One afternoon last winter, I was trying on jackets in a department store dressing room when a woman with a child entered the compartment next to mine. The child was cranky; the woman was chatty. Choosing hope over reality, as mothers in chancy situations often do, the woman said, “Be a good boy, Jeffrey. This’ll only take Mommy a minute.”
From the size of his shoes, which were visible beneath the partition that separated us, I guessed Jeffrey to be about three years old. And based on the sounds he was emitting—snuffles, whines, and great wounded moans—it was obvious that Jeffrey was a kid heading straight for the edge. He carried on loudly for a while, his trapped and miserable body occasionally collapsing with a thud against our shared partition. Then suddenly, all was quiet. Almost as suddenly, I was aware of something at my feet. I looked down and there was Jeffrey, flat on his back, staring up at me impassively, a little slug in a hooded parka. It was a sight that might have been captivating if the circumstances hadn’t made it completely undesirable. I had nothing against Jeffrey—in fact, I sympathized with his plight—but I did not wish to share this moment with him.
Figuring his mother would promptly remove him—I mean, how could she miss what he was doing?—I gazed down at Jeffrey and waited. I waited for what seemed like a long time. When Jeffrey’s mother finally chose to address the matter at hand, her words were to her son but her message was for me. With sing-song confidence she said, “Oh, Jeffrey! That lady doesn’t think you’re funny.” Which meant that I was supposed to think Jeffrey was funny. She was finessing Jeffrey; she was finessing the whole situation, for her benefit (after all, Jeffrey finally was pacified), at my expense, with a brazen lack of ambivalence.
Until that moment, I had felt sympathy not only for Jeffrey but for his mother. If it’s tough to be a kid dragged around on a shopping expedition, it’s also tough to shop while dragging around kids. (My strongest feelings, however, were for Jeffrey. Mothers usually have a choice in those deals. Kids don’t.) But all sympathy left me when I realized she was exploiting the great unspoken compact among parents, that shared understanding of the job that allows them to view each other with a little charity and give each other a little room. Not only was Jeffrey’s mother willing for me, an innocent stranger, to serve as Jeffrey’s distraction, she expected my cooperation. What’s more, I was supposed to think the whole thing was sort of cute. Worst of all, she was willing, for her own convenience, to sacrifice what I can only think of as her child’s reputation as a kid by in effect volunteering him as a pain in the neck.
Needless to say, the situation was not cute (although from what I saw of him, Jeffrey was), and since his mother had left both Jeffrey and me to our own devices, I said firmly to the slug at my feet, “Good-bye, Jeffrey.” Without getting off his back, without uttering a word or taking his eyes from mine, Jeffrey slowly inched his way back under the partition—then promptly took up where he had left off, wailing his toddler grief. At that point, I found one more reason to resent Jeffrey’s mother. She had provoked in me a petty thought: Serves you right, Mommy.
I dwell on this episode because it seems to me a microcosm of current parental attitudes and behavior. There were three problems in that dressing room. There was Jeffrey’s problem, which was that he was three years old, stuffed into a snowsuit, and trapped in a cubicle. There was my problem, which was that I wanted to try on clothes without the company of children I had never seen before. And there was Jeffrey’s mother’s problem, which was that she wanted to do what she wanted to do and feel like a nice mommy in the bargain.
The question was one of problem ownership. Who owned those problems? It wasn’t Jeffrey, because you can ask many things of a three-year-old, but passive endurance of overheated physical imprisonment isn’t one of them. And it certainly wasn’t me. That leaves Jeffrey’s mother, whose burden, to my way of thinking, was to solve Jeffrey’s problem and mine, which she could have done by simply not doing what she wanted to do and taking poor Jeffrey home. Not doing what you want to do: by all evidence, this is considered radical thinking by many modern parents.
