Let me start out by saying that I’ve never been pregnant, but that these foolproof tips are borne of years of observation and conversation. So give them a read and then go make a pregnant lady’s day.
1) Being touched by strangers
Did you resent learning to keep your hands to yourself in kindergarten? Well, you’re in luck. Look at that businessman on the train, wearing a suit and tie and frowning at his smartphone. Would he like it if you suddenly embraced him or caressed his tummy? No, of course he wouldn’t. But pregnant women are different. As soon as the bulge of that fetus is visible to you and me, her body is fair game, from the bathroom to the boardroom to the bus. Hands on!
2) Temporal judgments
A pregnant woman is particularly attuned to the passage of time – just listen to her obsess about the first, second and third trimesters. That means she’s also anxious to hear your unsolicited time-related verdicts. For example, feel free to ask her how old she is, and then follow up with any conclusions you may have on whether she is very young or rather old to be a mother. If you think she looks older or younger than she is, make sure she knows it. And remember, once you’ve spotted her belly, what month and day that baby is supposed to emerge is information that you are entitled to. The mother-to-be will also appreciate your comments on whether her current size matches the current duration of her pregnancy. Does she look rather slim for 7 months or “ready to pop” at 6 months? Make sure she knows it!
3) Personal questions
Imagine that man on the train again – his tasteful striped tie and black leather shoes. Would he want you to sit down next to him and ask him his age, whether he feels sick to his stomach, and whether he has children, whether they’re boys or girls, when their birthdays are and what their names are? No, he probably wouldn’t appreciate it, but here again is the magic of pregnancy: gestating women love answering your personal questions. Remember: the propagation of the human race is every person’s business, and that includes morning sickness, the baby’s sex, due date and name, birth plans, and anything else you can think of. Remember: when a woman can no longer conceal the fact that she’s carrying a fetus, she owes you these answers.
4) Horror stories of labor and delivery
That pregnant woman sitting next to you wants to bond with you. Once you’ve ascertained that her due date is just a few weeks away, the best way to cement your relationship is to tell her about your sister-in-law’s cousin’s 43-hour labor and episiotomy during the blizzard of ‘93. Pregnant ladies enjoy these narratives, which fortify them for their own deliveries.
5) Your projected body image woes
Pregnant women are always ready to soothe your anxieties about their bodies. The last thing they want is for you to be stuck wondering if they’re pregnant or if they’re just packing some extra belly pounds, so feel free to ask them. If, because you were afraid they were simply fat, you’re relieved to find out that their rotund figure is due to an impending birth, make sure they know it. They love being reminded of their ungainly figures, and carrying a baby is the difference between hoping others mind their own business, and having an appreciation for being the subject of strangers’ bodily speculations.
Is there anything else pregnant women love? If I’ve missed something, please add it in the comments.
It seems that not everyone who gives birth to a child actually wants to spend all of her time with said child. Thank God for other people’s children, at least the teenaged ones. Need an evening out? Dial up a babysitter.
I began with mother’s helper kind of stuff when I was eleven or twelve, and babysat on a regular basis for several families in my town until I was 17 or so.
Enter a diabolically hyper four-year-old loose in a three-story house. I managed to dress the child in one leg of his red flannel footie jammies before the bedtime ignition. I stalked him up and down the stairs, on and off the beds, trying to stuff in another appendage each time the kid came to earth.
Some of my own babysitters had left strong impressions: stumbling to the couch to nap, feeding my brother and me as much ice cream as we could eat (or, on one memorable occasion, spoonfuls of icy, sticky-sweet orange juice concentrate right from the can), or telling my brother that vampires would come out of the woods to feed on his jugular if he did not go to sleep. I took my responsibilities seriously. I read stories, invented games, engineered blanket forts, went on walks and contrived experiments.
But while I was fond of all my charges, I never loved babysitting: the baths, the bucket full of bullfrog and pond water hitting the clean wood floor, the hurtling, half-jammied bodies. The children at one house, though they denied it, snatched raw cookie dough from the pan with the speed and accuracy of striking vipers. Meanwhile, the family dog had breath which could have been developed as a biological weapon of terror, the full blast of which he released on me after the kids tumbled, complaining of tummy ache, into their beds.
As I rediscovered recently in a Facebook thread from a friend soliciting advice on how much she should pay a local teen to babysit for her little boy, bedtime is an important consideration when calculating babysitters’ pay.
Part of the reason the discussion caught my eye was that though I haven’t babysat anyone for well over a decade, the pay mothers were suggesting last week was quite similar to what I used to get paid. According to the majority of comments, a 14-year-old girl babysitting a one-year-old for an evening was entitled to $5-$10 an hour.
I put the question out to my own peers – how much had they earned for teenaged jobs? About thirty people replied, describing employment from cleaning to filing to yard work, stable chores, data entry and bagging groceries. Most people reported earning minimum wage up through $10, $12 or $15 an hour for this work. But the babysitters, while a few of them said they made $10 or $12 per hour, generally made do with much less.
A couple twenty-somethings said they had typically made $5 per hour. Another said she had made as little as $2.50 per hour. And another said she was paid $3.50 per hour to babysit four kids, and $3.75 or $4.00 per hour for five kids. But for me, the kicker was that this girl also did office work for $6.00 an hour, and yard work for $8.00.
Why are babysitters paid so little? It’s something that has irked me since I was a teenager myself. People will pay you more to mow their lawn than they’ll pay you to watch their kids.
As my mom so wisely said as we discussed our respective babysitting days, “trying to rationalize pay scales in relation to jobs is really impossible.”
But in the case of your kids’ safety versus the state of your grass, it seems to me that it shouldn’t be that difficult to prioritize. I’m not saying we should pay the yard-work kids less. Rather, let’s pay the babysitter at least as much as we pay the kid mowing the lawn.
But it seems that for the last fifteen years at least, teenage girls (I am assuming that the vast majority of babysitters are girls) are used to accepting $5-$7 per hour, and sometimes less, for what is probably the biggest responsibility the average person of that age will shoulder.
Maybe it’s because I don’t have a natural affinity for children, but babysitting seemed like hard work to me. It was physically tiring, especially when there were multiple kids, and mentally demanding. The responsibility weighed on me: I remember sudden high fevers and at least one epic nosebleed. I got a book on first aid for children and studied it frequently, and took a babysitters’ safety course at the local library. I was certified in CPR.
This is why I’m not on board with the women who suggested to my friend that since her little boy is well-behaved, she could pay a babysitter a lower rate. Again, it’s hard to objectively rationalize pay scales, and yes, some kids are harder to supervise than others, but I don’t like this method of determining the babysitters’ pay.
Even the most seemingly well-behaved kid could throw a tantrum – or unwittingly make a huge mess – once Mom is out the door. But more importantly, whether the kid is an angel or a hellion, the babysitter’s responsibility for the kid’s health and safety is the same. Parents should not justify paying a sitter less because they think their kids are well-behaved. If the child chokes or hits her head or reacts badly to a bee-sting, that sitter’s knowledge and presence of mind could mean life or death. Is that really worth only $5-$10 an hour to modern parents?
Some parents believe that having the sitter there after the kids are in bed should correspond to a lower pay rate.
My advice-seeking friend decided that she could settle on a rate lower than the general $10/ hour consensus (even though she says she thinks that babysitters are generally underpaid) because the sitter “only has him for two hours awake…and then about five hours watching TV.”
A friend backs her up on the lower pay rate: “she’ll be paid for watching TV pretty much.”
Worse, another friend weighs in with a different solution: “I have a friend who pays one rate when the kids are awake and another while they are sleeping.”
Excuse me, but what the hell kind of parental cheapskate thinks that the teenager watching over their children alone late at night deserves a lower rate because the kids are sleeping? Surely any parent knows that sudden illnesses can strike just as easily at night as they can during the day. Not to mention kids who might need comfort after a nightmare or become upset and disoriented to wake up without their parents near.
Do you want your babysitter to feel that her responsibility level is reduced after-hours, just because the kids are sleeping? When I have kids (yep, that’s right, I’ve written this treatise on hiring babysitters when I have no kids of my own), I will certainly hope that my babysitter is just as alert in the evening as she would be during the day, and I’ll pay her accordingly.
