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The Mulching Of Minors

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A father shared this observation of a friend’s 9-year-old in a restaurant; “She sat there for two, no three hours! In her seat, eating and being quiet!” This observation was jarring not for its narrative but for its delivery. His face and tone suggested he had seen a blue moon during a total eclipse of the sun. It’s always a wee bit awkward to be on the receiving end of something you don’t understand. It’s difficult, when you can’t relate or perhaps even understand the message to know how to respond. If you are graceful and socially adept you might smile and lightly yet rapidly change the subject. If you are somewhat more like, well like me, you might just let something wildly inappropriate fly from your mouth. But enough about me.

If you’ve never seen modern parenting in play, you know, like if you lived in a retirement community or a convent, you could still learn a thing or two by listening. Parents love talking about their children, just like gardeners love talking about their flowers. Even when they’re not talking about their own, or posting 35 photos of “dropping Madison off at camp” on Facebook, they’re sharing their parenting perspective. Take the stunned observation of the (above) father. If his own children sat nicely through a meal he might not have noticed the 9-year-old. If he felt it was valuable to teach a child how to be an enjoyable dining companion, he would simply assume that all children (who are old enough to be in a restaurant) know how to behave.

The point of parenting is to grow decent and strong adults. There are many diverse roads to that end. The values, perspectives and traditions of the parent should guide the journey. Being indoctrinated with parents’ political, social, religious, and ethical views is what gives a child roots. Structure, limits, expectations, and critical feedback are what makes a child blossom into an adult.

Typically a child of 5-years-old can sit still and understand the difference between public and private behavior. (That’s why formal education begins at age 5.) It’s a crucial part of a child’s socialization to expose them to the larger world. Keeping in mind the age appropriateness of the activity of course (bringing an 8-year-old to the ring cycle is endangering the welfare of a child.) The point of taking a school-age child to a restaurant (beside feeding them) is to expose them, in a controlled way, to the adult world. Teaching a child to; speak clearly to a waiter/waitress while looking him/her in the eye, ask for items to be passed, thank servers and observe adult conversation and financial transactions is the point of dining out with children. The child, learning and feeling confident about the adult world grows strong.

Learning that the adult world is something to aspire to, is how we fertilize children. Creating a world that is completely child-centric is not only a frightening burden of power but also an utter disincentive for growth. Children need to be heard and given the space to express themselves. But they need to do this in the protective environment that comes from stronger older people who know a thing or two about making a garden grow.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2013 in Childhood

 

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The City Of Love

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The news that France passed ‘marriage for all’ was delivered with jubilant footage. Members of Parliament cheering and tearing; there was hugging. It’s tempting to see France becoming the 14th country to legalize equal marriage as inevitable. Mais bien sûr! This is a country known for being far less rigid and puritanical than America. From a vantage point of 3,000+ miles France appears to be a more vivre et laisser vivre kinda place. This perception is distilled in mental images of Josephine Baker, James Baldwin (and just about every other writer found in any decent home library) finding a more agreeable way of life in France. The French, Parisians in particular, seem impervious to race and fluid when it came to sexuality. Sexual behavior and couplings seemed more akin to the pleasures of fine dining than a naughty or shameful undertaking. But is this live and let live kinda place actually for real? Have we, from 3,000+ miles, taken bits and pieces and formed an attractive if not entirely accurate picture?

