I've spent a large portion of the last week watching movies. Most recently (ten minutes before writing this), I viewed for a second time a 1996 movie called Bullet, which centers around an exceptionally dysfunctional Brooklyn Jewish family. In the title role, Mickey Rourke (about halfway between his transformation from "attractive guy in Diner" to "weird looking guy in The Wrestler") is a heroin junkie and petty thief. A 23-year-old Adrien Brody is a slacker artist who paints on anything but an actual canvas and Ted Levine (playing a character significantly closer to Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs than Captain Stottlemeyer in "Monk") is a Vietnam vet still fighting the war from inside his childhood bedroom. In fact, the only one who wasn't living at home at the start of the movie was Bullet, and that was because he was in prison.
In addition, yesterday, I saw another New York-set film, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, which takes place entirely in my neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. In fact, the whole movie seemed to have been filmed within about four blocks of my apartment. In it, the main character, writer/director Dito Montiel (portrayed as young/old by Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey, Jr., respectively), can't seem to get through to his father about needing to escape the life to which staying in the neighborhood would have tethered him. I won't share more than that, but I do recommend seeing it.
In both cases, I was left thinking, "What on earth are these parents doing to these children?" Loudly thinking it, in fact. Regarding the latter film, I'm assuming most of it actually happened, to boot. Of course, Dito's father, were he alive today and also an author/filmmaker, would probably have a very different take on the events depicted, but that's neither here nor there. Actually it's two blocks from here, but that's not important right now.
Meanwhile, in what I like to call "real life," more than a few of my friends (and one family member, in particular) have recently had children and/or are in the process of having children, a majority of them for the second time (I mean, they're having their second child, not that they're having their first child again; that would be weird). I look at my friends with kids; I look at my niece, I consider the truths and fictions embodied in these movies, and I wonder exactly where these parents are going to go right and where they're going to go wrong.
This is not me being cynical; people simply make mistakes. And children, at least normal children, usually rebel in some way or another, if only to claim their own individuality. The point is, all people, I think, resent, at the very least, one or two of the aspects of their upbringings, even for those who realize that theirs was, on the whole, nurturing and normal.
Most of my readers know that I don't have children. However, to enlighten the six others of you who aren't friends or family, yes, I'm not a parent. Which, ironically, should be apparent. (I'm so sorry. Sometimes, my hands just type these things.) So, when I discuss parenting or parenthood, I'm speaking from a place of very little experience whatsoever. I was a summer camp counselor for two years, which means I've technically proven myself able to keep fourteen 11-year-olds alive for four weeks at time, when surrounded by a thousand other people, many of whom are there solely to ensure that none of my kids died or went missing or became born-again under my watch. I know this is not the same as parenting, so you can put down your pitchforks and flaming torches.
Aside from that, all my experience comes from watching my friends and family learn how to be parents. Unless you count watching my parents learn how to be parents, and I have to admit, I wasn't really paying much attention at the time because I was too busy resenting getting picked up early from Josh Van Naarden's sleep-over party because my parents wouldn't let me miss one single day of Sunday School. Hell, I'm too busy resenting that right now.
And, more to the point, I'm not going to start poking fingers at my folks on the Internet for things they may or may not have done twenty-to-thirty years ago. If anything, I'll wait until we all get drunk down the shore and do that in real life.
Instead, I'm going to poke fingers at people I know who have small kids now and tell them exactly what they're doing wrong.
No, I'm kidding. But I had a couple of you worried, huh?
This column just comes out of the inspiration of picturing myself as bringing up a child, really. Looking at these parents in the movies and thinking, I wouldn't have handled it like that, looking at these parents in real life and thinking, I totally would have handled it like that, or vice versa, or even, in my most in-depth moments of self-assessment, wondering whether I could handle it at all. Or, honestly, if I want to. Admittedly, I have also had the same thoughts regarding purchasing a houseplant, so perhaps we should shift the focus from me for the moment.
Truly, I think I just wanted those of you -- of any age -- with children to know that those of us without children are watching you, in both the positive and negative sense. This is not to solely imply a threat, of course. We're also watching when you do the good things. When your daughter takes her first steps, when your son learns to stop petting the dog so violently, when your daughter writes a short story, when your son brings home a trophy, etc. And, at the same time, yeah, we're watching the other stuff, too. It works both ways. And the view can be pretty interesting from the cheap seats.
I don't know if this is a wake-up call for those of you with children, but yes, you're not parenting in a vacuum. In fact, my friend Carolin, on reading an early draft of this column, commented that even though we don't yet have kids, it doesn't mean we're not allowed to hold opinions regarding the right and wrong way to raise a family. She actually likened it to politics, suggesting that just because none of us is in Congress, it doesn't mean we can't observe and comment on what legislators are doing. The difference, of course, is that we do have at least a limited say in how the government is functioning, while we are generally forced to sit idly by when we see something like a mother letting her 2-year-old drink Pepsi.
That said, I don't think I know anyone right now who I would say is doing a particularly bad job of parenting. I mean, from all I've observed, a large part of the responsibility is simply being there and letting your child know you're there for him or her. Then there's the punishment part where you try to stop them from making bad decisions and the reward part where you try to bribe them from making bad decisions. And we see that. We see "time-outs" instead of spankings; we see ugly wooden homemade key chains hanging from pantry doors; we see both extremes of joy and disappointment in droves; we see the wonder about who she might become and the wonder about who he seems to have turned into. We regard the entire spectrum of their lives and we speculate about what we'll do right and what we'll do wrong when it's our turn to be put to the same test.