And what’s this attitude that assumes teens are looking forward to an evening staying up late alone in your living room? Sure, I remember lots of peaceful nights from my own teen years. I’d get the kids to bed uneventfully and pop in a VHS, read a book, or do homework, checking periodically on the bedroom, until the parents came home.
But there were other times that after-hours babysitting was far from fun. Sometimes (especially troublesome in the days before cell phones) parents came home much later than they’d said they would and I’d be struggling to stay awake, wishing I was home in bed, while my own parents surely were listening for me to return. On one memorable occasion babysitting at a very isolated house on a totally black night, a sudden loud banging at the back door terrified me (and the dog). Of course everything was locked up. I peered out the doors and windows to see if someone was out there. All I could see was the frosty, silent yard, with the woods on one side and a deep grassy field on the other.
When the parents came home, they said that maybe a skunk had come out of the woods and made the noise.
Sure it did. (To this day I wonder why they settled on a skunk.)
I’m not a fearful person by nature (one day I’ll tell you about my many nights at Eastern State Penitentiary with all the lights turned off). But anyone can get unnerved alone at night in a strange setting. Don’t assume your teenaged sitter is having a great time just because she can sit and watch TV.
So that’s why I’m sad that parents are still willing to pay teens $6, $7 or $8 per hour to take care of the kids, while implying that the job is low-key or easy if the kids are sleeping or well-behaved. Part of me wonders whether we’d have such persistent problems with the disparity between men’s and women’s pay in the US if teenage girls felt as if they could ask for a fair wage for babysitting, while the boy mowing the lawn earns twice as much. Maybe that’s far-fetched, but as I explained in a post earlier this year, I think your work experience as a teenager can have a lasting effect on your career. Who’s to say that the youthful habit of accepting $5 per hour (or less) to care for someone’s kids doesn’t affect a woman’s future ability to demand fair pay on the job?
I wish teen babysitters could be paid at least $15-$20 an hour, as a token of how important their responsibility is.
But I can hear the apoplectic parents now. How could they possibly afford to pay $40, $60 or even $80 just for babysitting every time they go out? I know a lot of families are strapped for cash. But I bet many of them have smart-phones and multiple TVs and two cars and iPads and a premium NetFlix subscription. I doubt many middle-class women balk at occasionally paying $40 or so for a nice blouse or sweater. Isn’t your kids’ wellbeing worth at least as much as a new outfit?
Maybe earning those few dollars for toting someone else’s kids around is an important rite of passage that teaches our teenagers a little hustle. If minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, maybe there’s nothing wrong with paying our babysitters a similar rate.
But it still seems to me that the low pay for babysitters is a legitimate part of a troubling tradition in our country: underpaying our teachers and child-care workers, while hedge fund managers and sports stars and advertisers and politicians are rich beyond most people’s imagining. Our treatment of the people who care for our children is a telling indication of our country’s true priorities.
Even as I write this essay, I’m afraid that I’ll desperately want to eat my words as soon as my husband and I decide to reproduce. A trustworthy teenager willing to watch our tot for a pittance will probably seem like the salvation of our marriage, sanity and bank account all at once. So maybe I’ll wish I’d never written this, once I can actually relate to what it’s like to try to plan a night out when you have a young family.
But I still hope that when it comes time for me to hand my baby over to a high-schooler, I can pay her a rate that will signify how much I value the work she’s doing, and how important it is that she stay alert.
Parents, what is your experience? Babysitters, does what I say ring true?
Perennially controversial comic Sarah Silverman touched a nerve this week in a TV interview that set off a new round of commentary on modern parenting. The Week magazine rounded up the perspectives under the online headline “Is it irresponsible for the depressed to have children?”
Silverman, who has flouted the American habit of keeping quiet about personal struggles with depression, announced that the trouble has led her to decide that she doesn’t want biological children.
While she says she’d love to adopt, she says she won’t have biological children because she fears passing the trouble on to them. “I know that I have this depression and that it’s in my family. Every family has their stuff but, for me, I just don’t feel strong enough to see that in a child.”
Commentators, including contributors to the websites Mommyish and Jezebel, conceded that the choice to have children (or not) is a very personal one that, in general, should not be impugned by outside parties. Writer Anna Breslaw sympathizes with Silverman because of her own experience with depression. Since the latest science does indeed point to the fact that depression has a genetic component – people with immediate family members who suffer from depression (especially repeated bouts) apparently have an off-the-charts risk of developing it themselves – it’s not unreasonable that people who have experienced depression should think twice about conceiving somebody new.
Kudos to Sarah Silverman for talking openly about depression, and promoting adoption. But immediately after reading the commentary on her interview, I strongly felt that I had to speak up as a person who has suffered from depression on and off for about twenty years and still wants to start a family.
Fears of burdening our children with depression are a valid topic, but I’m afraid that this debate about whether or not depressed people should have children oversimplifies a lot of the issues.
I can’t speak for other people, but I can comment on my own long history with this terrible problem. Nowadays kids are stuffed with all kinds of drugs at the first sign of melancholy or distraction, but when I was a kid in the eighties and nineties, depression was not necessarily a diagnosis that parents and pediatricians were on the lookout for in very young people. But having carried cycles of the same devastating feelings from grade-school to my senior year of high school (when I saw my first psychologist), I know without a doubt that I was depressed as a young child.
The first major bout of depression that I distinctly remember (defined in retrospect, of course) was at about ten or twelve years old. Since then, I’ve cycled in and out of pretty severe depressive phases every two or three years, alternating with a fairly relentless case of generalized anxiety disorder. So I suppose that by the dictates of modern science, that makes me a pretty high-risk future parent.
By now, the symptoms of my recurrent depression are as familiar as a head-cold. My habitual anxiety loses its grip to a listlessness that infuses everything from my marriage to my work. Everything seems strangely drab and the things I usually enjoy, like writing, seem pointless. Whether it was school-day classes back then or days on the job as a journalist now, I feel a distinctive mental fuzziness and drift, as if I’m a hologram of myself and not really part of whatever’s happening around me. I find it difficult to maintain my customary focus during interviews, and articles that I can usually wrap up in an hour become a day-long effort. Putting my fingers to the keyboard feels like trying to touch the wrong ends of magnets together.
The thoughts that accompany these changes are as stupid and pervasive as reality TV.
I’m a failure.
The world would be a better place without me.
I’m always going to feel this way.
My joints ache as if I’ve got arthritis, I skip meals because I can’t muster the energy to cook or eat, and I don’t call or message anybody unless I have to. It all lasts several weeks at least.
I’ve been on lots of medications over the years, but I never saw noticeable improvement from any of them. Their most notable effects on me seem to be the flat-lining of my remaining mental and physical faculties and a burgeoning obsession with suicide.
Other people may find the antidepressants helpful and that’s fine. But now I stick to therapy.
One reason the don’t-have-kids-because-you’re-depressed viewpoint worries me is that it reduces depression to a factor of our genes.
The first problem with that is even if you’re genetically predisposed to depression, it’s not a guarantee you’ll suffer it. Secondly, “genetics” is increasingly becoming the answer of choice for so many disorders, when we really should be considering a range of environmental or situational factors in addition to our bodies’ hard-wiring.
When I was first diagnosed with depression, practitioners emphasized to me that I should view it like a medical illness that I have no control over. A big part of depression is undoubtedly rooted in our brain chemistry, so there is merit to this view, especially given the unfair stigma that depression sufferers continue to face from luckier citizens who believe that, given the willpower, one can just “snap out of” those desperately blue weeks, months or years.
But now that I’ve lived with bouts of depression for many years, I would say a key to managing it is realizing that, like many illnesses, there are measures you can take that make you more or less susceptible to its ravages.
Just as diabetics or heart patients or those with certain auto-immune disorders can avoid foods, lifestyles or activities that exacerbate their symptoms, folks vulnerable to depression should realize that their environment and actions can hurt or help.
My secret to managing those dark bouts is to keep working no matter what. That might not be right for everybody, but forcing myself to focus and be productive, even when it seems impossibly hard, keeps my demons at bay until some light seeps back into my existence, as it usually does after awhile, often as the winter turns to spring.
