longer cheerleaders or dancers, they were just billboards with boobs – “This space for rent”. I wondered if any of the dancers objected to being exploited by the sponsors so distastefully, or if they even questioned it. As the Lakers let the Rockets run off with the lead and the game, we slipped out before the final wardrobe change, never to know which lucky sponsor got the last dance.