Those hugging tearing politicians are just one image among many. Have you seen the violent protests and ugly worded signs? Have you heard the (translated) rhetoric? Much of the ‘anti’ argument (that has made the journey across the Atlantic) has centered on ‘the children.’ Almost without exception anytime ‘the children’ are invoked in an argument it is code for ‘no, look over here at this bright shiny thing.’ The children. That’s right, gay and lesbian French are fighting for their equality because of ‘the children.’ Opponents of equal marriage have declared that children need a mother and a father. That certainly makes for a nice sentimental placard but what does it mean? Are there no single parents in France (she says while spitting out her latte?) That’s pretty hard to fathom in a country known for being more lax about relationships outside of marriage. Are there currently no gay and lesbian households that include children? Doubtful, as some people come to relationships having already lived a bit. Without a law protecting equal marriage and the ability for both spouses to adopt a child, gays and lesbians will still parent. The children however will have less protection. It is remarkable in this day and age, when people are regularly parenting without benefit of marriage, that anyone would even attempt to wave the ‘one mother one father’ flag. No one, not any child expert, psychologist, sociologist or anyone would ever posit that a child is better served by fewer caring adults or instability. What children need most is a secure, stable environment in which the adults are focused on the care of the child. Denying their parents the right to marry or preventing the children from being adopted is simply not in the best interest of ‘the children’. That this or any argument is being made by a country known (to us) as being far more lax seems uncharacteristic.

It’s tempting to view an entire people as being cooler, thinner and far more adept at walking in heels on cobblestones than us. We’d like to imagine an entire country that sits down when drinking coffee, and not dressing their children in cartoon festooned garb. Knowing that there’s a place in which one greets the shopkeeper and ends every request with ‘if you please’ gives us hope. But there are manners (real or perceived) and then there’s real life. In real life the French aren’t that much different than us. Yes, they can do that scarf thing, and yes there’s the accent that can turn even a craggy old fisherman into Yves Montand, but when it comes to social issues, are they really that different? It is true that people of color, particularly artists, found an accepting home in France. But was that so much about French color-blindness as it was an appreciation for the arts or dare we say, Americans? When people of color moved into France in significant numbers troubles began to simmer. The 2005 riots were the result of a people of color feeling marginalized for quite some time.

Discovering that the land in which so much seems better, where the wine and bonhomie flow all day and into the night, is really not that much different than us is jarring but incredibly inspiring. It is a sign that Americans, with our baseball cap, sippy cup toting selves, with our puritanical views of sex and our discomfort with race, we too can pass a law that states that all people are created equal.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Everybody’s Fancy*

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Everyone is entitled to be the person they wish to be; adults, teens, children; everyone. As long as you are not hurting anyone, you can live your life exactly as you see fit. Society does expect some level of conformity of course, mostly to avoid utter chaos. We can stomp our feet or roll our eyes at the notion of conformity, but we look rather adolescent doing so. The world is large and diverse; there are a lot of us living on this relatively small planet. We make certain accommodations to ensure a modicum of tranquility. Nobody enjoys waiting on line but as a society we’ve decided it’s efficient. We’d probably prefer if the bus took us directly to our front door, but that’s not how a public bus works.

Public education is just that; public. No one person’s rights are more important than that of anyone else. Yet recently there was a report of a public school being pressured to behave otherwise. A transgendered elementary school student’s parents wanted her to use the girls’ bathroom. This arrangement worked until it didn’t. As the student got older there were parents (and perhaps girl students) who grew uncomfortable. A gender neutral bathroom was provided by the school, but the parents found this option ostracizing. Teachers and administrators had always used the (adopted) female pronouns for the student, which would indicate efforts of inclusion.

On the surface one might think; “They’re kids! Let them use whatever bathroom they choose.” But there’s a reason that bathrooms are divided by gender. Sometime around age 5 (otherwise known as; school-age) children become aware of gender differences. If we asked the parents of the transgender student they would probably recall their child expressing frustration at having boy parts (versus girl parts) at around age 5. Children develop a (healthy) curiosity about gender (both physical and social) at this age. Role playing games start around this age (ex. house, office, etc.) They often explore their own and other’s bodies. There’s nothing perverse about the curiosity. But like all behavior in children, it needs to be monitored. Children have much of the same physical anatomy they will in adulthood, but that doesn’t mean they should be engaged in adult behavior. They also have the physical ability to smoke and tie one on. But even the most precocious child is not equipped for adult situations.