I am not at the mercy of my depression as a dictate of my genetics. It can be managed like a chronic illness. An awareness of having climbed up out of the depths before eventually helps me remember that the worst phases aren’t permanent. I try to dwell on this instead of dwelling on the hopelessness.
This is not to say one can simply wish oneself out of a depressive episode. And my experience may be milder than others’. But whether it’s you or your kid, I don’t think anyone should sit back and say, well, it’s just a matter of genes. The truth is somewhere between your genetic destiny and the environment and lifestyle you cultivate.
But I’m worried that that middle-ground truth is getting trampled if we declare that depressed people shouldn’t be passing on their genes.
Besides, what makes depression so special? We’re hardly calling for people with a family history of cancer or diabetes to eschew child-bearing. Speculating on depression as a worthy reason for not having a family, when you’d want one otherwise, just seems to increase the disorder’s stigma.
“Sarah Silverman Considering Adoption Makes Me Respect the Crap Out of Her” is the headline of Alexis Rhiannon’s piece on Crushable.com. Silverman’s comments on depression are part of a larger discussion on her support for adoption.
What I hope folks realize, as they debate her comments on adoption in light of her depression, is that adopted kids don’t have a blank genetic slate because you didn’t birth them.
Adoption is a fabulous thing. My own mom was adopted in infancy. But I don’t think parents who adopt should do so assuming that their kids will then be free of problems. That’s a glib, de-humanizing view of adoptees, in my opinion. Everyone is predisposed to something. If you choose to try to avoid whatever medical boogeyman runs in your family, who’s to say something else doesn’t run in your adopted kid’s genes?
I accept that any kid of mine will have a heightened risk of depression. I hope that with sensitive and empathetic parenting efforts, I can recognize the signs and, with the help of my own experience and caring professionals, get my kids the help they need, just as I would if it turns out they have asthma or celiac disease.
I dislike the implication that life can’t be lived with depression. I and millions of other people prove every day that it can. Like other illnesses, it has many dark days. But even if it’s recurrent, as my condition seems to be, it’s not insurmountable – whatever society says about people who are depressed. While I still fall into some pretty bad places sometimes, the bouts of depression I have now do not last as long, and are not as intense, as the ones I had a decade ago. I think awareness of my weaknesses, as well as my strengths, in addition to productive coping strategies, help over time.
If we took everyone who was ever depressed out of the world’s history, we’d lack for some brilliant writers, artists, thinkers and leaders.
The stigma of depression is surely alive and well if, by the time we’re discussing its possible genetic roots, we’re suggesting that it is better not to be born than it is to be at risk for depression.
I don’t buy that. So my future kids can take their chances.
“We’re broke, we’re unemployed, we owe student loans, we’re living off our parents, we have degrees in things like English and Philosophy, we’re unprecedentedly narcissistic, and as if we couldn’t get any more charming, all the money we do have we spend on luxury goods: welcome to Generation Y, bitches!”
Millennials were born in the 1980’s and 90’s, though some people add in babies from the late 70’s and even the early 2000’s. I was born in 1983.
More stressed? Sure, I can buy that. If I stopped feeling anxious, I would probably get someone to check my pulse, to make sure I was still alive. Less religious? Yeah. In my experience, peers don’t say, for example, “I’m Catholic.” It’s always, “I was raised Catholic.”
Sometimes Millennials are branded as parasites who can’t launch their own lives, but squat eternally in their parents’ houses. If this is true of my generation (and I suspect that a long-term multi-generational household was not always the oddity that it is today in America), I say so what? Due to advances in medical care, our parents are all going to live until they’re 110. Guess who’ll be taking care of them? Let us stay in our childhood rooms awhile. It’s not like there’s going to be any Social Security left for us, by the time we’re caring for our parents. We should save while we can.
Other writers come down hard on Millennials as greedy for luxury goods and technology that nobody needs. iPads and the like have become standard equipment instead of fancy privileges. Here’s where I begin to get irked a little more. As ol’ Ford was rolling the first mass-market cars off the assembly line and Americans began to snatch them up, don’t you think there was an older generation somewhere tsk-tsking about the folly of such contraptions becoming commonplace when a horse and cart would serve just fine?
How about the members of the Greatest Generation who came back from the war and made suburban home-ownership the new American norm, and then, after getting educated in unprecedented numbers on the GI bill, began sending all their kids, boys and girls, to college?
I know it’s not necessarily the same as the hottest smart-phone or the high-end clothes Millennials are supposedly obsessed with, but the point I want to make is that every generation of the 20th century has probably begun purchasing something en masse that their parents wouldn’t have dreamed of buying. Why heap ire on the Millennials for doing the same?
Plus, if you piled up the dollars required to pay for a single undergraduate degree, the stack of bills would reach from here to Jupiter (according to the New York Times, US college grads now owe well over $1 trillion in federal and private tuition loans). Perhaps my peers and I have become inured to the impact of paying too much for things.
Sometimes Millennials get grudging praise for their entrepreneurial ways – apparently we’re more likely than older generations to take the risk of founding our own ventures. Some writers cast this as the logical result of growing up in the world of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, and the heady days of the 90’s dot com boom.
I say we should also consider that more Millennials are founding their own businesses because the moment they graduate with $100,000 degrees, they rightly perceive that the job market is a shit-hole and unless they conjure their own jobs out of thin air, the best they can hope for is a year-long unpaid internship.
And this brings us nicely to the thing that irks me most about Millennial stereotypes: apparently our narcissism is the only psychological characteristic that can be seen from space.
Generation Me! All we care about is our own money, comfort and fame. With the hand of a master conductor, each of us presides over an orchestra of social media, and each new day is a stunning crescendo of self-promotion.
Many people opine that it’s probably our parents’ fault: the “work hard and prosper” message delivered to previous generations somehow transformed to “you’re special no matter what!” by the time my peers and I were born. Our rampant self-centeredness is only a logical outgrowth of our fawning parents.
But that doesn’t make us any more palatable to people over thirty-five.
I’m crying foul on these accusations of Millennial narcissism – and not necessarily because we aren’t narcissistic. Rather, I want our accusers to realize that our narcissism may be the natural effect of today’s professional world.
I’ve heard that long ago in the misty past, people applied for jobs by making up a single resume and then distributing it to appropriate companies. An untailored resume?? I know, I know – I’m more likely to believe that the Chupacabra, and not a local raccoon, left that chewed hunk of watermelon rind on my doorstep.
Now, every career guru who ever purchased a web domain exhorts us to agonize over customizing every last detail of every resume we submit. It’s not enough to prove that we’re capable of doing the job and are a reasonably well-adjusted person. We must Market Ourselves with a top-to-bottom personal brand.
“We use social media to create a product — to create a brand — and the product is us,” writes William Deresiewicz in last fall’s New York Times article, “Generation Sell“. “We treat ourselves like little businesses, something to be managed and promoted. The self today is an entrepreneurial self, a self that’s packaged to be sold.”
Perhaps I feel this more keenly than others, given the quicksand of the modern writer’s professional world, but I think it applies to many of my peers, regardless of their field. The online world, where every status and photo and tweet can be mined by “friends”, authorities, employers, educators and marketers, is probably at least partially to blame. Getting anywhere in the insanely competitive modern job market requires a ceaseless, sophisticated branding strategy that pervades everything you do.
But as soon as we take this advice to heart and become a 24/7 personal marketing firm in hopes of landing a job that will move us out of our parents’ house, we’re roundly criticized for being self-centered – unlike those solid citizens of yore who graduated college, landed a job with a nice company, and worked there until retirement.
It must have been nice to have the sense that a lifelong career would be there for you if you got yourself educated and proved your work ethic. I wonder: would a person be less inclined to anxiously self-promote if he or she didn’t have to scramble for every last dollar at three different jobs while paying off an average educational debt of $30,000?
I am 28 years old. My husband and I rent an apartment. I have spoon-fed and changed the diapers of relatives in their 80’s and 90’s, and I’ll do it all over again as my parents’ generation ages. I’m $25,000 in debt and I’ve never bought a house or a car or even a designer shoe. The traditional career path of my chosen industry was collapsing just as I finished college, so I’m making up my own job day to day. I don’t have employer health-care, a 401(k) or vacation time, but I often work past midnight. I know too many other Millennials who are in exactly the same boat.
