Friday, April 14, 2017

Kids, earmuffs

I Wanna Be a Toy's R 'Us Kid

I celebrated another year of birth a few weeks ago, which gave me the opportunity to reflect on the various ways in which I've become a crotchety old man.  Following my birthday two years ago, I provided some commentary on the tell-tale signs of my personal realization of my old age.  They all still apply.

This winter we took advantage of a couple of kid friendly special movie showings at our local movie theater.  You know, the times when they have a free or extremely discounted second run kids film, typically sponsored through a local business for some good PR.  The inexpensive cost, or lack of cost, for the movie tickets themselves, help your personal justification for purchasing unnecessary popcorn and candy amounting to at least what you likely would have paid for regularly priced movie tickets in the first place.  It always amazes me how a "free" kid event can often turn into a sizable financial investment.

The movies typically shown are usually in the PG range, attempting to cater to a variety of audience age-levels.  As designated by the Motion Picture Association of America, the PG rating implies that parental guidance is suggested as some material might not be suitable for children.  During an increasing amount of these "special showings", I've found myself being somewhat taken aback at how much material doesn't seem to be suitable for children.  Or, in my view, at least not my children.  Yes, that doesn't make me sound any less like a crotchety old man, but it's a role I seem to be coming to embrace.

As someone who tends to be relatively particular about word usage (in case it wasn't readily apparent), watching my own tongue around my kids hasn't been too challenging of an exercise.  I vividly remember when Isla our oldest was about 18 months, overhearing the toddler room teacher at her daycare instruct the kids to "sit on their bumpers".  It seemed to be such a cute and folksy term, that it has stuck with us as a pretty exclusive reference term to any private anatomy part, male or female.  It has slowly faded within the past few months, as Gus, our youngest, at the ripe age of two, seemed to be the first kid in our house to learn the word "penis" and has made a point to use it whenever applicable, and not so applicable.  Ugh, boys.....

Staying home with the kids, I can obviously keep better tabs on what they are and are not being exposed to.  My kid's first amendment rights definitely get infringed upon often.  Earlier this year, we downgraded our cable options, so the only kid friendly programming accessible in our house comes via PBS^.  But even having a better ability than most to censor what my kids are exposed to, I've found you still have to be pretty vigilant.  On countless occasions I've omitted words and changed story lines in the midst of reading books to my kids to skip over things I don't entirely feel comfortable with them hearing, or me saying out loud in front of them.  Whether they are Disney classics - my kids still are a little unclear on the Huntsman's reason for taking Snow White into the forest - or even stories from "The Good Book" - I tend to make a few minor edits to the Easter story.  With Isla starting kindergarten this past year, obviously she has been exposed to some of the larger ills of society.  Fortunately, she has retained a certain level of naivete.  She currently thinks the "S" word is "stupid", and up until recently would sing the title lyric of the Walk the Moon song as, "you're so fancy."

Beyond the ad-libbing that can be done while reading stories, I've become more and more aware at some of the places where my kids can be exposed to very adult concepts.  As a somewhat regular public radio listener (again, because I am old), I was getting caught up on the news headlines one day while en route to the grocery store with the kids.  One of the news bits revolved around a murder trial for a man who cut up someone's body and put it in a suitcase.  Half paying attention to the story, since I was laser focused on getting the best gas mileage out of the van, a question came in from the back seats from our five year old inquiring, "why somebody would put somebody in a suitcase."  I've since restricted my public radio listening in the car to time when they kids have fallen asleep.  As an alternative to driving in silence, or with just screaming kids, I keep an iPod of kid's music readily available or our radio dialed tuned to the local Christian music station.

One of the more recent books I read* was Dr. Leonard Sax's The Collapse of Parenting.  The subtitle of the book is "How we fail our kids when we treat them like adults."  Dr. Sax argues that by exposing our children at too young of an age to arguably adult concepts, we are encouraging/forcing them to grow up too quickly.  To make matters worse, as parents we too often fail to help foster the development of our kids that actually turns them into capable adults.  I've personally seen this while observing parents speaking to their kids in very adult ways, but then treating them like kids.  I'm sure that I've done this from time to time as well.  It took me a little while, but I have gotten comfortable responding to my kids, when asked about something that I think is beyond their age/maturity, that we will discuss it when they are older.

Dr. Sax also acknowledges what he sees as a culture of disrespect among children and teens toward their parents and authoritative figures, highly perpetuated by our various entertainment mediums.  He points out the typical story line of a Nickelodeon or Disney channel show, where the portrayed family dynamic is a kid who knows it all and has no reservations about telling his/her dorky parents how it is.  Naturally you can't keep your kids in a bubble, but as a parent you have to set parameters on what you think is appropriate for your kids; behavior, language, hobbies, food choices, etc.  One of my favorite lines from the book was, "if you are doing your job as a parent, then sometimes you will have to do things that will upset your child.  If you are concerned that your child won't love you anymore, that concern may keep you from doing your job.  Do your job."  As the parent you get to call the shots.

