Category Archives: Childhood

Let The Punishment Fit The Crime*


When is a person simply too old to pull off a prison jumpsuit? Is an orange onesie, or perhaps a stenciled; “Property Of” best left to the young? When did older age become synonymous with harmless or pitiful? Age does matter of course. It is a biological fact that our reflexes, cognition and general health tend to decline as we age. But how does our responsibly for past acts diminish?

This week both a 94-year old and 89-year old man are facing prison time, and the reports of this fact are tinged with a hint of public shaming. Do decent people really lock up men who look like great-grandpas? (This thought by a culture whose predominate infrastructure for the elderly are nursing homes.) This perspective might make sense if our penal system was designed to prevent further criminal activity, but it’s not. In fact one could argue that a stint in prison is equal to a graduate education in crime. The intent of prison is punishment, and in a perfect world, rehabilitation.

Of course it’s always crucial that the punishment fit the crime. If an elderly person has committed a victimless crime or a crime of compassion, prison probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But if a 94-year old man is (allegedly) an SS commander and has gotten away with his crimes for 60 years? Well, for starters shame on us (and doesn’t it make all this current talk on immigration seem like child’s play?! Seriously! In the late 1940s and 1950s wouldn’t you think that there was some sort of heightened screening/security?!) By all reports this man is quite robust and has been living in Minnesota after not declaring that he was an SS officer upon entering the country. No kidding. That’s the reason given for his unencumbered pursuit of the American Dream: he didn’t say that he was in the SS. (Where are you when we need you Mel Brooks?) In case there are any hair splitters out there; it is alleged that he was a commander. That is, he was issuing orders to kill. I think we can agree that there is no amount of jail time that would be sufficient punishment but surely anything is better than nothing.

Probably the only thing that would make an 89-year old man who abused, neglected and robbed his centenarian mother seem not so bad is a Nazi officer. But that’s not fair; no one can really compete at that level. The 89-year old spent years fleecing and orchestrating his mother’s neglect. His resources and the legal system itself have delayed his punishment. What’s most relevant in his story is that he committed his crimes at great-granddaddy age. He was way past the discount movie ticket age when he embarked on his mustache-twisting plan.

So why is it exactly that we are supposed to be overcome with compassion for a man who committed some of the worst atrocities of our time and got away with it for 60+ years, and a man who committed his wretched crimes in old age? Which is it we’re to be rewarding exactly? Is it laudable to get away with something (let alone doing so for 6 decades)? Or is it that we’re impressed that anyone past retirement age can perpetuate a complex and brutal crime? There are a lot of people in prison who are not physically or mentally up to the challenges. If we really believe that prison is only for the strong and vital we have a lot of rethinking to do. If instead we believe that after a fair trial criminals should serve time, than that is what they should do.

*The Mikado – (1885) Gilbert & Sullivan

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Posted by on June 17, 2013 in Childhood


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House Party Rules


Graduation, prom and end of year celebrations are under way. Flowers are purchased, restaurant reservations made, and for many people living outside of a city, house parties are planned. For some families a child’s life is integrated and celebrated by extended family and friends. Adults gather and toast the graduate while bestowing generous gifts (which may very well be the point of the party.) For other households prom, graduation and end of year parties are populated by the child and his/her friends and acquaintances. These parties can be seen as a gift or reward for a job well done. Some parents simply prefer to know where their kid is and therefore allow/create a party. Whatever the motivation, there will be authorized house parties across this great land now and throughout the summer.

House parties can go well and be civilized, but that rarely happens by accident. In olden days perhaps the greatest concern a parent might have is that of destruction. We can all probably conjure a bit of household destruction that we witnessed/caused in our own youth. A broken coffee table or a car driving through the living room wall is nothing compared to incarceration however. Parents can and will be arrested for children drinking on the property. Whether you’ve got a great lawyer or bail bondsman the truth of the matter is that the cops are always a buzzkill. So before the first foot-long is even ordered create your party sanity strategy.

These are simply (though perhaps not easy) ways to ensure that no one will end up in jail

Size Matters
Invitation only is key (this was the case before social media as well)
You and your child determine the size of the party
Your child understands that when the party exceeds the limits the party is over

Only As Far As The Eye Can See
Determine what area of the house/property guests are allowed to use
This controls household damage & allows for adults to manage surveillance

Employ Chuck-E-Cheese Tactics
Adults accompany their children to birthday parties
Guess Who’s Coming To The Party? If you can not get every child’s parent there employ friends
Adults will periodically make rounds, mingle, smell breath & check bedrooms

There are teenagers who will balk at these guidelines and claim that he/she is not a child. The fact of the matter is that legally, yes they are children. And parents are legally (and morally and ethically) expected to protect the child, often from him/herself. A child who wants to be treated like an adult (and hosting a party is an adult endeavor) is expected to behave like an adult. Adults do not destroy each other’s property (outside of reality television shows) nor do they engage in behaviors that are verboten in a host’s home. A teenager who’s interested in having their friends get together and celebrate will not balk at these guidelines. A teen who was looking to make party history and get wasted will have some issues.