This has been a special presentation of one Millennial’s bitching. I may be less religious than my parents and yes, I’m stressed out. It’s true, young Millennials will txt u until ur thumbs fall off. But please, quit calling me a broke, narcissistic over-spender because I was born in the 80’s.
Here's me (right) in my senior year of high school, with one of my best friends. The slogan on my t-shirt - "it's ok to be different" - probably helps to explain why I was never that popular as a teenager.
I got a letter in the mail a few weeks ago that confirms two things. One thing is really bad news and one thing is really good news.
“Dear Member of the Class of 2002,” the letter began.
That’s right. It’s my ten-year high-school reunion. The really bad news is that in the blink of an eye, I’m almost thirty. The really good news is that after one decade, my good judgment has been affirmed.
When I was in high school, I knew that almost nothing could be worse than being the girls’ Class President at the small religious boarding school I attended. There was no way in hell I would want to be responsible for organizing church-sponsored get-togethers with my classmates every decade. It’s not that I didn’t like my peers. It’s just that, even as a teenager, I knew I wouldn’t want a high-school era responsibility tapping me on the shoulder for the rest of my life.
This makes it sound like there would’ve been the remotest possibility of my being elected by my classmates. Don’t be misled – I was never that popular. Nobody hated me (as far as I know) – I had a great circle of friends, and then the rest of kids were either courteous in passing or just generally ignored me, with the exception of a few sneers and eye-rolls when paired with me in class.
In the weeks leading up to graduation, several of the well-meaning adults who fluttered around us hosting luncheons gave me some totally bogus advice.
“Enjoy this time!” they exclaimed. “This is the best time of your life!”
In case you can’t tell, I’m not nostalgic about school.
This isn’t because school was terrible. I had good friends. Sure, I wasn’t invited to many parties, but that didn’t break my heart. I excelled academically and was co-editor of the school paper and played a lead role in the school musical my senior year. I had a nice boyfriend and fit in some community service too. Life was busy, and most of my activities (except the singing) proved foundational to my career.
After schooling in my small hometown up through the tenth grade, I transferred to a religious boarding school out of state for my junior and senior years. I lived in the girls’ dorm and pledged into its sorority.
Pledging involved a lot of marching around town screaming club slogans, wearing ridiculous badges, riding in vans with bags over our heads, various public humiliations at club rallies, being locked in disused wings of the dorm, and Hell Night.
This was when the senior girls transformed the dorm top to bottom into a teenage labyrinth of horrors and led us in with towels over our heads. Mercifully, the night’s a little fuzzy and I don’t remember all the humiliations we were subject to. At one station, we had to make a sandwich full of bizarre dining hall leftovers, and then eat the sandwich made by the previous pledge. At another, a senior girl dumped flour in our hair, forced us into a shower stall, and asked us questions about her own personal preferences. If we got the answers wrong, she turned the faucet on us so that our clothes got soaked and the flour became papier-mâché in our hair.
The next morning, we were led out to a candle-lit pond in the woods. We were inducted into the club and sang a song about how one day we’d meet all our dorm sisters again in heaven.
Maybe I was an oversensitive teen, but in retrospect, the whole thing was pretty fucked up.
That kind of language would’ve gotten me in serious trouble back then. My mother still finds it distasteful, naturally, but that’s why the “best time of your life” folks were utterly wrong. My parents are great, but life as a teenager doesn’t measure up to living your own independent life with an interesting job and a good husband, where you can do pretty much whatever you want, law and finances allowing.
In contrast, my high-school dorm was a tightly regulated zone: we were supposed to ask permission by phone to leave our rooms after lights-out, even to go to the bathroom, and spent days confined to the dorm if we ran in after curfew.
Dances were heavily policed – chaperoning clergymen were strong enforcers of the six-inch rule. The school was careful to cast Prom as the “Junior-Senior Dance”, I think because faculty feared that if they talked about Prom, we’d be encouraged to drink and try to throw our virginity away like they do in the movies. There were probably similar fears behind the heavily chaperoned all-night lock-in at the gymnasium we were required to attend on the night of our graduation.
There was an occasional upside to the prudery. On our senior class trip to Williamsburg, our chaperones took us all to a seedy dinner theater establishment called “Rosie Rumpe’s Regal Dumpe” without researching the content of the show. It should’ve tipped them off when a waiter introduced himself as “Master Bates”. The whole thing was a legendary shambles and they packed us back on the buses and unleashed us in a local K-Mart for lack of anything else to do.
Faculty members were a constant in our lives, for good or ill. One of my favorite teachers, the most decorous yet enigmatic woman in the whole institution, teased us in our junior-year English class that she had a pair of leather pants that she wore on weekends. We begged and begged her to prove it, until she shocked us all by wearing them one day (the pants were tasteful, but that didn’t diminish our delight).
My math teacher took pains to tutor me after class. My senior-year English teacher, a die-hard linguistic prescriptionist, railed against changing usages in the English language. It took me a couple years to appreciate the irony of the fact that Shakespeare and Chaucer were her favorite writers (talk about two figures who played key roles in the evolution of our language). And there was Magistra, my buoyant Latin teacher, who is still my friend today.
My junior-year chemistry teacher was an absolute gem. Instead of teaching us chemistry, he spent the majority of class-time on anarchist orations, the most puzzling of which, because of his chosen career, was his repeated insistence on the futility of the education system. Instead of teaching us how to calculate moles, he told us that if thieves broke in and stole our possessions, the police wouldn’t help us.
I think most of my classmates were pretty nice kids. I do remember one silent, bizarre incident, in which a girl who never spoke to me positioned herself behind me in class and then plucked out strands of my hair with her fingers. But I think my good memories outweigh the bad. Once I got a terrible flu and couldn’t leave my bed, even to go to the dining hall. So many classmates thought to bring me dinner that I ended up with a stack of take-out containers on my bureau.
From what I hear about the ten-year reunion, it’s all about what you’ve accomplished: marriage, career and kids.
I’ve been married to this guy for almost five years:
Mr. and Mrs. Mabaso, 2010.
On the other fronts, I’m seriously lagging. So far, I’ve failed to find a lucrative, stable career. Instead, I’m a writer. I don’t have a house, expensive clothes or even a car: just a freelancer’s salary and hundreds of bylines.
As for kids, sometimes it seems like most of my female classmates are either pregnant right now or already back into their skinny jeans after their first or second babies. If there’s a family-friendly event, it’ll be baby, toddler and kindergartner city: I’ll be the only one trying to strike up a conversation because everyone else will be too busy pulling their kids off the bleachers to talk.
All I have to show for myself are twelve greedy goldfish.
My babies. Or fry. Whatever.
“These milestone occasions are opportunities for self-reflection and reconnection with past friends and places of strong memory,” the ten-year-reunion announcement letter says. Just because memories are strong doesn’t mean you want to revisit them. For example, my bad memories of pledging far outweighed the bonds of “sisterhood” and I’ve ignored invites to the club’s alumni events for the last ten years. But on balance I guess I have about as many reasons to be nostalgic about my high school campus as I have reasons never to go back – just like most other people.
I have many fond recollections of my peers. And I’m sure a laugh over Rosie Rumpe’s and the chance to go cheek-to-cheek with a handsome date without getting the evil eye will more than outweigh my unseasonable delay in getting pregnant, questionable career and the fact that I’m even less thin today than I was ten years ago.
Abigail and Bryon (God bless ‘em!) are planning this reunion. I have until October until this thing goes down.
Have you ever been to a high school reunion? Did you enjoy yours?
Special welcome to all the new subscribers from last week’s Freshly Pressed bonanza on canvassers. And even specialer thanks to everyone who was reading this blog before then. By the way, I bit the bullet and joined Twitter, so now you can add @AlainaMabaso to your online universe.
Are American families living in poverty? We could end the cycle easily by teaching poor people’s kids a thing or two about work ethic and the value of a hard-earned dollar – because being poor has nothing to do with racial or social inequality or a floundering economy: it’s about a lousy work ethic and a culture of government reliance.
So argues former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in his fiery, primary-winning performance at the Republican Presidential candidates’ South Carolina debate last week. We can fix the lives of kids on food stamps by hiring them as school janitors when they’re as young as twelve.
