Sunday, January 4, 2009

Some Assembly Required

Came across on one of the low-power TV stations the other day (what happens to them, I wonder, next month when we transition to digital television) a program that didn't exist thirty years ago in the American television landscape, the infomercial.

The same Federal government who decided a packet of ketchup in a kid's school lunch was actually a vegetable shifted the review function of the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC (the same people who brought us Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction and a half-million dollar fine for indecency but has NO problems with the Victoria's Secret TV specials) and allowed the creation of the long-form commercials we see on a daily basis, sometimes for hours at a time, on any number of broadcast and cable video outlets.

This one wasn't for a sweeper, or a mini-blender or those rags made in Germany that a guy with a wire in his ear and a bad Brit accent hawks on-camera all the while telling us at home, 'we can't do this all day', but rather it was aimed at parents whose children, left to their own devices in school and at home, have gone off the rails. It's something called The Total Transformation and seems to have as many imitators, detractors and variants as it does adherents. A quick Google search turned up 6,020,000 mentions in less than a quarter of a second. It seems how-to kid-rearing is the aluminum siding boom of the Sixties all over again.

My wife and I have two children, now both adults though their father tends to see them too often as children, still. Patrick is twenty-six and Michelle is twenty-one. My wife, saddled with a lump of skin with a smile as a husband, overcame a relocation from Germany to Norwich, Connecticut when the children were both single-digit in age, to raise two pretty wonderful human beings. (I'm sure your children are marvelous as well; they're just NOT my kids-forgive my bias). She didn't spend a lot of time worrying about their abilities to self-actualize or creating meaningful structure in their development. She and I, much like our parents before us, relied a lot on 'does this make sense?' when doing for our kids.

I don't recall us going to the library to check out books (owner's manuals?) or joining parenting circles for helpful self-criticism ('what does Comrade Daddy think little Susie wanted?') and while I bought a copy of Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Childcare (I always loved his assurance that 'you know more than you think you do'), my wife with a straight-face would ask me how I thought a Vulcan on a starship could help raise an Earth child. (Proving that marrying me wasn't the only time she demonstrated her sense of humor). Today, there are programs like The Teen Toolkit and countless others that seem to be all checklists and recipes. Unpack and add child, simmer and season to taste.

Compare those approaches and their 'how does that make you feel?' line of inquiry to the phrases our folks used--'because I said so', 'wait until your father gets home' or (my personal favorite) 'do NOT make me come back there!' and see where you are. I don't remember the walls of my bedroom, or of any of my classrooms, being painted in soothing tones--I don't even remember having my own bedroom and yet here we all are, practically done with the first decade of the 21st Century, still wandering in the desert. What was that Moses said about 'take two tablets and call Him in the morning'?

The infomercial with James Lehman teaches, he says, your child to 'listen louder' which is a concept that, I suspect, means many things to many people. I watched in the vain hope that the program would transition from innumerable parental couples with baffled befuddlement as facial expressions (I'm not sure if I saw anything other than white people on the screen chatting with 'James' (I adore the informality of infomercials) for all the time I watched and now that I think about that, I wonder why) and explain what this particular flavor of child-rearing was and did.

Instead, I kept being told if I ordered right now, I could have the program risk-free for thirty days (risk to whom?) and NOT pay for shipping and handling ('a $19.95 value'). Yeah, I, too, have heard the old saw about 'you have to pass a test to get a driver's license', when someone suggests that parenting is as much art as it is skill, and maybe that's right-I don't know. I do know that I wouldn't want to be a child again on a bet. We now have more metal detectors in our elementary and middle schools than we do in our airports. We have an epidemic of violence among our teenagers, of all races, that is killing more of them than all the years of hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined-and look out the window: no demonstations, no protests. Just grieving parents- they dance alone.

And all we can do is shrug and reach for the phone, clutching our credit cards, and hoping there's an operator standing by. It takes a village to raise a child we told one another a decade ago-and we forgot that it takes parents, two parents if the children are lucky, to do the heavy lifting. "I am a child, I'll last a while. You can't conceive of the pleasure in my smile. You hold my hand, rough up my hair. It's lots of fun to have you there."
-bill kenny

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