Bang. Bang, bang, bang, and bang and bang.
That's the noise of the plastic water cup she is whacking against the ceramic-topped table of a neighborhood coffeehouse whose concrete floors function like an echo chamber. If she had a hammer she would have destroyed the table by now, and I'm pretty sure her parents would've let her. People look up from their lattes, squint at the diminutive figure making the big, ear-splitting noise, and try to continue with their newspapers or conversations. The banging goes on for a good 10 minutes. Normally, I would say something -- I'm not shy about these things -- but I'm curious to know just how long her parents, with whom I'm having coffee, will let this go. The answer: Indefinitely. They don't even seem to notice. Maybe they're just used to it?
On some primal level, Carrie must be offended that she's not the center of attention. There is anger in her banging, along with what I read as malice. As she grows even more restive, her father lowers her to the floor. Still clutching the cup, Carrie crawls through the room, pounding on the concrete floor as she goes along, giving everyone an up-close earful of her drum solo.
A few weeks later, I'm at a party, mostly adults with a few kids sprinkled in, among them the volcanically unruly 5-year-old son of a friend. As I squat down to greet him, he responds by biting me in the arm, leaving teeth marks through a shirt and a sweater. I am just about to spank his little behind when I realize I'm in dangerous territory. People go to jail for that these days.
I release him so that his father doesn't see I'm on the verge of administering what probably would be the kid's first corporal punishment. The youngster begins kicking the floor-to-ceiling window, which fortunately is made of Plexiglas. His father finally intervenes, taking the child by the arm and pointing out some of the window's unique features. "You shouldn't kick this window because it's a very special window," he tells his son. "See how the frame ..." And I'm thinking, Kid, you shouldn't kick the window because in another universe your father would have some vague concept of parental authority.
A few weeks after that, I'm on a plane ... Never mind, I'll tell you later. [See sidebar, opposite page.] Everybody has a kid/airplane story. But mine is better than yours.
Child behavior is a vast subject, to be sure, but let's focus on one aspect that affects everyone, parent or not: what children do in public places. And if you think they are getting away with a lot more than they used to, you're right. Permissive parenting is one thing, but wimpy parents who let their kids run roughshod over them and other adults are quite another. And they're rampant.
This apparently has not been lost on parents themselves, judging by the raft of books advocating firmer discipline. The question is, when will "No!" be reinstated into the dialogue between parent and child and to what extent must the rest of us suffer the whims of children who rule civil society as if they're banana-republic dictators?
Educational psychologist Michele Borba, author of numerous books on child rearing, including No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How To Stop Them and, most recently, Don't Give Me That Attitude! 24 Rude, Selfish, Insensitive Things Kids Do and How To Stop Them, says wimpy parents are not merely an American thing. They are a global concern. "I was in Malaysia, and even there the biggest concern is selfish, self-indulgent children," Borba says. "It's a growing new breed. People aren't taking ownership of their children's behavior. I call it the NMK Syndrome -- 'Not My Kid! My kid is perfect!'"
"Community involvement has diminished in favor of child autonomy," says Peter N. Stearns, provost and professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia and author of Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America. "With children, there's a weaker boundary between home and public, and at the same time, we have more groups now [retirees, for example, and childless couples] that are really not used to children. So it's not surprising to see it causing a good deal of friction."
Bring up the subject of children in public places and you will find a number of recurring complaints. There is, for example, the all-too-familiar scenario described by Layla Revis of Hollywood, California: "I was watching Cold Mountain, and there was a couple sitting in the middle of the theater with a 3-year-old girl. Naturally, the kid flipped out during the first battle scene and cried for a half-hour. Then, finally, somebody yelled, 'Take your kid outside,' and the whole theater started applauding."
There's also an implicit assumption that everyone's home is child-proofed. Just ask Donald John, a former literature professor at Oxford who's currently writing a book on poet William Blake. John hosted a Memorial Day barbecue last year at his home. The party was underway when the sound of violin strings being plucked alerted him that something was amiss. Upon investigation, he found that the 6-year-old son of one of his guests had removed his grandfather's antique Italian violin from its case. "It's a mystery how he found it," John says, "because we keep it at the entrance to the wine cellar."
What ensued might be called performance art. The boy began darting through the house, swinging the violin by its scroll, clipping it against walls and furniture as he led a merry chase. The mother declared that only she could defuse the situation, but each time she squared off against her son, he scurried into another room. "It turned into a hostage negotiation, but it was all appeasement," John says. "She would offer him ice cream, and his eyes would light up for a second before he ran off again."