I am convinced that the impulse which allowed Jeffrey’s mother to expect my complicity in her problem holds the seed of the attitude that eventually leads parents to say, “Her teacher doesn’t understand her” when their daughter fails in school, and “Oh; he’s just being a kid” when their son vandalizes someone’s mailbox. (On another level, it may even hold the seed of the confusion between something like the need for daycare and the right to daycare.) The impulse is an admission of both helplessness and self-centeredness, an expression of the desire to have someone, anyone, available to share the burden of parental duty and the blame of parental failure, failure being all but inevitable of course when parents insist on the illusion that they can conveniently skip the small stuff without in any way jeopardizing the big stuff.
Lazy, self-deluded parents are nothing new. What is new, at least to me, is the conceit of parental mastery that now accompanies the laziness and self-delusion. I am referring to the mothers and fathers who create a great show of their parental investment, those who make themselves (and their children) sitting ducks by claiming publicly the badge of Really Terrific Parents. These people are everywhere.
You can find Really Terrific Dads in the library on Saturday mornings, laughing indulgently (Ah, kids!) when their pretty little five-year-old daughters suddenly shout something like, “You big dumb stupid Daddy!” The laugh is meant to hide the fact that these men are secretly terrified of their children and haven’t the faintest idea what to do, what to think, about being called “big dumb stupid Daddy.” The game here is to avoid the need for action by not acknowledging it.
And there are always a couple of Really Terrific Moms in any bookstore, women who entertain their maternal vanity by imposing their children’s intelligence on fellow browsers. (“And what’s this word, sweetheart? That’s right, it’s environment.”) They are the mothers who talk to their children as if they aren’t quite acquainted with them; and theirs are the kids I always think of as vaguely deprived. These children seem to have everything except whatever counts as cheap thrills in the world of preschoolers. They invariably head straight for Dr. Seuss or the inexpensive and gaudy Sesame Street books or something with Pee-wee Herman on the cover. And their mothers invariably try to steer them toward some lavish award winner, a volume illustrated all in matte gray and mauve, a book in which A Child Just Like You discovers, metaphorically, the importance of the food chain or some such thing.
On any given evening you can find the whole Really Terrific Family gathered in a restaurant somewhere. No, they aren’t those folks over there, the ones expeditiously finishing their meal and packing, up because their baby is determined to create a ruckus. I’m talking about the people behind you, the ones who are doing what they want to do while smiling adoringly at their fed-up three-year-old, who is doing what he wants to do, which is to pass the time by simultaneously kicking the back of your booth and hanging over your shoulder while you eat.
If you happen to be a new parent and you find yourself the recipient of unsolicited advice on what always to do or never to do in bringing up your baby, chances are the advice is coming from Really Terrific Parents, and never mind that their kid was the one yelling “big dumb stupid Daddy” in the library.
Or maybe the discussion is about teenagers and the subject is drugs and alcohol. If the couple across from you patiently explain that they provide beer for their son’s parties because “it’s a good way to keep an eye on him, and besides, beer is no big deal—except when he’s in training, of course,” you are definitely in the company of Really Terrific Parents, a pair working in concert, at full tilt. And don’t let it bother you, because it, isn’t likely to bother them, when you find out their son is the kid who keeps flattening your mailbox.
I don’t like Really Terrific Parents. I think they are wrongheaded and silly, and I believe they’re in for trouble. And I am appalled by mothers and fathers who won’t do what is necessary to protect their children from needlessly appearing (in some cases, being) unlikable. And that’s my point: I’m all angry and appalled and grumpy and negative. I am paying a price for being forced into judgment when I would prefer to withhold judgment, at least a little. Some unnamed comfort is disappearing. The great unspoken compact—the closest thing to a golden rule the world of parenthood has—is being exploited into extinction by legions of Really Terrific Parents. They offend not by mistaking indulgence for patience and blather for discipline (that offense is against their children), but by turning this process of parental capitulation into a self-satisfied public performance. It’s okay, I guess, if people want to feel smug about their parental skills when no one’s looking. But it is bad form to feel that way openly. And it is a direct assault on the compact to flaunt your smugness while your child is calling you names in public or sprawled at the feet of some stranger in a department store dressing room.