One aspect that Dr. Sax discussed is his book, and is something that I've found myself baffled by as well as a parent, is the frequency of kid's apparel being littered with excessively narcissistic messages.  My daughter has a shirt that says "Princess of Everything".  Odds are if you have a kid (or two) you have in your house a kid sized shirt (or 25) that has a saying that seen on an adult could be considered mildly offensive.  But yet on a kid, it's cute.  Even if the kid can't read (thank God) and mostly certainly can't understand the intended humor, or lack thereof.  Beyond shirts with questionable script, kid's clothes tend to be geared to mimic adults, or make kids look more like adults.  Matching puffy vests for the whole family?  Ah, isn't that cute.  I learned this past fall that you can purchase a sports bra in a size 5, apparently making it a requisite wardrobe piece for some people's five year-olds.              

Something that I think may play a factor in the increased pace in which our kids are exposed to adult concepts is the way in which we've tried to make parenting work better for parents.  Take a kid's movie.  If you have seen one recently, you are probably well aware that adult humor tends to be interspersed throughout the film.  While I appreciate the nuanced references and find myself chuckling along from time to time, I can't help but wonder if by trying to make "kid things" tolerable for adults, we are inadvertently expediting the childhood experience.  Sure most of it is likely over the kids' heads anyway, but if adult humor seems to be a necessary component of a kid's movie in effort to keep parents engaged, I think we may be missing the point of family entertainment a little.

Beyond kid geared entertainment, there are a myriad of other ways that we parents tend to try to make parenting work better for us.  This is not surprising given the fact that on average people are having kids at a later age, and are typically more ingrained in a lifestyle that they expect to continue in some form after having kids.  While I am a big advocate for retaining a sense of individuality after becoming a parent, it often times seems like we try to do both at once.  And when we do this, or attempt to do it, we can open up the realms of that adult world to our kids without even realizing.  Technology and our various mediums certainly play a big role here, as we have the ability to be connected to the "adult world" whenever we please.  But if we, as parents, struggle at times to see clear lines of delineation between "parentland" and "adult world", imagine how confused it can make our kids.  If you've instructed your child not to use a certain descriptive noun to reference his/her younger sibling, then it would be wise to refrain from using that same noun to describe your boss to your spouse.  Mind like a sponge, Focker.

Or take something like the clothing aspect.  To me, the concept of "fashion" seems to be a very adult thing.  When we begin to expose our kids to these ideas of what "looks good" based on our adult perceptions of social norms, we are opening up another avenue to which they can both judge themselves and others.  It's as though we put our kids in "cute" clothes so that they will be more pleasing for us parents, and the other adults who will judge us based on the appearance of our children, to look at.  With this being our year of encouraging self-sufficiency, one of the tasks for our oldest daughter each night is to pick out her outfit for school the next day.  Once she happened to pick out a pair of pants and a shirt that didn't really go together, and while I contemplated saying something to her, I realized that as a five year old, it isn't pertinent for her grasp what color combinations pair well.  I was just happy that she had picked out clothes that she would actually put on and would work with the following day's forecast.  Even as a kindergardener though, she has definitely started to realize that there are certain brands that are "cooler" than others.  Fortunately, for our pocketbook, she currently has no qualms with wearing hand-me-down underwear.      

As Dr. Sax recommends, if we want to have good kids, we have to be better people.  Our kids may not always listen to us, or seem like are paying attention, but they are certainly going to pick up on the things they want to.  Odds are the things they will want to pick up on are the unsavory items; whether it be our foul language or bad behaviors, or that of their peers.  We can't filter out every unpleasant thing, but as parents we have the ability and responsibility to set parameters on what we think is appropriate.  They will eventually grow up and learn all of the curse words, and what behavior will get them sent to the principal's office (hopefully by watching another kid's first hand experience).  They'll also learn, sooner rather than later, what is "fashionable" and what impact apparel can have on popularity and social acceptance.  This will also likely be an introduction into the differences in socio-economic status among their peers.

To me those all seem like some heavy topics that my kids probably will have trouble grasping until their older.  And even when they are older, they still might not understand them.  But as often as we tell them to stop growing, we can't stop them from growing.  Thus I'm going to do what I can now to keep certain concepts away from them for as long as possible, or at least do what I can to not be the one provides them the introduction.  I'm going to continue to censor what they can be exposed to whenever I feel appropriate because, like Dr. Sax suggests, I'm the parent and I can.  It may make me seem a bit overly protective, and my vernacular sound a bit corny accent (ah, shucks!).  But I figure someone has to hate their fun from time to time, and it might as well be me.

Defiant act of political protest?

^My ulterior motive in reducing the variety of kid-appropriate programming my kids had access to was the hope that they'd eventually get bored with the same old shows, and no longer incessantly ask to watch TV.

*Wouldn't be a blog post if I didn't make a book reference.              


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