By the time the violin was retrieved, its bridge and neck were damaged. "The perplexing thing is that some of these parents seem amused when their children do this sort of thing," says John, the parent of two grown daughters. To avoid unruly children, John, a nonsmoker, requests the smoking section when dining in restaurants because he finds secondhand smoke less irritating than the kids in nonsmoking sections. (It was a child skateboarding in a restaurant lounge who tipped him over the edge.)
Restaurants, perhaps next to planes, figure big in the case against overexuberant children, as Corey Saldana will tell you. The paralegal was dining at a Japanese restaurant in Pasadena, California, when his dinner companions unleashed their 3-year-old, who tore through the restaurant, toured the kitchen, and wound up lying on the dining room floor -- "like she was in a meadow, staring up at the stars" -- until finally the waitress tapped the mother's shoulder and handed back her child.
Cotton Mather, in a 1685 sermon freighted with more than a little disapproval, said: "The Youth in this country are verie Sharp and early Ripe in their Capacities." The Puritans indeed took a pretty hard line on child behavior. According to Mary Cable's The Little Darlings: A History of Child Rearing in America, children in the New England colonies "could be -- and sometimes were -- sentenced to a public whipping. More often they were forced to make a public confession at a meeting, or made the specific target of a denunciatory sermon." And if that didn't keep them in line, well, as every American child of the 17th century was taught, the Protestant theologian John Calvin put forth that, "[T]he Lord commands all those who are disobedient to their parents to be put to death." The colony of Connecticut regarded this language reasonable enough to put a law on the books that called for death to all disobedient young people over the age of 14, though there's no evidence that this was actually carried out.
"What's interesting is how far 19th-century manners for children -- which was 'to be seen and not heard' -- extended into the 20th," says Stearns, the George Mason history professor. In the past, he says, parents operated on the assumption that teaching their children to sit still for extended periods of time was an important part of their socialization. "We no longer do that. We have somehow come to believe that our children are just going to misbehave in public."
We have traveled a considerable distance from the days of the Puritans, when children were taught to regard themselves as burdens and admonished to feel fortunate that their parents bothered to clothe and feed such inferior little beings as themselves. Now if it is not quite the opposite, it is almost so. A woman I know who's expecting her first child was struck by a remark her doctor made. "You know," he told her, "we're the first generation that feels we have to campaign for our children's love."
Much blame is laid to Benjamin Spock for cheerleading the rush to permissive parenting, but take away his spare-the-rod approach to child-rearing and one must still factor in how families have changed. "Guilt is a biggie," says author Borba. "You've got moms and dads doing two or three jobs. They come home frazzled, and they're feeling guilty because they know the children aren't getting as much attention as they should. They don't want to spoil the time when they feel they ought to be creating warm family memories by disciplining their kids and making a scene."
Stearns agrees. "Particularly in the last 15 or 20 years, parents have definitely become more guilty about how they treat their kids, particularly when mothers work. They don't think it's right to deny them attention."
The time crunch may have as much to do with contemporary children's encroachment on adult space as anything. I was a child in the '60s but not of them. My parents grew up in post-Depression America and embraced what now are fairly antique ideas about "boundaries," a word they never used but a concept of which they had full command. When guests came over, kids were exiled to the basement. The stairs were the DMZ, and if we crossed into adult territory, somebody's father was sure to bellow, "No kids in the living room!"
This is a far cry from the father who allowed his 8-year-old son to interrupt conversation by asking, "What makes the wind blow?" and then gave him a detailed explanation worthy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, as I observed during a recent visit with some suburban friends. But then, my mother worked only intermittently, and when she did, it was at the family business, which was within walking distance from school and home. My parents didn't have to schedule "quality time," except for themselves.
But back, for a moment, to the subject of basements, or rather the lack of them or other rooms where kids were traditionally sent off to be, well, kids. "Since the mid-1980s, partly because it's cheaper and they're becoming smaller, more and more houses are designed to have a great room instead of a parlor and a den or a playroom, which might normally segregate children from adults," says Calvin Morrill, professor and chair of the sociology department at the University of California-Irvine. This could be a subtle factor in further obliterating the barrier between children and adults, says Morrill, who co-edited a book due out in spring 2005 from University of California Press, which includes a chapter on how parents control children in public places.