It is easy to think of a child (at any age) feeling coerced and/or frightened by situations. It is also easy to imagine a bathroom frequented by children of all grades and unmonitored by adults. All kinds of things happen unbeknownst to adults in a school bathroom. This in no way is to suggest that a transgendered student is any kind of aggressor. Far from it. But why should a girl child be exposed to a biological boy child in the most private of ways? What if that girl child is significantly younger than the transgendered child? What if the girl child has been victimized at home? In other words; how are the rights of one student more valid than that of another?

The fact is that they are not. No one person is entitled to anymore than anyone else. Equal opportunity means just that; equal. Sticking to the bathroom motif; anyone who has stood on line for a public restroom because the people in the front of the line avoid the handicapped accessible stall, know this to be true. The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted so that people had equal opportunity, not so that there was a private unoccupied bathroom stall available at all times. Everybody’s fancy, everybody’s fine and everyone is equal. We need to accept (not tolerate) all people. We need to allow for all points of view. But we also all need to live together, and sometimes that means not getting every last thing one wants. Sometimes we need to consider how others are impacted by our behavior. Sometimes we need to use the private bathroom.

*Some are fancy on the outside.
Some are fancy on the inside.
Everybody’s fancy.
Everybody’s fine.
Your body’s fancy and so is mine.

Boys are boys from the beginning.
Girls are girls right from the start.
Everybody’s fancy.
Everybody’s fine.
Your body’s fancy and so is mine.

Girls grow up to be the mommies.
Boys grow up be the daddies.
Everybody’s fancy.
Everybody’s fine.
Your body’s fancy and so is mine.

I think you’re a special person
And I like your ins and outsides.
Everybody’s fancy.
Everybody’s fine.
Your body’s fancy and so is mine.

Fred M. Rogers (1967)

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique, Well-Being

 

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Making Babies

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Procreation has changed an awful lot in the past few decades. Do you remember Louise Brown? She was the very first ‘test tube’ baby (aka known as the result of the first successful in vitro fertilization.) Her mother’s story (splattered on every British tabloid) was an international shock. Would the child be normal? Should we be making people in a laboratory? Were eugenics far behind? What kind of person goes to such sci-fi lengths to replicate themselves? Even the Pope weighted in. Well, little Louise is 34 years old now and my have times changed. Medical advances have redefined not just how we make babies but when mothers can be made as well.

Thirty plus years ago a pregnant woman over the age of 35 raised eyebrows. The elevated eyebrows were less about impropriety and more about biology. “Geriatric pregnancy” is an actual medical term and has nothing to do with walkers or graying hair. The human body is designed to be at peak fertility and health before age 35. Specific gestational and delivery risks are more probable after this age. Medical advances have made it safer (through early detection methods) for older women to carry and deliver, but the risks still exist. Historically women over 40 have had children, often quite by surprise. It is not unusual for a woman to develop a (false) sense of infertility security at the start of menopause. But it is only in the last decade or so that women over 40, trying to become pregnant has become normative. It was as recent as 1995 that (actress) Jane Seymour made magazine covers and evoked national gasps by becoming pregnant (with twins) at 44. Public judgments were made about her vanity and sense of entitlement. “She’ll be over 60 when they graduate!” It’s rather unlikely that today such an endeavor would warrant mention let alone prompt a national discussion.

Celebrities (and regular folk) routinely become parents at an older age; often through elaborate intervention. A woman can use her eggs (if they are viable) or a donor’s eggs. She can use her own or someone else’s uterus. Sperm is easily and equally transferable. There are many means and methods of now creating people. It’s hard to imagine that any new configurations could possibly be discovered/invented. All of this progress brings its own host of issues. Medical ethicists must smack their lips and rub their hands together every time a surrogate is hired. What does it mean to create a population who may never know to whom they’re related? Will children grow up and marry their siblings? What does it mean when the eggs of a woman with cancer are frozen for future use? Do doctors have a medical (and ethical) imperative to determine any genetic component to her cancer before fertilizing the eggs? And while we have the ethicists in the room: should health insurance cover fertility expenses? Is replicating one’s genes and/or having a birth experience, medically necessary? If not, are only the wealthy then entitled to these means to parenthood?