And, as a last point, we honestly don't even know how much it'll matter. Because, as I said above, children -- at least healthy children -- will rebel in one way or another. Part of it's a crap shoot, really. "Am I too strict?" "Am I not strict enough?" "Does she feel like she has to hide her problems from me?" "Is he sexually active?" "Have they ever tried drugs?" Should the answer to any one of these questions be "yes," or even to most of these questions (the first two are opposites), that still doesn't mean your kid won't turn out fine. Or you could be a great parent, and it doesn't ensure he won't someday be arrested for dealing cocaine. The reality is that you can't control everything your kids will do (despite my brother's fervent wish to stop my niece from ever dating boys). Even the Brady kids played ball in the house once.
However, and I cannot stress this enough, if you know something you're doing or not doing is likely to be screwing up your kid, please stop it. Enforcing too many rules can be just as detrimental as enforcing too few. Your five-year-old isn't being helped when she sees Mommy constantly telling Daddy what a disappointment he is. The newborn is a lot less likely to go to college if he's sucking in second-hand bong smoke while still in his crib. Your 12-year-old should not be allowed to hang out in her bedroom with the guy who delivers your pizza. Even for those of us without children, these seem like no-brainers, although too many parents are apparently incapable of realizing this.
However, I know it's presumptuous of me, unencumbered by any responsibilities more arduous than vacuuming my apartment every few weeks, to really be saying anything about child rearing. Which is why I'm gonna stop now. But I do hope that maybe some of you will take away something positive from what I've written and maybe the lives of your children will be a little more positive for it. And, if nothing else, you can rest easy with the knowledge that none of you has a PTSD Vietnam vet, a heroin junkie, and an out-of-work artist as your three children. So there is that.
A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
1.8.10 @ 1:35a
Observe a lot, do a lot, but don't judge - that is an excellent way to learn about parenting before you are a parent. Apply your observational powers now, to your friends, to the harried single mom at Wal-Mart, and to your own parents.
Especially your parents, because hindsight is a dangerous drug, the side effects of which are harsh judgmentalism and excessive Monday-morning quarterbacking. If you can be truly objective about your own parents, and be understanding of what they did even if it's not what you would do, that's when you know you're capable of raising a kid.
Not perfect, but capable. You aim for perfection, but you learn to be happy with good.
This period of your life is like police academy training for a cop. You want to be thoroughly trained so that when the emergencies actually happen, you don't have to think about it; you can just let your training take over.
But don't over-train. Sooner or later, you're gonna have to have the kid. Or is there something you're not telling us?
1.8.10 @ 9:09a
Did you know that Haim Ginott, one of if not THE all-time greatest child psychologist, never had any children of his own? You can't do any better than reading and applying his best-seller, "Between Parent and Child." His ideas still hold up even though he died in 1973. My children adored him, for instance, as did every child I ever saw who met him.
Thus, it's not necessary to have children of your own to understand and appreciate good parenting and to recognize bad or imperfect parenting when you see it.
My overriding philosophy when I was a counselor was that there's nothing wrong with us except we think there's something wrong with us: wrong with our childhood, our parenting, our parents, whatever. Some things that happen to children are truly horrible. I don't wish to underplay the fact that some parents are horrible. All of us have endured attacks on our self-esteem of one kind or another and what we have to do is learn that whatever it was we don't have to live our lives with a central obsession of that, or those, events.
If you haven't seen Christopher Titus' "Norman Rockwell is Bleeding" stand-up routine, you probably should. They run it on Comedy Central every now and then.
1.8.10 @ 3:21p
A friend of mine just commented on my Facebook link to this column that he was planning on screwing up his kids by making them Mets fans.
I couldn't agree more.
dr. jay gross
1.9.10 @ 9:42a
Experience and/or education may just give a writer the information to write an essay on a subject....but not likely.
Years of observation may not make you a good parent, but will most certainly show you what 'not' to do as you raise your kids;
- Treat them as you would treat yourself, only without being self-abussive, or overly stupid (have common sense).
- Point them in the right direction, but don't ever expect them to be able to read the map.
- Correct their behavior and manners, but avoid unnecessary harping or physical damage (punishment).
- Stress education and learning. There is great purpose in learning what life may give a child and have the tools to cope. (counting change, reading directions, retaining information from what you read, cooperating with others, gravitate toward the best role models.)
- A child is never as old as its parents while growing up. Being 15 doesn't provide the experience and reasoning ability of a 30 year old.(even though a child might strongly think he/she can)
- The more one knows, the more one knows one doesn't know. This applies to both parents and their children.
Finally and maybe most importantly; 'Don't sweat the petty stuff, and don't pet the sweaty stuff.' Allow a child to be young for as long as possible. Avoid becoming a parent until you are willing to absorb a lot more punishment than you will ever dole out to your progeny.
1.11.10 @ 3:24p
Beyond "abusive," I've always thought the worst adjective one could use to describe a parent is "selfish."