Gingrich drives his righteous view home in the debate, using New York City as an example, because of its criminally expensive janitors’ union. Fire the janitors, he says: for every janitor booted, a school could hire thirty-seven kids to do the cleaning.
The kids would learn responsibility, job skills, a good work ethic, and receive an early education in the satisfaction of getting your own paycheck and managing your own money, instead of expecting government handouts.
Plus, as Gingrich is sure to emphasize, when you’re poor, money is good. These kids need money as much as they need a lesson in pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. The only people who hate the idea of earning money (besides, apparently, America’s poor) – are America’s elite. This is a golden chance for kids to improve their lives.
Author 3rd row from front, four kids from the right. Age at which Gingrich recommends becoming a janitor.
I have a lot of questions.
Does Gingrich believe, as he seems to imply, that janitorial work for kids would make a difference in a poor family’s financial situation? If adult parents can’t keep their families out of poverty, could twelve or thirteen-year-olds’ working after school provide the solution, at Gingrich’s apparently proposed rate of 1/37th the pay of a professional janitor?
Gingrich is sure to point out that he’s not advocating anything he wouldn’t encourage his own kids to do. He insists that his own daughter had a janitorial job at her church at age thirteen, and that she enjoyed it and benefited enormously from it. But is this situation comparable to that of America’s poor children? Surely Gingrich’s child did not work out of necessity or face hunger at home. There is a big difference between working for the experience, or for a little of your own spending money, and working as a matter of survival.
Did not have to aid poverty-stricken family.
If adolescent janitors could indeed improve the finances of their destitute families, does that mean they should? Is that an appropriate pressure for a child or teenager?
If a school were to adopt Gingrich’s plan, firing its janitor and arranging a rotation of kids, would all the students be required to participate, or only those who had the initiative to volunteer? If nobody volunteered (on the off-chance that scrubbing the toilets after school does not appeal to the kids), would certain children be forced or cajoled into the program based on their parents’ income level or other factors? If poor children became the janitors while more affluent children headed off to drama club and soccer practice, would this not create even more income-based divisions among our young people?
What activities would the working children be missing or minimizing due to their new responsibilities? Would their homework or grades suffer? Would it be healthy for children to see their school as a workplace?
Plus, who would train and supervise these student staffers? Would teachers just add this onto their current duties? I’m sure teachers and school administrators wouldn’t mind staying a few extra hours every day to teach kids how to wax the floors and make sure the kids do it properly.
And isn’t it more than a bit demeaning to janitors, declaring that a bunch of kids could easily do the job at a fraction of the pay? As at least one writer has pointed out, janitors are professionals who routinely work with dangerous equipment and chemicals. Janitorial work isn’t just taking out the trash and sweeping the hallway. Yes, janitorial work is not glamorous, but unlike politicians, janitors are crucial to society. It seems to me that by declaring janitorial work as appropriate for the nation’s children, Gingrich is denigrating those who work these necessary but already under-appreciated jobs. How does this attitude encourage a good work ethic?
Does using this stuff safely require any training or expertise?
All these questions, for me, point to the value of letting kids be kids, instead of pushing them into a role of the adult realm, especially when this role would fall disproportionately on low-income children.
But I have to tell you the whole truth. Gingrich’s proposal mirrors my own childhood – a childhood that always made me and my parents proud.
Perhaps it’s genetic. One of the oldest pictures I’ve seen of my grandfather shows him in his little short pants, pulling a toy wagon full of dirt. Before he turned five, he had started his own business: digging up violets, tenderly putting them into his wagon, and pacing around the neighborhood to sell them. Today, in his mid-eighties, after 25 years as the mayor of his town, Papa could fill an entire room with congressional citations and lifetime achievement award plaques (though he’s modest and tasteful and only displays a few of the handsomest ones).
Growing up in my own family, my own parents’ stellar work ethic was an early example. Allowances were never just doled out – they were earned through assigned chores. I have a very clear memory of the family dinner-time when my parents said it was time for me to get a job. I was thirteen. My family wasn’t rich and we weren’t poor either. We didn’t need the extra income – this was about life lessons.
Given my love of animals, my parents got me a chance to start working for the owner of the kennel where our own dogs stayed while we vacationed. In retrospect, I’m not sure this arrangement was strictly legal, but I was an unusually dependable kid.
I worked there for the next six years or so. Every summer, as a teenager, I’d sock away a few thousand bucks working for $10/hour.
Janitorial? I know of what I speak: I mopped the floor and washed dog bowls by the hundreds, Cloroxed and vacuumed and scrubbed. I also bathed dogs and dealt with customers. Looking back, I realize I had an extraordinary amount of responsibility for a teenager: running the place on my own when my boss was out of town, personally handling toothy, muscular canines which were larger than I was, and administering medication to clients’ animals. As an added benefit, kennels are busiest precisely when everyone is on vacation, so I never had weekends, summers or holidays off: on Christmas or 4th of July, just as everyone else was having some pie or getting out the bottle-rockets, I was going to work.
The author in high school. Blond hair and purple outfit near the left. By this time I'd been working for about five years.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I worked part-time all throughout high school and college at various jobs and internships, in addition to full-time classes (I also thought the world would end if I got anything below an A+), and somehow found time to participate in a couple theater productions each year, acting, directing or stage managing. Did I mention becoming co-editor of both my high school and college newspapers?
Author in college, first row on the left (forgive the pants). Almost forgot, I was on the Student Orientation Committee too (future husband at left).
I had work ethic in spades. In fact, I hardly know what to do with myself if I’m not working. Whenever I stop, I’m inundated with guilt and anxiety.
Before I began freelancing full-time, I had a full-time job in the tourism industry.
I piled on the overtime for three years, especially when I wasn’t feeling well (keeping busy is the only strategy I ever had to cope with a chronic illness). I routinely worked shifts of fifteen hours or more, outside in all weathers, in addition to freelance work on my “days off”.
I ignored signs that it was too much: month-long bouts of laryngitis, agonizing back spasms, coming home from work at 3am. Once I ignored an infection through an 18-hour shift, and landed in the ER the next day.
It wasn’t entirely my fault: my boss would threaten to dock our hours (and therefore our pay) if we took weekends off or failed to work overtime (he referred to this as an “incentive” to us, rather than a punishment). There were no paid vacations or sick days. Our manager would curse about customers in the office and got drunk onsite with employees on a regular basis. Staffers were routinely fired without warning.
At staff meetings, I suggested that better policies were needed. He subsequently fired me for my “negative attitude”.
This month marks the first year I’ve been freelancing full-time.
Has my work ethic benefited me? Perhaps contrary to Newt’s expectations, I don’t have much money. I don’t think anyone can fault my productivity in this matter: it just happens that writing isn’t always the most lucrative career today, and it takes a lot of time to develop and promote. Sometimes my parents help me to meet my outrageous health insurance payments. But generally, I can pay my bills.
Especially in a world where endless chats and games and movies are available at a single touch, I’m grateful for the habit that pushes me to work without a boss or manager telling me what to do and when to do it. Would I be capable of this, had such commitment and responsibility not been ingrained in me at such a young age? The US needs individuals with the wits and the drive to create their own jobs.
On the other hand, the downside to my mindset is that I am almost incapable of relaxing. It sounds stupid and self-important and excessively martyr-like when I say it like that, but it’s true. “Babe, sit down!” is my husband’s domestic refrain.
When I visit my parents or go on vacation, I am often engulfed by feelings of anxious uselessness, pacing around the house. I work on unassigned essays, set up meetings, and scrub the kitchen.
In retrospect, I’m also concerned that perhaps going to work so young cultivated in me an over-developed sense of responsibility that lacked an adult’s capacity to question or resist unfair treatment. As I remember my past job, there is something unpalatably naïve and childlike in my long-term acceptance of my former working conditions, and my boss’s behavior.
The question had actually never even occurred to me until I heard Gingrich in the debate: should I have had so much professional responsibility as an adolescent? Did a premature obsession with work set me up for an unbalanced lifestyle and an embarrassing inability to see if I am being treated unfairly? Or is it merely my own personality, regardless of my experiences, that has made me the woman I am today?