Still, many professionals agree that today's children are overindulged and suffering from a dearth of boundaries, which means adults suffer with them. As with most things, there is a way to blame it on the boomers. Permissiveness and indulgence is an overcorrection for the autocratic parenting styles to which many of those now raising their own children were subjected, says Michel Cohen, a New York pediatrician and author of The New Basics: A-to-Z Baby & Child Care for the Modern Parent, which advocates a sterner approach. "A lot of today's parents come from a flower-power background where they think they have to talk and explain everything to their children," he says. "Also, many of us came from a much more rigid background, so the reaction is to go the other way. And definitely, I think people are just too busy, so they take the path of least resistance."
All of the explaining and negotiating, Cohen says, ultimately reinforces bad behavior. "Say a kid is banging on the television. The parent may give five or six inconsistent responses. All the child remembers is the attention he got from banging on the TV, so now he's totally engulfed in testing his parents just to see how they'll react because it's different every time."
"The whole concept of self-esteem over the past 10 years really got corrupted," says Borba. "It's become a marshmallow thing. Too many parents subscribe to the myth that if you discipline children, you're going to break their spirit. Children thrive with nurturing but also with structure and consistency. 'Overindulged' doesn't necessarily mean that the kid has every toy. It's making him think that he can get away with what's not good for him. The 'Me Generation' is raising the 'Me-Me-Me Generation.'"
Martin Booe is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, where this article first appeared.
Now, the airplane story
A companion and I were on a flight to Hawaii a couple of summers ago. Directly behind Maria was a woman, about 30, attractive and well-dressed. Riding in her lap was her daughter, about 2, and they had carried onboard roughly half the Toys "R" Us inventory in the child's age category. Before takeoff, the child was restive. She thumped, bumped and wriggled. But we let it pass, saying to ourselves that kids usually settle down and are lulled to sleep once the plane lifts off.
It was not to be. As the plane reached cruising altitude, the child thrashed like a wild animal in a box. There were squeals, giggles, and laughter emanating from both child and parent, who kept her daughter goosed up with all the toys, raucously bouncing her in her lap, then propping her on the back of Maria's seat so that her diapers were all but resting on Maria's head. The man beside me grimaced in a gesture of solidarity. I resorted to deep breathing.
After an hour of this, I turned around, looked the woman in the eye, and said in a low voice: "Could you please control your child?"
The woman swelled with indignation. She looked as if I'd suggested the child be dumped off the plane. "This is a 2-year-old," she shot back. "I can't give orders to a 2-year-old. They don't understand orders!"
Maria then turned to face the woman and said, without masking her anger, "You are the mother. It is your responsibility to control your child."
All around us, passengers looked up from their magazines and paperbacks.
"You obviously don't have children!" the woman said, her tone insinuating that she, having met her biological imperative, had transcended those of us who hadn't. With a majestic flaring of her nostrils, she added, "Because if you had children, you'd understand that you can't control a 2-year-old!"
By now the woman and Maria were yelling at each other, prompting the flight attendants to step in. They were taking this very seriously, and I sensed that we were likely to be greeted at the airport by a federal marshal. The woman held her child in the aisle while a volunteer was found to trade seats with Maria, who graciously took the fall for a fight I had provoked. The beatific mother, meanwhile, surreptitiously gave us the finger. Once the fracas ended, the entire plane divided into two camps. As Maria marched toward her new seat, faces rose to scrutinize her. Some gave her subtle nods of support; thank goodness someone had dared take a stand against impudence! Others, as might be expected, turned their heads away in a gesture of ostracism. Those who met her gaze did so with steely eyes that said, "Child hater!"
Among the latter was a woman in high middle age with a Malibu Barbie haircut and supple, collagen-enhanced cheeks. I pegged her as a soap-opera actress. With pointed self-righteousness worthy of Joan of Arc, she offered to hold the child for the mother, rescuing her from the child-hating cranks.
Later, when the plane tilted downward, an attendant presented my new seatmate and me with two bottles of wine for tolerating Maria, whom they didn't realize was my companion and whose contempt for children they clearly saw as the root of the trouble. When we got to our hotel, Maria asked me where I'd gotten the wine. I thought she would enjoy the irony. "They didn't realize we were together, so they gave it to me for having to sit next to a child hater," I said.
As the bottle whistled across the room and grazed my ear, I realized I had seriously overestimated Maria's sense of humor. n -- MB