Teens break rules; it’s actually their job. They will push limits in order to learn their own limits. Our job as parents is to give them something to rebel against. A child without limits and whose parents are his/her best friend will have to go to some extreme lengths to test limits. That’s never a good thing. Coffee tables break, mistakes are made, none of it matters as long as the kids are all right.

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Posted by on June 10, 2013 in Childhood


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You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two*


One of the classic adolescent rebellions played out in homes around the world involves the interpretation of limits. Taking the car out at 12:01 AM is not technically driving at night. Having friends over to ‘study’ isn’t really having a party. The teen, having recently acquired the ability to discern shades of grey, knows exactly what they’re doing. They know that the intention of the ‘night driving’ restriction has to do with the dark and not the time. They know that they are not to have friends over when there is no adult present. But one can admire their commitment to the job of testing limits and tormenting parents. That is the point of adolescence (that and moving themselves and their packed bags closer to the front door). But what about full-grown people who engage in the same rule/law/ethics interpretations? How did they get stuck in an adolescent developmental stage and does it apply to all areas of their lives?

Does the president of the Academy of Arts & Sciences have her staff falsely claim her to have a doctorate on grant proposals, then dare them to pierce something? After stashing close to half a million dollars in an off-shore account does the U.S. Trade Nominee then swipe a twenty out of his mom’s wallet? As the Military Joint Chiefs of Staff defend their male dominated, hierarchical, and abstruse approach to sex crimes are they texting each other about getting with Senator Gillibrand? There are times when skirting the letter of the law and finding creative solutions is admirable. Many examples come to mind within institutions catering to the vulnerable. Hospitals are notorious for rules & regulations that may not always be beneficial to a patient. Social services agencies can at times be more rules than reason. Schools become increasingly rule-bound with every semester. We are often put in the position of reinterpreting or bypassing rules (or even laws) when the situation warrants it.

And this is when things get sticky. A mature adult with a sense of communal responsibility and an interest in the world should be able to discern between personal benefit and compassion/public good. Letting your dog off the leash in a populated park may make the dog happy, but mostly it makes you feel like a cool dog owner. Smashing the window of a parked car to rescue a dog from a sun-baked death is for the benefit of the dog. Both of these acts are against the law and only one poses a potential danger to others (the leash-less dog). We are continuously enacting laws or fines to encourage people to act decently. The very fact that we need to approach decency from the outside in is problematic. Parents everywhere will tell you how exasperating this is as they engage in it day after day after day. Time-outs begat no phone, begat no car begat grounding. Parenthood can at times seems like a progression of creative external incentives to do the right thing.

Isn’t the idea of adulthood that we’ve now internalized decency? Don’t we pull up our big boy/girl pants and realize all we have is our word and reputation? When we decide to lie (and lying is always a decision) about our credentials (on resumes, Linkedin, proposals, and in interviews) do we honestly think that no one will find out? Are we making a conscious decision to be seen as not just less qualified but a liar too? When we put money offshore, presumably having decided that we’ve already paid what we care to in taxes, do we not worry how that will be perceived? In essence the law that allows for this form of tax evasion is no different than many other less sexy loopholes. We all know that some level of corruption exists in enabling these rules and laws to exist. When we avail ourselves of a corrupt, personally beneficial act, we do so knowing we are harming others. That we teach our children (by our act) that this is a decent way to live is baffling. But that we can consider ourselves suitable for public office is simply loony. That we can look at military brass behaving abhorrently and hear the strains of ‘boys will be boys’ in our heads tells us everything.

Children will be children, it’s their job after all. And teens will be teens. But will adults be adults? What becomes of a society that is mired in adolescence? Impulse driven self-absorbed, risk tolerant behavior is very scary when it lacks parental oversight. Rules and laws have their place but they can’t take the place of conscience. Nothing can.

*Oliver (1960) – Lionel Bart

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Posted by on June 5, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique


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Testing K-12


Could it be? Yes it could. School testing seems to have turned a critical corner in New York. Testing is going beyond the No.2 pencil darkened bubbles. Teacher evaluation is now expanding to domains not suited to multiple choice or True/False standardized tests. Evaluations will now include actual classroom observations and assessment of meaningful classroom work (ex. research papers.) While no one is suggesting shredding those bubble sheets once and for all, this is progress.