Throughout my teens, most of my friends spent their summers vacationing or hanging out by the pool. During my college summers, while I often worked all day at one job and then left for a second one in the evening, my friends backpacked through Europe. Nowadays, most of the teenagers (heck, even some of the twenty-somethings) I know have never had a job, and I think some part-time responsibilities would set them up nicely for the real world. I think it’s a problem when people finish college without any job experience at all.
But despite Gingrich’s prescription for prosperity and work ethic, and my own experience, I don’t want our middle or junior-high-schoolers joining the nation’s janitorial staff, or any kind of staff. The modern school day – not to mention homework and extracurriculars – is a job in itself. Life lessons should entail more than the value of a dollar and the evils of welfare. Even if my own problems have nothing to do with the fact that someone handed me the mop when I was thirteen, surely there’s a better recipe for American success than hiring our children.
I would love to hear from you on this issue. Are you a teacher, a janitor, or a parent? Did you start working early or late? How did it affect you? What do you think about the value of jobs for adolescents?
I felt a bit drained after last week’s screed on the Mississippi personhood amendment, and instead of researching and writing anything else worthwhile for this week’s Sunday Poll, I began to stream TLC’s “Sister Wives” on Netflix – a reality show about modern polygamist Mormons. I’ve seen three or four episodes of season one.
“Sister Wives” stars an amiable, unkempt man named Kody Brown who was apparently not raised as a Mormon, but became aware of the whole multiple-wives lifestyle, thought, I could get behind this, converted, and began assembling a prodigious family through means decidedly unconventional to the rest of us.
Mr. Brown and his wives.
Whoever pitched this show is a genius.
Many forty-something men can say they’ve been married for twenty years. Kody Brown has been marrying for twenty years. He began with pragmatic Meri, added the rotund and dedicated Janelle a few years later, and then proposed to the tenderhearted Christine. Christine always wanted to be a polygamist man’s third wife: she felt that being a first wife would be too much work and being a second wife would make her a “wedge” between her husband and his first wife. She settled on becoming a third wife because that would be “easy”.
Life is chaotic in the Brown household. Kody can’t support so much family on his own, so Meri and Janelle both work grueling hours outside the home, while Christine, massively pregnant with her sixth child, takes primary responsibility for the twelve children that (so far) make up Kody’s total brood. When Kody is not at work, he divides his time between shambling happily from bedroom to bedroom in his sock feet and making the four-hour drive to visit his new fiancée, Robyn, a 30-year-old divorcee with three kids under 10 of her own.
While he’s gone, his three wives rearrange heavy furniture on their own, to make room for the new baby’s cradle. None of them ever expected that she’d have a husband to herself, but their apprehensive sadness is as palpable as their resignation – though to be fair, they’re also pleased to anticipate another set of hands around the house and profess to regard Robyn as a beloved friend.
Christine weeps over her enormous belly. She is devastated because Kody observed the proper Mormon decorum with her and did not kiss her until they came to the altar, but he saw fit to smooch the lovely Robyn upon their engagement. One wonders if Kody could possibly have put off courting another woman until after the baby was born.
At about the same time the Browns hit my radar, I noticed a news story about another extreme American family.
The Duggars at home.
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar of Arkansas, stars of TLC’s Nineteen Kids and Counting, hear a direct calling from the Lord to eschew all types of birth control. About two years ago, Michelle gave birth to her 19th baby three and a half months early. The child weighed less than two pounds and was delivered due to the crisis of Michelle’s preeclampsia, soaring blood pressure and kidney trouble.
The announcement last week that Jim Bob and Michelle are expecting their twentieth child elicited this comment from NBC’s chief medical editor: “that uterus can’t have any spring in it anymore…I mean, really, it’s gotta be like a water balloon that has no tensile strength.” A variety of commentators eagerly jumped on board, some decrying the Duggar’s irresponsible child factory as fast as others could point out parents’ sacred right to decide the size of their own family in the glorious U.S. of A.
I don’t want to poll you on whether or not Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, Robyn, Jim Bob and Michelle are living responsible, healthy lifestyles, or whether their choices should be promoted on wildly popular TV shows. Instead, let’s pretend we’re on a super-long car ride together (or a fifth-grade sleepover), and ask each other one simple question.
Who Would You Rather Be?
Would you rather be Christine Brown, pregnant with your sixth child at age 37 and watching your husband rotate between two other women’s bedrooms when he is not visiting his young and attractive new girlfriend, all in the name of religion? Or would you rather be Michelle Duggar, believing that your primary role in life is to birth an army for Jesus regardless of the growing risk to your own life, pregnant with your 20th child at age 45 while big-shot editors comment freely on the state of your uterus? Everybody please feel free to elaborate on your choice in the comments.
And honestly, I’m interested in the opinion of both sexes here, so men, put your imaginations to work (and no, I will not be asking you which you’d rather have, Jim Bob’s one regular sex partner or Kody’s four).
Every year or so, the same forward hits my in-box from someone in the family who’s a generation or two ahead of me.
“To All the Kids Who Survived the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s!” it exclaims. It’s a congratulatory list of the things former youngsters did which turned them into the hardy, upstanding grown-ups they are today, versus the constantly-supervised front-yard purgatory of the wimps who are growing up now.
The list begins by gloating that this hardcore existence of yore began in the womb:
“We survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they were pregnant. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, ate tuna from the can, and didn’t get tested for diabetes.”
Other items include riding in cars without seatbelts, car-seats or airbags, drinking water from the hose, eating mud pies, riding in home-made go-carts whose brakes were experimental at best, quaffing Kool-Aid with sugar, getting BB guns as a 10th birthday gift and playing outside unsupervised all day. Apparently, back then, not everyone was good enough for the Little League team, and those who didn’t make the cut had to deal with disappointment.
“These generations have produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers and inventors ever!” the e-mail concludes. “We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned HOW TO DEAL WITH IT ALL!” (Find the full list here if your granddad, aunts or uncles haven’t sent it to you yet).
Who knew freeing your kid to play in the mud with Kool-Aid and a BB gun was the key to our 20th Century progress?
The growing differences between child-raising then and now are a popular theme. Last week, in a piece for Slate Magazine, KJ Dell Antonia compared a school-readiness standard from 1979 to parenting norms today. She points out that while less was expected of new first-graders back then academically (they were not yet expected to write coherently on their own or count beyond ten), they had a huge advantage over today’s middle-schoolers as far as life skills.
“Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?” the 1979 checklist inquires of the six-year-old pupil.
Nowadays, even if parents wanted to let their first-graders walk home from school alone, it’s often against school rules. And given the ruckus last week over my blog post about child bans, people today would have a lot to say about sending six-year-olds unaccompanied into the store to pick up a few items.
Myriad contemporary articles bemoan the modern phenomenon of “helicopter parenting”, in which no children are never let out of their caretakers’ sight, even to urinate or go to college, lest the child be startled, bruised, disappointed, scratched or bumped, or incur a lawsuit on somebody else’s sidewalk. Kids of older generations had a tougher, more vigorous life by far.
As a child born in the early 80’s, I’m not quite sure where I fit in.
The author, c. 1989
I didn’t go to the store by myself or shoot BB guns, supervised or otherwise. But I did drink gallons of orange Kool-Aid and roam the woods with my dog. I played in mud puddles and got bitten by a large, wild rat snake. Once, when we were young, my brother and I panicked my parents by setting off on a long beach walk without bothering to tell anyone. I’ll never forget the look on my dad’s face when he finally found us, racing down the beach on his bike.
At the time, I didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Now, I break a cold sweat imagining what I’d do if my kid disappeared at the beach. Riptides! Bad guys! Sharks! Deceptively deep holes in the sand! Perhaps my kids will be the 21st-century softies that today’s 50 and 60-year-olds shake their heads at.
But I think kids today probably face the same number of dangers and challenges as their mid-20th-century counterparts – they’re just not the same problems.
The “We Survived” list crows that kids of old ate butter, white bread and sugar, and that their potentially diabetic moms smoked, drank, and downed tuna right from the can. Sure, pregnant moms know better now, and lots of today’s kids subsist on unfortunate low-sugar diets of 16-grain bread and pale, oily vegan spreads.
But what contemporary diet hazards will today’s kids brag about when they’re fifty? I can see the list now: “We drank out of baby bottles made with Bisphenol A!” “We had genetically-modified salmon for dinner!” “Our popsicles were full of high-fructose corn syrup!…And we survived!”
