Parenting the Parents

Article excerpt

"EXACTLY HOW MANY KIDS actually live here?" we sometimes would ask one another. The official count was three, but there usually were more around than that. It suited us free; our tolerance for rambunctious, barely-controlled chaos was high. We had five household rules posted on the refrigerator ("No tents in the house" and "No slamming doors," were testimonies to particular unfortunate events) and everything rolled along fine. Twenty-four years have come and gone, and now, from an empty nest, I find that I, like many, am expected to be a parent to others' kids.

Of course, the government is the granddaddy, or perhaps the grandma, of everyone. My grandma would peek out the lace curtains next door and telephone my morn if we were doing anything dangerous--or fun. Mom would call us in and suggest that, if we were going to do anything stupid, do it on the other side of the house, where her mother-in-law would not see and report on us. There were no brick steps to fly off on that side, but we managed to risk our necks in other ways.

The Federal, state, and local governments, and every zoning board and neighborhood association have taken over for our grandmas. They will rat on us and cause trouble if we do anything stupid--or fun. Not only that, like some Platonic ideal of a grandmother, they take a little information and apply it as generously as sunscreen. It would not surprise me in the least if the government issued a news bulletin that sitting on hearthstones will give us "piles," or that cold milk on cereal will upset our stomachs. None of us imagines that French fries are a health food and yet McDonald's is harassed incessantly. (They ought to take my mom's advice and consider making the fries on the side of the restaurant not facing the Capitol building.) When I go out to a fancy dinner--which is infrequently--I do not want the luxury of the experience mined by a calorie count. I do not want fake margarine; if I am going to eat too much fresh bread, I want gobs of real butter. Leave me alone. I am a big girl; I can eat what I want.

Worst of all, I find myself in the position of doing a parent's job. If you have children in schools, you are well aware of the phenomena: nutritionists, counselors, social workers, teachers, administrators, and a host of other "-ors" and "-ists" hasten to micromanage your child's diet, personal hygiene, sex education, and social skills--aspects of life that, when I still was an active-duty parent, I hotly resented having usurped by professionals who fancied they knew better than me

about things within my motherly domain. I would rather they had stuck to math and science and the freer aspects of the rules of volleyball--but that is me, speaking for me. There are an awful lot of parents who are terrified of being parents. They do not want to be "mean," and they want to be their child's "friend." A certain number of them welcome the cavalry of school-based experts-on-your-kid, and are grateful for the assistance in doing some of the dirty jobs of parenting. "I am not ready to deal with risks from strangers/abuse/puberty/etc.," they complain, as if their immaturity should provide a magical shield to keep danger and change from their child. If you did not care about children, it would be easy to throw up your hands and back away, leaving the parents to deal with the eventual mess of offspring who are unprepared to deal with reality and the consequences of their behaviors. …


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