This expanded evaluation including areas such as Kindergarten, art, gym and remedial curriculum forces us to ask valuable questions regarding intent and outcomes. Keeping the budget in mind (which one must always do in real life) we now ask ourselves what gym is really all about. Do we feel that an integral part of a child’s K-12 education should be mastering the rules of team sports? Should gym be focused instead on combating inactive lifestyle and obesity? Is gym the euphemism for all things physical and be the source of nutrition, health and puberty education? We can only form meaningful evaluation when we decide why it is we’re doing what we’re doing. The same is true for art in schools. If we decide that the arts (in all forms) supports and expands all areas of K-12 education than art evaluation must be integrated into all evaluations. If art class means making projects than the mastery of those projects should be evaluated.

These examples (gym and art) might initiate conversation about teaching skills versus innate talent. And that is good. For what is any achievement (academic or otherwise) than an amalgamation of innate talent and learned skill? A talent with language, math, abstraction, memorization or analytical thinking is at the core of certain classroom achievements. Having a visual/spatial, physical or musical gift is at the core of (what’s often considered) extra-curricular classes. Which begs the question why? If we believe in (Howard Gardner’s) Multiple Intelligences* (which by the spate of bumper stickers out there, we do) than why shouldn’t all areas of intelligence be equally nurtured and valued? If we believe that the role of public K-12 education is to prepare our children for their place in the world, our focus should be less about specific subjects and more about learning.

There are countries that are leaps and bounds ahead of the U.S. in science, technology and math education and that makes some people nervous. The truth is that there will always be learners who are drawn to science and math and technology can be taught (as anyone who has ever transitioned from a walkman to an iPod can attest.) The role of public education is not to compete with other countries’ strengths but to cultivate the strengths of its own students. Curriculum should not be reactionary and teaching approaches should be designed for the benefit of the learner. Creating critical thinkers, cultivating a love of learning, and providing a well-rounded education will ready graduates for their place in the world.

*Visual-Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, Mathematical

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Posted by on June 3, 2013 in Childhood, Education


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Put The Baby Down


Picture if you will a lovely restaurant: equal parts festive and posh, a place where you’re as likely to spot birthday celebrations as celebrities. The lights are dim, the tablecloth routinely brushed to hide your shame and the prices are calibrated to reflect all this. It’s a proper time of night to be dining; somewhere between post early bird special and post theatre. It’s late enough that generous amounts of skin and inebriation are on display. As are the babies. And by ‘babies’ we are not casting dispersions on the nieces/dates of men eligible for monthly federal checks and movie discounts. We instead refer to actual babies too young to sit, let alone eat solids. Why? Why are babies having their night feeding in an upscale restaurant (late in the evening)? The babysitter canceled at the last minute? Perhaps, but that would suggest that a babysitter was procured in order for the adults to have an adult experience. If that were the case, upon cancelation wouldn’t the take-out menus come out? It’s more probable that the baby makes three, in every conceivable way.

The particular baby in question was silent (to the point where someone who maybe had one too many french martinis would’ve thought it was a doll and the whole thing was a prank.) Yet the (assumed) father futzed and fussed over the infant seat throughout the meal. There were bottles, there was bouncing, there was picking up and walking about (for a silent baby.) There’s a pretty good chance that the person being comforted was the father. Not everyone is comfortable in social situations. There is quite a continuum between introversion and extroversion, and most people are a wee bit closer to introversion. Sometimes a little psychic or physical prop is all that’s needed to smooth the way. Smoking once served that purpose. One could take long breaks from patter with a drag a flick or a light. Drinking has always served that purpose (and many more.) Having a glass of champagne while dressing, meeting for a drink before dinner, or ordering a drink before dinner are all ways to smooth out the awkward edges. There are people who use their own appearance to distance themselves and/or gain comfort in social situations. Style can be used as armor or distraction or even take the place of conversation. A grown person who’s dyed their hair bright blue sends a message of “let’s just talk about my hair.” A person who’s dressed in baggy neutrals while toting a small person styled for her/his close-up, is saying “please just focus on my child.”

The child as “detractor” is at its roots more neutral than noxious. If we had to choose only one of two parenting approaches, focusing on the child rather than ignoring the child would win hands down. But somewhere past “focusing” on the child lies “using” the child and that’s just plain icky. Children are not accessories and should not pave the way for adults. Using your child to ease your social phobias is no more kosher than using your child to fulfill your waylaid dreams. Sure there could be other reasons that baby or toddler is at the restaurant, wedding, funeral (!) or dinner party. But it is challenging to imagine any explanation that is actually in the best interest of the child. Children (of any age) actually benefit from other’s care. Creating a fear of non-family members increases the odds that a child will ‘inherit’ social phobias. A babysat child learns that other adults are trustworthy and that the world is not comprised of strangers. The child gains knowledge and perspective from other adults, and the parent creates/maintains/nurtures his/her own identity and relationships, which is an important thing to model for a child.


Posted by on April 29, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique, Well-Being


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