There are a lot of reasons I’m glad I wasn’t a child of several decades ago. Calls to return to 1950’s style parenting (which many commenters made in the child-ban blog) always leave me a bit queasy. But there are also times when I wish we weren’t raising kids in the digital age.
In the 30’s through the 70’s, when the proud “We Survived!” kids were daubing their lips with dirt and staying out after dark, no-one ever had to fear that the next moment Mom captured on camera would be the next YouTube sensation. Many of my friends’ kids are not even granted any privacy in the womb: they’re up on Facebook while they’re still gray smears on the ultrasound – and this is nothing compared to the media blitz that begins the moment they take their first breath: their squashed, scarlet faces hit the internet faster than Mom can ask for more ice chips.
Click for a link to "Broadcasting the Baby", the first-ever Alaina Mabaso's Blog post.
It’s a hazard that kids of past decades never faced.
Perhaps we could also point to the sheer tasteless stupidity of the modern world at large as something parents nowadays are actually failing to shield their children from. Consider that a children’s book called “Peanut Butter Rhino” was published in 1994. In it, a rhino makes a peanut butter sandwich for lunch and then accidentally sits on it. He spends the rest of the story going around to all his animal friends to ask if they’ve seen the sandwich, which is stuck to his own ass. Nine out of ten Amazon reviews give the book at least four stars.
Between the total loss of privacy, the growing intellectual drought of modern culture (a Facebook group titled “I Hate Reading” has over 460,000 members), and the evils of the typical 21st-century American diet, I don’t think children now are any safer than mid-20th century ones. So you drank Kool-Aid made with hose-water while you walked home by yourself after getting cut from Little League. It’s hardly the Battle of the Bulge. At least, once you got home, you could mope in private, while insecure preteens of today can watch a twenty-four hour stream of Facebook comments about how much fun their friends are having, because parents are too busy to limit computer use.
To those who think that modern kids are absurdly coddled because they’re not spending their time tramping unwatched through the woods and breaking their arms in climbing accidents, I challenge you to change places with the average American teenager. We might not let our six-year-olds cross the street by themselves. But we happily stand by as our teenagers take out $100,000 loans for over-valued undergraduate degrees before hitting an abysmal job market.
Every generation faces its youthful perils. Whether it’s on the playground or online, every child of every era faces risky and exhilarating challenges while Mom and Dad aren’t paying attention. Fortunately, most of us will survive to lord our triumph over the next generation.
Let me take a minute to welcome all the new subscribers from last week’s Freshly Pressed bonanza! I’m so glad you came to visit and even gladder to have you along for the ride on this and future posts. I don’t always write about kids, but thought this would be a nice follow-up to last week’s discussion. If you’re not a subscriber and you like this post, maybe you should think about joining the bandwagon. I love to hear other people’s stories and opinions, so your comments and feedback are always welcome.
Waiting at a sandwich joint for a magazine interview, I was looking over my notes as a young mother with little blond twins – probably two years or less – took up residence at an adjacent table. Their two-seated stroller, piled high with jackets, provisions and blankets, only lacked a team of huskies to be ready for the Iditarod.
Ensconced in two high-chairs, the girls got to work. A small plush Elmo hit the floor under the table, along with a tiny pink plaid pillow, a Sesame Street board book, and a minute plastic toy bottle. A baby doll in its own pink plaid bed and miniature pacifier presided on the tabletop.
Mom left the table to pick up a salad, a bag of chips, and a piping-hot bowl of macaroni. She divided the chips and macaroni between the girls on two plates, and left again to grab a wad of napkins. My feature notes forgotten, I wondered what responsibility I bore as an adult bystander as one of the girls plunged a utensil into the macaroni and slowly maneuvered a massive, steaming spoonful toward her mouth.
The little girl spat out the scalding macaroni with remarkable calm, a soft splutter sending the creamy pasta rolling down her shirt and onto the restaurant carpet, where they splatted to rest beside Elmo. As Mom seated herself and dug into her salad, the girls scattered potato chips into a table-top archipelago. Soon, Mom produced a huge, candy-studded cookie and broke it in half. Instead of taking bites of the cookies, the girls pressed them vertically into their faces, the better to gnaw the embedded M&Ms off the tops. Crumbs peppered the table-top, the carpet, and the long-suffering Elmo.
It was all over surprisingly fast. Mom lifted the girls, who began to wail at the injustice, back into the stroller. As she strapped them in despite the protest and gathered their toys, a small, heretofore unseen black-and-white plush monkey hit the floor. I picked it up and handed it to her as she passed. She took it wordlessly, pushed the stroller through the door, and was gone.
I assume parents are still human, despite their responsibility for little beings who, while not noisome, are certainly noisy. I’m sure parents like to go out and have a tasty salad for lunch like anyone else. No doubt their children gain valuable socialization as well as sub-par nutrition through visiting restaurants.
We could have gone on indefinitely, quietly tolerating the noisy presence of youngsters almost everywhere, but for a stalwart restaurant owner near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Fed up with parents who will not remove their screaming kids, owner Mike Vuick of McDains restaurant and golf club banned all children under six. There are some who appreciated it: one article reports that his business has risen 20% since he instituted the rule. But he’s also raised a veritable firestorm in the world of parents, children and consumers who want to enjoy what they’ve purchased in peace.
I participated in a recent debate over the public presence of children when my former employer, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, considered reversing its policy banning all children under seven from the premises. The original policy was in place because the city apparently declared that the site would be hazardous to anyone under five, and museum staffers assumed many parents would disregard this warning and dissemble about their five and six-year-olds’ age. (The staffers were right: if they had set the policy at five years old, there would undoubtedly have been an epidemic of unusually small five-year-olds, instead of suspiciously young-looking seven-year-olds.)
I thought the original policy was nothing short of brilliant. As a tour guide, not only was I relatively free from questions on murder, incarceration, abuse or the death penalty from the under-five set, I also experienced remarkable peace of mind knowing that absent-minded parents’ toddlers did not have access to the broken windows, crumbling walls, rusty metal protrusions and flaking lead paint of the dilapidated 19th-century prison.
But then, possibly motivated by a desire to educate the world’s preschoolers on American penal history, or a growing sensitivity to the potential loss of revenue and visitor traffic occasioned by families who went elsewhere upon learning of the child ban, or parents’ general convenience, Eastern State Penitentiary reversed the policy to welcome all ages, even offering free admission to the littlest ones.
Some employees thought we were on the brink of an unprecedented form of workplace hell, with strollers, diaper bins and wailing babies added to the tours we gave in the dusty, un-climate-controlled, centipede-ridden prison, which was already crammed with avid fans of TV shows like “Ghost Adventures.”
Sure, I had the frequent joy of delivering midsummer tours about architecture over a chorus of sweaty three-year-olds’ miserable howls. And once young children were admitted to the site, I witnessed more explosive vomiting in a few months than I had in my entire previous life. But in truth, life went on with far fewer child-related crises than some of us had anticipated. I often skipped the death row segment on my elementary school tours, and we all seemed to adapt pretty well.
So I feel qualified to discuss the effects of barring or admitting children. I’ve recently spent time on a few progressive mommies’ blogs which denounce what they deem “child-hate” or “child-bigotry”. These writers claim that many traditional manners required of children, as well as complaints against the public presence of children, are the last bastion of a socially acceptable apartheid: innocent children, to whom we should strive to be friends as well as parents, suffer from adults’ intolerance.
I’m not on board with the children’s civil rights movement. Children are the only marginalized group I know of whose suffering is invariably solved simply by letting a few years go by (sometimes even less time than that, with good behavior).
A public service message I recently watched while waiting at an Amtrak station also comes to mind. In the film, spunky, authoritative canines sniffed suitcases, and upright citizens phoned security to report abandoned bags.
“Remember,” counseled the voice-over, “there are NO suspicious people. Only suspicious behaviors.” No racial profiling, I think Amtrak means to say: for someone to be considered a security risk, one must observe specific troublesome actions, not the rider’s apparent race, age, sex, nationality or religion.
Same goes for children. They’re not barred from certain establishments because of who they are, the way African Americans were barred from many businesses for decades. Children are barred because of how they often behave.
