My father used to play ball with me every so often as I was growing up. By that, I mean have a catch. “Have a catch” is a New York colloquialism for throwing the baseball back and forth. Another New York colloquialism is “sliding pond,” which comes from the Dutch and means a slide like the one at the playground. My father would watch me and my brother on the sliding pond when we were younger. He also taught me how to ride a bicycle. My older cousin taught me how to lace my shoes, and a friend taught me how to tie a Windsor knot in a necktie. You needed that on game days.
Yesterday I took my granddaughter, a dimpled girl with bright, blue eyes and ringlets, to the neighborhood playground. At just a year old, she stood among the redwood bark chips, fingers in mouth, watching older children run around and wondering at their manner of play. I, too, wondered, although not with my fingers in my mouth. And not at the children.
The dads caught my attention, one in particular. Actually, he didn’t just catch my attention. He cornered it and held it hostage for more than an hour. In a voice loud enough for all to hear, he controlled and directed the activity of his two children and a couple of others he was caring for as if he were calling signals on an offensive drive.
He commented on and corrected their behavior so that they followed his precise rules regarding who got to do what, when, and for how long. He added a running commentary to this, explaining the biographical rationale for the rules (e.g., “Remember the last time you jumped without looking, Elliott?”) and principles of physics (e.g., “It’s called gravity, Odessa, and it’s an elemental force of nature”).
When he started prattling in Rosetta Stone Spanish to his kids so that the rest of us might admire his progressive educational style, it was all I could do not to let out a Bronx cheer. I took my granddaughter and moved to the other side of the playground. The timing could not have been better, because just then he got on his cell phone and arranged a “play date” with some other parents, instructing them to bring bicycles.
This sort of thing is pervasive among parents today, especially dads. They feel obliged to explain and negotiate everything ad nauseam as if in some parental filibuster. They are also in competition to see who can bend over backward the farthest while still standing. I suppose it’s why so many of them take yoga. But I don’t think children respond to this kind of parenting for two reasons.
First, it objectifies them. People who act this way don’t parent as much as exercise ownership rights. And the ownership is conditional. In effect, they are insisting that if their child does not follow the prescribed rules, he will be put on medication or in counseling to correct the problem. That the “problem” was created by them in the first place doesn’t seem to cross their minds. After all, they’re doing everything right, which amounts to the opposite of what their parents did. This is the “you’re not the boss of me” parenting style.
Second, children can smell insincerity as quickly as a shark can smell blood in the water. I suspect that all the talk, explanation, and correction conceal either dislike or resentment at some level. Why resentment? Because spending time at the playground means that dad won’t be able to work on the second round of angel investing with the hope of making the cover of Entrepreneur magazine or becoming Steve Jobs 2.0. Children can sense this.
I may be overreacting, but I don’t think so, mainly because of a more profound change in society. I am referring to the reversal that has taken place with this generation of parents. Instead of parents creating an adult world that their children enter into to learn their roles and grow into adults, the reverse has happened. Parents now enter the world of children and derive their identity and roles from them. The basis upon which family is built has been turned inside out. I’m not talking about gender roles. I mean parental roles. Our culture’s obsession with youth certainly doesn’t help.
Maybe it’s just me, but I would rather have a catch than be nagged to death. That would make a great bumper sticker, but it’s also something I thank my father for every time I go to the playground with my grandkids.
You want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: Do not be ashamed to admit that you love fruitcake. Be proud! Buon Capodanno a tutti!