My sister has a new project that involves buying me various t-shirts she thinks express my bossy inner personality. Recently she got me one that says, “Stupidity Is Not a Crime, So You’re Free to Go.”
Now I don’t normally wear t-shirts with slogans on them outside the house. Too corny, like putting emoticons or “LOL” in email. But this shirt is nicely cut and since I hate shopping, lately I’ve been running out of clothes. So not long ago I threw it on when I dashed out for a quick lunch and a movie.
There I was, eating a hotdog in the sunshine at an outdoor L.A. mall, when a mother passing by with a small child smiled, hesitated for a moment, and then volunteered: “I’d like to send that shirt to our president!”
“Well,” I said pleasantly, “I wouldn’t, I guess, since I voted for him.” (I wish I’d thought to add perkily, “I’d like to send it to Cindy Sheehan, though!” but my mind was in a hotdog-induced funk.)
“Oh…” she said, flabbergasted.
“That’s OK,” I added. “But you should know that not everyone is on the same side politically.”
At this point, her son, about four years old, began a pantomime of stomping on ants as he yelled, “Stomp Bush! Stomp Bush! Stomp Bush!” Evidently he’d been trained to do this, like an organ grinder’s monkey, whenever the word “president” is mentioned.
“No, no,” the woman told her son, rather helplessly, “she likes him.” The boy, however, continued his stomping and shouting.
“Gosh,” I observed, “isn’t he just adorable?”
Actually, of course, I thought the boy was yet another wretched example of contemporary parenting. Because I don’t care what your politics are or who you voted for, no small child should be taught to disrespect the presidency like that.
When my daughter, now 16, was in second grade, I was no fan of President Clinton. But I didn’t rain on her parade when, after the class had written the White House, she was pleased and excited to get a picture of him in the mail with a form letter saying how happy he was to be her president.
This class project, by the way, did indeed get the kids interested in Bill Clinton and his adventures. Because a few years later, during Monicagate, I was interested to see that Monica Lewinsky had evolved into a folkloric character on the playground. “Monica!” one kid would yell, hands over eyes, while another would respond, “Lewinsky!” It was a land version of Marco Polo.
Anyway, my daughter certainly never felt free to yell “Stomp Clinton! Stomp Clinton! Stomp Clinton!” because of my politics, and I would have spoken to her quite severely if she had. As it happens, this willingness to speak severely to children at all – along with not always finding their behavior acceptable – has long put me in the minority among fellow urbanite moms.
Lately, though, I’ve noticed a few faint media signs that the pendulum may be swinging back. Take the recent New York Observer storyabout hip New York parents who dress their kids in clothes with “edgy” leftist slogans like “President Poopyhead” or “I Already Know More Than the President.” (This last, according to the Observer, was spotted “on the young spawn” of “The Daily Show”‘s Jon Stewart.)
Granted, it’s not encouraging that this merchandise exists at all, and the story did describe one tyically indulged small child screaming loudly in a shop carrying Che t-shirts: “Daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy! I want to wear this outside!”
Still, I was heartened to read in the piece that not everyone approves of this new fashion trend. “It just doesn’t seem fair, when they can’t even roll over by themselves, to force them to be little signposts for your opinions,” an Elle editor told the Observer.
The Sunday before last, “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety” author Judith Warner wrote a New York Times op-ed about diminished tolerance these days for badly behaved children. Warner began by noting that the phrase “Children should be seen and not heard” may be due for a comeback.
Blogger and Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist James Lileks, who’s long been known for collecting mid-20th-Century pop culture kitsch as well as his witty conservative commentary, has a new book out satirizing old child care beliefs, “Mommy Knows Worst: Highlights From the Golden Age of Bad Parenting Advice.” The book makes a perfect baby shower present and is very funny: “Any word from the Governor, Warden?” Lileks titles a drawing of a baby strapped to a potty chair in a chapter called “The Golden Age of Constipation.”
But Lileks admits at the beginning that his book “is so unfair.” He’s right, of course. Because judging from the often bratty results of contemporary parenting advice, you have to wonder if the customs so many modern mothers follow have always been a huge improvement.
Again, though, I’ve noticed the tide may be turning. Syndicated columnist Betsy Hart, for instance, has a sensible new book out called “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting Is Hurting Our Kids – and What to Do About It.” Hart takes a strong stand against today’s “parenting culture… in which parents are essentially encouraged to idolize their children, to marvel at their inherent goodness and wisdom.”
And just a few weeks ago, everyone was talking (mostly approvingly) about the N.Y. Times feature on a Chicago coffee shop owner who’d posted signs warning that customers’ small children were expected to use “indoor voices” and refrain from running around banging into things.
Predictably, some shocked parents are now boycotting the shop. (The money quote from one: “What are we supposed to do, not enjoy ourselves at a café?” Yes, yes! If you can’t control your kids, that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do!) Not so predictably, there was an outpouring of support for the coffee shop owner on the Times letters page a few days later, with one suggesting he be nominated for the Nobel Prize.
So who knows? Maybe the next time an observer fails to be enchanted by some child who yells “Stomp Bush!” — or sprawls on the floor in a coffee shop and screams — his mother might not be quite so surprised as she once would have been.
Catherine Seipp is a writer and visiting fellow with IWF. She also maintains a blog, “Cathy’s World.”