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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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A Delicate Balance

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As long as the world exists there will be cause for concern. There will always be people treating each other badly, leaders using extraordinarily poor judgment, and exasperating public sentiment. It is tempting to become mired in the infuriating or insipid. But it is not advisable. Most people, unless they fall into the sociopathic spectrum, care about the world around them. Some of us are more inclined to empathize with the natural world; some consider human rights their bailiwick. There are others who are more meta in their concerns and look at the world as a whole and think; OMG! Whether you choose from column A, B, C or make your own hodgepodge, it’s crucial to keep perspective.

There are people who dedicate their entire lives to affecting change. Their work, lifestyle and every waking moment are spent trying to eradicate something. Most of us however are not chaining ourselves to trees or sleeping outside of the Supreme Court. We do what we do; write checks, canvass voters, write elected officials, participate in protests, adopt strays; and hope it makes a tiny difference. We talk about what’s important to us in the hopes of raising consciousness (and with the fear that silence=complicity.) We teach our children about our politics and social values in the hope that they will be engaged and do good work. But just a small step beyond this lays the tricky territory. Thanks in no small part to our 24-hour news cycle & group think of social media, we can easily become mired.

We know this is more likely to happen during any type of disaster (“disaster” for our purposes is defined as anything that is named and given a news show graphic.) Rarely is there any “news” after a disaster, but the coverage churns on. When the last of the confetti has been swept, the media rolls out the “how to talk to your kids about (insert disaster moniker)” “Experts” tell us how to speak to children of every age (hint: make it age-appropriate.) Nobody ever seems to question how a child would know of this disaster. Unless the child is directly affected by it, why is anyone exposing them to the incident? We run the risk of having our child think of the world as a frightening unpredictable place. There’s no reason for them to know that just yet. Let them wait until they’re big and strong and feel less vulnerable.

Disasters aside, dismal things are always happening and as adults we must find our way. We must walk away from the chatter and toward meaningful conversation. We need to know our limits and put down the paper or remote. We need to decide how much is too much and find our balance of engagement. Life is more multidimensional than simply repairing the world. Life includes relationships, celebrations, and pleasure. It doesn’t help anyone or anything to compromise these gifts of life. What point is there in repairing a world in which there’s no joy?

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2013 in Well-Being

 

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Texting While Parenting

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Technology is altering the very fabric of society and eroding the parent/child connection!! At least that’s what you’d think by scanning media. Phones: smart, cell, land, and rotary have changed everything about how we communicate!! It’s true; you know what also changed communication; the written word, the printing press & going a bit further back; speech. But the children! They are attached to their screen. Yes, as they were once attached to their comic books, and paperbacks. Okay but what of the parents? Parents are often on their smartphones/tablets while in the presence of their child. Shudder. Grown people are actually reading, writing or talking on the phone before their child leaves for college?!

At first glance a parent pushing a stroller while texting or chatting is a bit disconcerting. But that’s more to do with what was once a private behavior is now public. All our mothers talked on the phone. Some of our mothers threatened dismemberment if interrupted. (“There better be a LOT of blood if you’re interrupting me!”) Talking/texting while parenting publicly just takes some getting used to. Like girls styling their hair in a crowded restaurant. Over your food. There’s very little private behavior left. So once we just get onboard with that, what in the world could possibly be troubling about an adult being an adult in the presence of their child?

In this age of parenting as guerilla sport it’s actually refreshing to see a grown person engaged by something beside their child. A parent not utterly consumed by his/her child makes for a much better parent (perspective is everything.) For the child, it is imperative that they experience their parents as something beyond their appendage or magic genie. Learning to do things on their own, even the simplest things is what plants the seeds for strong roots. Remembering to pack their lunch or do their homework teaches competence, responsibility and creates self-esteem. Being left to one’s own devices in social situations not only develops coping mechanisms but also gives the child the freedom to experiment. Attending birthday parties or summer camp with a parent in tow stifles creativity. Children, particularly in early adolescence like to try on new selves. It’s hard to improvise with your choreographer in tow.

So enough with the demonizing technology. Parents do not need to focus on their child every waking moment. They need to be engaged and present which is not the same at all. Teaching a child right from wrong, how to be a good member of society and how to be a functioning adult has nothing to do with being emotionally and physically available 24/7. Seeing one’s parent engage with other adults (outside of a pee-wee soccer match) is important for a child. Being on the phone signals to a child that mom/dad has a life beyond the playground. (This is critical for parents who take their vacations with their children, dine out with their children and/or sleep with their children.) If children do not see adulthood as somehow more privileged or better than childhood, why grow up? So pick up the phone or tablet and read, write, chat. If anyone dares give you the evils or heaven forbid verbally criticize you, have at it. Perhaps you could hold up the tablet & remark; “Such a pleasure to be able to read again! All that smoking & drinking while pregnant meant I didn’t have a free hand!” Or I suppose if you’re a better person than I you could just hold up the phone & ask; “Did you need to make a call?”

 
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Posted by on June 24, 2013 in Childhood

 

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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

 

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And Pre-K For All

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“Pre-K for all!” As rallying cries go it’s a bit sweet and conjures up some pretty adorable images: Tiny people with finger painted signs toddling their way to Capitol Hill. It’s an expensive proposition but one that is difficult to argue. “It’s for the children!” “Children are our future!” You know the rest. But beyond the sentimentality and cynicism is the truth. The world has changed tremendously and we need to catch the hell up.

It is no longer the norm that small children spend their days with a parent, and it hasn’t been for quite some time. Childcare can be expensive and uneven in quality. Some toddlers are deposited in front of a television set for 8-10 hours and some are learning Dvorak on miniature violins. Of course these childcare discrepancies always existed. But there was a time when 5 year olds from every background arrived at kindergarten to start from zero together. Kindergarten (often held for 1/2 days) was for cutting, pasting, coloring, letter learning and learning to stand in line and raise one’s hand. There was story time and maybe some music and snack. Today’s Kindergarten is a bit more serious and most likely an all-day affair. The academics start much earlier than years past.

The day is spent learning letters, numbers, science, social studies, and yes, standing in line and hand raising. What was once an entire year consisting of an easing away from the home and into the world is now much more like the real thing. It’s understandable, there’s an awful lot to learn after all. In the past Kindergarten might have been the first time little people spent their day with other little people. (Socialization is serious business.) It makes a great deal of sense to beef up this precious year of public education. We know that early education makes an impact on life long learning (the good people of Sesame Street ran with that ball 40 years ago.) We also know that children come from vastly different backgrounds and opportunities. Those who can afford it or are fortunate to live in states with it, are already sending their tykes to pre-Kindergarten. Public education, despite its ideals, is not equal. Some schools are far superior to others. Some parents are far savvier than others. Any moves we can make to democratize education¬†and prepare children for life long learning should be supported and applauded. I join those little people carrying the finger painted placards in setting down my juice box, and putting my hands together for universal pre-K.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2013 in Childhood, Education

 

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