Child-free areas remind me of local efforts to control destructive non-native species. Do we bemoan the proliferation of stink bugs, European starlings or pine beetles because we bear natural hatred against these species? No. It’s because these and other imported species, having gotten in where they don’t belong, cause expensive crop damage, crowd out ecologically crucial native species, and can even destroy the landscape. I know, it’s probably a poor analogy, since the poor bugs, birds and beetles can’t improve their behavior, while growing children can, with time. And no squalling child ever felled the pine forests of the Rockies. But the fact still stands that some creatures aren’t welcome in some places, because of what they habitually do. Reporter Jim Durkin, for wxpi.com, quotes Vuick: there’s “nothing wrong with babies, but the fact is you can’t control their volume.”
I don’t resent children for their lack of ability to modulate their voices or stand still for thirty seconds at a time, or their penchant for wailing loudly without warning or apparent provocation (I was a child once, and so were you). I just want to be able to spend occasional leisure time out of earshot of children, if I so choose. I think that establishments – especially those with a bar, like McDains – have the right to delay the welcome for a few years, in order to cater to adults, their targeted customers. In the meantime, there are plenty of places which cater happily to young families. Parents who think their bundle of joy should be entitled to go anywhere, at any time, despite the amount of noise the kid is making, are being as childish as their poor screaming toddler.
Of course children should be able to act like children, and be loved prodigiously. But I think a few calm and quiet child-free spaces should be a privilege of adulthood, especially when customers pay a lot of money to enjoy a movie, a play or concert, or a nice dinner. Honestly, in some cases, a ban on young children is a favor to the child as much as the adults. Eastern State Penitentiary was well within its rights to exclude the youngsters – both for safety reasons and for the reason of catering to the customers who are most interested in architecture, penal history, and “hauntings”: adults. Are there really any Pennsylvania four-year-olds who are stricken by their inability to eat at McDain’s for two more years, when Chuck E. Cheese’s is open for business?
A recent story in the news spotlighted a high school in Rhode Island which graduates less than half of its students. Just over half of Central Falls High School’s students are proficient readers, and just 7% are proficient in math. The Superintendant and the school board asked the teachers’ union to make some changes, including paid tutoring and two weeks of paid teacher training in the summer, as well as eating lunch with the kids once a week. The kids in Central Falls could use the help – most of them are very poor and many struggle with English as a second language.
The teachers’ union refused the changes. So the school board voted to fire the Central Falls High School teachers.
The aftermath rippled through the national media, culminating with President Obama citing Central Falls in a speech on education and declaring, “If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability.” He surprised many by provoking teachers’ unions, a longtime Democratic stronghold. The question is gripping the country. Should teachers’ pay and status be tied to their students’ success?
I saw a cartoon commenting on the controversy. In it, a goonish, drooling kid with a finger up his nose holds a textbook upside down, a pencil through his ears. “Would you want this person to determine your salary and benefits?” the caption asks.
I admit, I am renowned in my circles as what my mother calls a “child scrooge”. I often find the behavior of kids noisy and disconcerting. But I found that cartoon’s implication repugnant: that kids struggle at school because they’re cretins, and the teachers can’t do anything about it.
I get a similar feeling about a story that’s closer to home: troubling incidents in Philadelphia known as “flash mobs” – late night swarms of hundreds of teenagers who sometimes just block the traffic, and sometimes do worse, like assaulting bystanders and looting stores. Amidst the furor to arrest the troublemakers and charge them with adult crimes, and the handwringing over the dark side of the social networking sites supposedly behind the gatherings, I’m anxious over something different. Do hundreds of city parents either not know or not care about where their kids are late at night?
The fact is, it’s just as easy to demonize kids and teens for problems that involve them as it is to demonize any group of people when you face an issue with an us vs. them mindset. Of course, the problems involving kids are numerous. Recently, I shopped in a department store with my mother. There was another mother-daughter pair nearby, although that daughter was about 22 years younger than I. As I quietly combed the racks of denim, the 4-year-old’s wails rose like the relentless chatter of a cicada plague over a sleepy forest. “Mommmy! Mommmy! Mommmy! Mommmy!” she cried. “I’m tired! I want to go home! Mommmmy!” She oozed out of her stroller and collapsed on the carpet. It was beyond irritating. But as I faced a sea of “perfectly slimming” jeans and khakis, I knew that I felt just like she did. Perhaps the only real difference between the four-year-old and me is that she has yet to master accepted social inhibitions, like the one that keeps me from weeping and prostrating myself like a squid washed up on the floor of the mall.
A wonderful banjo player gathers a small crowd in the train station – but only the two-year-old is dancing. A 9-year-old boy hears a long-winded speaker say she will conclude shortly. “Finally!” he moans, audible to all present. Don’t we all sometimes wish we could start a dance party in the train station or whine loudly and roll our eyes when someone drones on too long? Kids’ behavior reminds me not of their bizarre differences from my adult self, but of our native similarities – before the unfettered expression of those universal human joys and exasperations are ironed out of us by politeness.
Maybe it’s just my skeptical personality, but I’m constantly surprised by the trusting nature of small children. Recently a friend asked me to supervise his little girl while he stepped out of the room. The child promptly tumbled and hit her head. She had never met me before, but when I picked her up she burrowed into my lap. This is, perhaps, something else we lose or suppress as adults: a native desire to trust and rely on others emotionally and physically. For most people, this trust is replaced with a wariness of others that emphasizes our autonomy and intellect as adults. But if we connected more to that childlike faith in others, we might realize that the bad, ungovernable, unteachable qualities we see in kids, whether they’re failing math or running in a flash mob, are human traits we all should have some responsibility for.
I don’t think kids are challenging to teach because they’re kids, a different species from my adult self. I think they’re challenging to teach because they’re human beings whose inhibitions and personal accountability aren’t in place. What could be more challenging than molding someone else who has all the same human failings you do – unmasked by your practiced patience and tact?
I rode the bus last month with a mom and her daughter, who was probably about three. The child slumped sideways like a rag doll in the large seat. “Sit up! Sit up the right way!” Her mother said. The child faced forward and stuck her legs out in front of her, her ankles reaching just beyond the edge of the grown-up seat. It reminded me of kids in school. They might get specially sized desks and chairs, but school is still an eight-hour workday. If I can’t wait for five o’clock, how does an eight-year-old feel?
The little girl on the bus clutched a wrinkled McDonald’s bag. She plunged her hand in for a French fry. “We don’t eat that on the bus!” Mom swept the bag away. The child immediately gave into some of the most acute grief I’ve ever seen at close range. She slumped as if she had received a fatal wound in battle and sobbed into the seat. I considered moving to higher ground as the snot coursed down her chin. Couldn’t mom just cede the fries for the sake of everyone else on the bus?
“Are you going to have a tantrum now?” the mother asked.
“No,” she wept.
“Well, are you going to close your mouth?”
“Sit up properly! Right now!” Mom was returning to basics.
Through her paroxysms, the girl hauled herself upright. “I want my friiiiiiies!”
“We don’t eat them on the bus.”
It took only about six blocks for the tempest to wane. The little girl wiped her tears, crawled into the next seat and wrapped her arms around her mother. I heard a faint crinkle of paper and the mother seized a small, questing hand. “You’re trying to reach those fries!” The child squealed in delight at her own cleverness as the mother wiped her nose on an unworn sweatshirt.
Children are as stubborn and whiny and wily as…well, as any grown-up person is tempted to be. Would I like someone to order me not to eat my very own French fries? I’m human – of course I wouldn’t like it. But I’d probably yell and cry about it only if no-one had ever taught me I that shouldn’t. One of our most important jobs as adults is to inculcate in kids the sensibility and the accountability that makes the grown-up world function. The 15-year-old in the flash mob is not the only one who is responsible for his behavior. The lessons on sitting up straight, not eating on the bus and shutting your mouth may accumulate agonizingly (for all involved) on a hundred tragically French fry-less rush hour buses, or (as we can hope becomes a reality in the American education system) in a million classrooms where the extraordinary people who choose to teach persevere for their students, seeing a class full of young human beings, not a problem demographic for which adults are not responsible. Those insufferable kids aren’t aliens. They’re people who just haven’t learned what I’ve learned.