And what of other means to parenthood? What is the (current state and) future of adoption? International adoption has become a bit trendy as a few celebrities publicize their children’s origins. But limits to these adoptions are imposed everyday. What of domestic adoptions? There was a time that celebrities regularly and publicly adopted locally out of need. Fertility, contractual obligations, marital status or state of marriage necessitated adoption. If celebrities are adopting domestically today they’re doing it quietly behind closed doors (as the surrogate signs over her rights.) There will never be a shortage in this country of children needing parents. Accidents happen, death happens, life happens; and children are left in precarious situations.

There is no one way or even right way to make a family. In fact often it’s the messiest and most complicated households that are the richest. However as we make these incredible medical advances in maternity let us not lose sight of what we want parenthood to be. Nurturing and guiding a human being is an incredibly rewarding endeavor. Giving a child solid roots and the freedom to fly is the greatest of gifts. How that child arrives into your home and life is immaterial.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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The Endurance Of No-Neck Monsters

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The squalling band of no-necked monsters in Tennessee William’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof makes their presence known. They screech and howl and run amok in an attempt to get on our very last nerve. And oh what a fine job they do. They evoke a mental “get the hell off the stage” audience response. They are to Cat what the Save the Soul mission band is to Guys and Dolls: a loud grating interruption of what we came to see. And that is the point. We are to experience those no-neck monsters, as do the primary adult characters. Their mother is a familial terrorist and her children are her weapons. It is a testament to Mr. Williams that his monsters still horrifying in the 21st century.

The 1950s (when Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was written) was a period known for “seen but not heard” children. Adults enjoyed a post-war life and children had their place, and that place was often upstairs in their rooms. Children were introduced to adults (whom they called by their surname) and were ushered out of the room/party. The manners and behavior of a child was a direct reflection of the parent. The fifties were nothing if not the exaltation of propriety. Manners and appearances mattered (which goes a long way in explaining girdles and white gloves.) For children this manifested itself in a clear understanding of limits. Adults belonged to the world and knew best. It was a frustrating but secure paradigm in which to grow.

Just imagine the shock of the 1950s adult (children did not attend the theatre) audience upon seeing those no-necked monsters. Those grating little characters were hauled out and scattered like confetti on a parade. There they are playing Dixie at the airstrip to greet Big Daddy (who reacts with the same horror/disgust of the audience.) There they are “performing” at Big Daddy’s birthday party to which adult friends have been invited. (Big Daddy voices our wishes and asks for an intermission.) There they are barging into bedrooms and demanding adults engage in play. And there they are repeating hateful remarks to their aunt. It’s enough to evoke a gasp. That it still does that today is remarkable.

Children are not sequestered today. In fact if anything the world has become theirs and adults are seen but not heard. Adults can often not be heard over the din of children in restaurants, theatres, museums and funerals. Babies and children are not so much integrated into adult lives, as adults are integrated into the lives of children’s. We’ve created retail empires for babies and children. Broadway has discovered the steady income stream of children and the white way is dotted with flying people and talking teapots. Infants and children unfamiliar with the term “indoor voices” are dining out at 7:00, 8:00 and even 9:00 PM. They don’t shy from the highest end restaurants either. A simple dress code of: No Pull-Up Pants would put an end to that; but we digress. The point is that the world has changed tremendously since Mr. Williams created those no-neck monsters. Yet they still have the power to horrify. That is partly due to the scenic background of their terrorizing. They are clearly in an adult environment. The house in which they are running rampant is stately; there is no great room, there are no toys. It is clearly adult space.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is about living and dying and truth telling. The struggles within and between the characters are fascinating. The children are a reflection of the vulgarity of their parents: Gooper and Mae (the least interesting characters in the play.) The no-neck monsters’ antics threaten to get in our way as we try to learn about the adults. But by the middle of the play they are gone. Put to bed (or out to pasture); they are gone and that’s when things get really interesting.

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique, Theatre

 

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