because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

When Parents Are The Problem

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From Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are

After winning baseball games, our team sponsor – the local Hess station – promised the players free Avalanches, those frozen drinks with the fun (artificial) flavors and colors. One night, my son’s team played particularly well. It had been a hard game, and even my kid made an out and (uncharacteristically) added three points to the scoreboard. Usually, I try to opt out of these kinds of mass-eating-crap-before-dinner kinds of events, but everyone was stoked, so we went.

Before we even left the field, I noticed one heavy-set kid eating a hot dog that his mother had purchased for him from the concession stand. I’m surprised I noticed him except it was hard not to. This kid was going at it, and he put away that hot-dog in three bites. I know this because I watched him: Bite. Chew. Swallow. Bite. Chew. Swallow. Bite. Chew. Swallow. Gone.

photo from horizontal.integration @ flickr.com

Later, at the Hess Station, while the boys were reveling in mixing their (artificially flavored and colored) cherry and cola and blueberry drinks, I saw hot-dog boy again. Only now he had a 64-ounce Avalanche in his left hand and not one, but two extra large Snickers bars in his right hand. At that point, I heard hot-dog boy say (actually, it was more like a loud whine), “I’m still hungry! Can we go across the street and get a hot dog?’ (I thought Snickers were supposed to “really satisfy you.”)

Hot-dog boy’s parents tried (briefly) to reason with their son, to no avail. He begged, he pleaded. He got louder, insisting on how hungry he was. In fact, he was not just hungry, he was starving. The word “no” was clearly not in their lexicon, and hot-dog boy and his parents were last seen walking across the street, presumably to get another hot-dog from the fast food joint across the way.

I’ve been thinking about this whole scenario for a while now. And I’ve been trying really hard not to be judgmental. In fact, I’ve been thinking of a million reasons to justify the allowances they made for their more than a little husky son.

I’m thinking, maybe they didn’t want to make a scene, so they just went along, that they don’t usually behave like this – these parents – but this one time, this one day, they were tired. Maybe they didn’t have food in the house, so they shrugged their shoulders and gave in. I mean, we did, right? Usually, hubby and I take our son straight home after baseball games, but on that day, we said, let’s go buy crap and celebrate with everyone.

I wondered if it was a full-time working parent “thing”: I have seen that many times before, the guilt some parents seem to have in saying no to their children. They don’t want to be the heavies. On weekends, they want to have fun, not discipline.

I considered that maybe the parents liked keeping their kid stuffed. When his mouth was full, he was quiet. He wasn’t loud or obnoxious or demanding, so why not cork him up with some candy or gum or a hot-dog and get a little peace of mind. Truthfully, I don’t know the deal, and it doesn’t matter.

My husband and I have a guiding principle: our child is here to augment our lives, not control us. Granted, it’s easy to have this guiding principle when you have only one child. We have him outnumbered; he can never beat us.

I know others do not share our adult-centered worldview, and I see variations of this “child-running-the-show” theme all the time. I see kids screaming at their parents in the mall, demanding expensive name-brand clothing, shoes and accessories. These kids relentlessly work their parents, generally declaring they won’t be “cool” or have social lives if they don’t have the “right” clothes or purse or game system or cellphone. And that’s okay. That’s what kids do. They cry. They get dramatic. They stomp around. What surprises me is when the parents of these children-behaving-badly cave in to their children’s demands, thus passively accepting their children’s disrespect and assuring a repeat performance in the future.

When I witness these uncomfortable public displays, I often picture myself, a spectator at some weird circus. I can’t help but imagine the child standing center-ring in an over-sized red jacket, black chaps and tall boots acting as a ringmaster. The child is always holding a whip and a microphone. This child is a performer in a well-rehearsed routine. At the same time, I imagine the parents as white fluffy dogs, standing on their scrappy hind legs, being told to wait and then jump and run in a circle. It is a pretty pathetic show.

image by id-iom at flickr.com

You can be sure that as a kid, I asked my parents for all kinds of stuff. And guess what. They generally said no. No, you can’t have a pony. No, you can’t have those jeans. No, you can’t see that movie. No, you can’t sleep at your friend’s house on a school night. No, you can’t eat dessert before dinner. I heard a lot of “no’s” while growing up. I don’t hear too many no’s these days.

What I saw that night at the Hess station was a child masterfully controlling his parents. He knew how to do it. He’d clearly done it before. He knew just how long and how hard to push, and he knew his parents would ultimately jump. He was the ringmaster. Ick. What adult wants to be controlled by his children? It’s our kids’ jobs to push against the boundaries we set (which feel imposed and unfair to them), but it’s our job to remind our children where the boundaries are and to police the borders. To push the kids back, to remind them to be civilized, and to offer consequences to them when they have overstepped, to say no.

Why is it so hard for so many parents to say no?