July 20, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Are most parents really this bad, this incompetent (New York Times, 7/18/14)? I hope not, but, at the same time, have a sneaking suspicion that, among the affluent at least, the sort of scene described is all too common. “Why?” would be a good question.
The piece appears in the Times Motherlode blog and I suppose is meant as humor. But it’s not funny. In fact, it’s enough to make you tear your hair; it’s enough to make you take writer Alisa Schindler by the shoulders and scream at her. Does she have any idea of just how juvenile she sounds, how clueless as a parent? I don’t think she does.
The scene is sometime around lunchtime. Dad exists and it appears Schindler’s married to him, but he’s not present. So I conclude that Schindler’s a stay-at-home mother and Dad pays the bills, most of them at least. They have three sons, ages 11, nine and six.
“Anyone want pasta for lunch?” I asked, and my 6-, 9- and 11-year-old boys stared at their little screens in front of the big screen and ignored me. Incredulous, I glared at them. And then I repeated the question, the pitch of my voice notably higher.
“No!” They threw the word at me without looking up. I don’t even think they knew what the question was. “Peanut butter and jelly?” I persisted. “No.” I could tell they hadn’t really heard. A true glutton for punishment, I tried again. “Grilled cheese?” I asked, but they had fallen back into their screen stupor.
Surveying the blank faces, I gritted my teeth to hold in my rising anger; then made an executive decision.
“No lunch for anyone,” I announced testily to everyone and no one. I contemplated ripping the devices from their hands and snapping off the television; a move I had done many times before. But instead, I decided to take their lack of interest as a gift and take a little time to myself. In an unappreciated, semi-dramatic huff, I exited the room.
A few minutes later while I sat at my computer working on an essay, I heard my oldest son call out a word. “Hungry.” I decided to ignore him.
A couple minutes after that, I heard my middle son’s voice holler, “Milk!”
Rolling my eyes and taking deep breaths, I continued with my editing. It was high time they learned to do something for themselves. Still, the languid demands floated out to me at random intervals. “Mama. Hungry.” “I want milk!” Apparently, they were waiting for Donna Reed to swoop in with a tray of goodies.
Trigger Warning! I’m about to pull one of those “in my day” stunts.
I have two brothers; we’re five years apart in age, just like Schindler’s brood. When we were growing up, my brothers and I were not the bosses of the household like hers are. In the first place, our mother and father didn’t ask us what we wanted for a meal. They prepared the meal and we ate it, whatever it was.
And we certainly didn’t spit out monosyllabic answers to questions, making plain our impatience at being asked. And we under no circumstances shouted demands at our parents with which they were to comply or risk our pre-pubescent wrath.
No, we spoke respectfully to our parents. Actually we spoke respectfully to all adults – parents, relatives, teachers, neighbors, everyone. We wouldn’t have dreamed of doing anything else. Our parents weren’t ogres; they weren’t abusive. The simply demanded a level of respect and politeness on our parts, respect and politeness we saw them give others. They taught us how to behave properly and, did so with little effort. I suppose we were happy enough to learn the rules of behavior in society and in any case, it was good we did. It’s a funny thing about people – they respond better to you when you show respect and consideration for them. Our parents did us a favor; they taught us how to get along in the world. They did it by making it clear who the boss was. Subordinates learned from superiors because the superiors had been around longer, knew more and had information to impart. It’s a simple concept.
Somehow Alisa Schindler didn’t get the memo. Was she herself raised by a single parent? I’d be interested to know because her entire piece fairly screams it. She sounds very much like a person who thinks that parenting is all about instilling self-esteem into youngsters, and indeed, that’s a big part of it. But self-esteem, unrefined by respect and concern for others, soon begins to look like entitlement and entitlement soon begins to look like narcissism.
And Schindler’s sons look to be nothing if not entitled. Screaming “Hungry!” from another room and expecting Mom to drop everything and prepare not just a meal, but the right meal? Please. How about, “OK, kids, lunch is on the table. Put down your games and let’s eat?”
But no, Schindler is too much of an adolescent herself to raise children. Her passive-aggressive pouting at the behavior of the children she raised tells us all we need to know about why her children feel free to treat her like the unpopular kid at school.
In an unappreciated, semi-dramatic huff, I exited the room.
Rolling my eyes and taking deep breaths, I continued with my editing.
I sat at my computer in the dining room refusing to engage with them; too distracted to work on my essay, instead silently having a shouting match in my brain where I came up with fabulous zingers to show them just how inconsiderate and unappreciative they were.
Dramatic huffs, rolled eyes, refusing to engage, fabulous zingers. Gee, those sound a lot like the stock in trade of every 12-year-old girl, but not a bit like the behavior of a competent parent whose rules her sons know they need to obey. Yes, she’s taken the various computer toys away from them at times they’ve particularly angered her, but little good it’s done her. Those kids have known for years that Mom will do it all for them and expect nothing in return. If she gets ticked off occasionally, it’s OK; it’ll pass.
And Dad’s at work, so he can’t step in, can’t be the voice of authority.
Of course the ones to suffer are the boys. Will they ever learn that you can’t treat other people the way they’ve been taught to treat their mother? Will they ever come to understand that you end up with a lot more friends and a lot more respect yourself when you give courtesy and respect to others? If they do, will it be through hard, bitter experience? Or will they never learn because, at a very young age, their mother’s behavior instilled in them the idea that others expect nothing of you, that you can step on them until they scream but they’ll never tell you to tidy your room?
So how common is this? It’s impossible to tell, but I do know that in life and in pop culture, I see parents who plainly have no idea of what it means to be in charge. They’re constantly begging their children for one thing or another and being unhappy with, but ultimately accepting of, a “No” answer. So where did we get this idea of parenting that children are the ultimate arbiters of parental fitness?
Some have argued that it all started with the breakdown of the nuclear family. That theory holds that parents became so riddled with guilt about failing to provide two parents to children that they started trying to compensate by giving children anything they wanted and asking nothing in return.
My guess is that family breakdown had something to do with it alright, but not guilt. Mothers and fathers parent differently and the one complements the other. Mothers are good at nurturing and self-esteem; fathers are good at setting rules and boundaries. Fathers’ rough and tumble play teaches kids that they can hurt the other person so they need to be careful. That’s the source of empathy.
Rules? Boundaries? Empathy? Those aren’t words that exactly describe the behavior of Schindler’s sons. Just the opposite in fact. Of course those boys have a father, but he sounds like a remote one. Schindler’s description of herself and her family strongly suggest a maternal gatekeeper, a woman who wanted the children all to herself, and that’s just what she got.
Not too long ago, there was a time when I would happily answer their every call and attend to every need. In fact, I lived for it...
I reveled in having them need me so much. I over-coddled. I trained them to do nothing...
Schindler was so consumed with doing for her kids, apparently she trained her husband to be one of them.
I enjoyed every rotten, stinking moment of servitude; so much so, that I didn’t even notice that my husband jumped on the bandwagon as well.
“Honey? Could you bring me some grapes ?... Could you hand me the phone? ... I’ll just leave these dishes here on the table and get out of your way ...” I can’t even blame him. I made my bed. And everyone else’s.
If what Schindler describes does result from family breakdown (again, was she raised by two parents or one?), there must be a lot of families suffering the same dysfunction hers is. We know the problems caused by single-parent childrearing. It may be that Schindler has given us a look at how that phenomenon plays out, one generation down the line, in a seemingly affluent family.
It’s not pretty.
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