Since the time my child was about two — which is when, for me, actual parenting started to happen — I’ve said the same thing. If the universe could do you a solid and just give you an envelope when your kid was born, everything would be so much simpler.
Not just an empty envelope, but one containing a small piece of paper with a single word written on it: yes or no. As in, Yes. Your child is a psycho/sociopath. Or No. Your child is just an asshole. Without this envelope, this little piece of personality insurance, my experience has been that you spend almost every waking minute that you’re parenting wondering, Is this a phase? Am I a bad parent? Or, of course, Is my kid going to grow up to be the Unibomber?
Let me tell you, it’s hard to shake that Unibomber stuff.
Let’s start with the backstory. I’m an over-thinking, over-compensating, over-anxious parent. I’m a working mom, which means I am failing full time at half of what I’m doing.
No, I can’t help run the bake sale at the school.
No I can’t join a book club that meets at 10AM on Tuesdays.
No I can’t be anywhere, ever, for anything that starts at 5PM.
No I can’t make a 7:30AM meeting.
No I can’t “just hop on this call really quick” at 6PM.
And no, I don’t think we should try to do team drinks at least once a week.
(But really on this last one. I think even if I were childless and drowning in excessive income, I’d still be good with our quarterly meet up.)
More importantly though, I’m just a parent in 2019 who is trying to figure out how the hell to raise a child in a fully digital, completely connected, overly judgmental, and grossly capitalistic society. More specifically, a child who isn’t a shit.
It’s hard. Like, really, really hard. I tried to pick up dry cleaning recently and there were toys for sale at the register. AT THE DRY CLEANER. I can’t buy broccoli without a fight about Pokemon cards or Matchbox cars or fucking slime or goop or whatever the hell you call that horrifying shit that literally murders every piece of clothing or furniture it comes in contact with. Target runs for toilet paper turn into meltdowns about stopping for chocolate milk at the Starbucks or buying some other plastic wrapped in plastic covered in plastic thing that will end up choking a gay baby whale and ending our habitation on this planet. Goods are cheap, plentiful, and destructive. The $2.99 it takes for some peace of mind is — economically speaking — a no brainer, but with dire consequences. Yes, for the whales, but also for our children.
Last week my son told me we needed to go to the store right away and buy Pediasure. It was surprising for a number of reasons. First, my child isn’t allowed to watch a lot of television and he’s never allowed to watch it on any platform with commercials. Second, he was panicked. The message had come through loud and clear: if we didn’t go buy Pediasure, he wouldn’t grow. He wouldn’t get his nutrients. Other kids would pick on him.
I spent almost an hour explaining to him that this was just marketing. That the real, and best, way to get your nutrients is from food. Real food. Green food. Homemade food. I reminded him about all the cartoons on food at the store. (Cartoon on the box = super crap.) After all that, I’m not sure I won. Deep inside his little brain a switch had been irrevocably flipped. The TV has an authority now that I don’t think I can usurp. I’m just glad the TV didn’t tell him he needed anymore of that goddamned slime.
But here’s the rub: all of these small things send a big message. The same way the beauty industry has been telling women to get prettier and make our vaginas smell better, our society is telling kids that they need stuff. Moreover, they need cheap, nearly disposable stuff. If they get it, they will be happy and popular. And the message to parents? Buy it. Buy it all. It’s cheap, it’s available, and it will keep them quiet. A lot of us feel like salmon swimming up a stream that is having concrete slowly poured into it. It’s gotten so damn hard to just say no. Other parents are doing it. Other kids are spoiled. Other parents aren’t saying no. Is there something wrong with me? Why do I have to be the mean one? I say no constantly, all day, every day, about everything. Saying yes is like a hit of parenting heroin. They love us. They are momentarily happy. We’re popular and loved. And then…
You get a brat.
One day you realize that without boundaries, that without standing some moral or principled ground, your child loses the healthy respect that makes parenting work. Without respect, there is no currency. A lack of respect leads you as a parent into rough territory. Your kid issues a silent ultimatum: give me what I want or I’ll make your life hell.
But here’s the thing: raising good, honest, loving humans matters. If we don’t believe that, we’re fucked. If we as parents don’t wake up and think to ourselves this isn’t about being liked, this is about something so much bigger than all of us then we too have lost respect: for ourselves, our planet, and the human beings who are suffering to give our whiny ass kids cheap plastic crap to play with at a restaurant, because apparently it’s too much of a burden to be at a restaurant in a first world country eating food that will cost as much as a year’s worth of wages for a factory worker in China. Chew on that dramatic ass visualization for a second.
In truth, my kid isn’t a brat — yet. But he flirts with it regularly. He expects material goods, praise, simplicity, options, choices, fun, and entertainment at his whim. He doesn’t understand the depth and impact of our consumption choices. More importantly, he doesn’t understand privilege. And little white boys from upper class families who don’t learn the impact of privilege, of assuming you will get what you want because you simply wanted it, become men without empathy, without compassion. They become men who make choices about women’s bodies and tell people living in poverty to “just get a job.”
I realize we aren’t a Matchbox car meltdown away from white supremacy or voting for Trump and I know the feeling of needing to hand over an iPad for a moments peace, but these vibrations, these inklings that we’re headed down the wrong path need to be acknowledged. Imagine this generation all grown up. Imagine a generation of people who have gotten every material thing they’ve wanted the moment they’ve wanted it. Imagine a generation that was shown that you can buy your way to anything. Imagine a generation that thinks every question should be answered with I instead of we or us? No eye contact. No social skills. Even more frightening, no coping skills. We are raising this generation. We are responsible for helping equip them to wage the war against a culture that is on autopilot, helping to show them that their humanity is the only thing that really matters. Head up, shoulders back, heart and mind open.
As parents, we need something to get us out of bed and doing the work of shaping humans into compassionate creatures full of love and respect and gratitude even when it’s thankless work. We’d also be helped tremendously by having that envelope letting us know whether we should be truly worried about our kid, or just annoyed that they’re being so awful, but really we just need help. We’re losing the fight.
It’s hard. It’s so so hard. But I bet it’s less hard if we do it together.