My parents had their first child in 1953 and their ninth arrived in 1964, one almost every year of the “Baby Boom.” They raised children through the wild 60’s and the tumultuous 70’s before becoming official “empty-nesters” in the late 80’s. As a teenager, I thought my parents were uptight and overly strict. Like most of my siblings, I rebelled against what I saw as out-dated parental philosophies and society’s rigid rules. As a parent myself, I don’t know how they kept it together. Bob Dylan sure had it right in 1964, “the times, they are a- changin’.” And, through the eyes of this parent, not always for the better.
One afternoon, when my older daughter was about 6, and her younger sister only 3, we walked into a McDonald’s for lunch. Much to my surprise, we were greeted by a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Britney Spears. Despite her great popularity and recently released début album, my children had no idea who she was, and I was perfectly fine with that. However, the little girl who accompanied us knew exactly who she was and quickly broke into her 7 year-old rendition of “Baby One More Time.” My dismay over the lyrics that fell from her little mouth and the gyrations of her prepubescent hips was dwarfed by the shock that coursed through my body when my daughters began to mimic her moves. For 6 years, I had filtered music, television, and stories to keep my little girls “little.” As much to distract the girls as it was to assuage myself, I broke into a “Barney” song.
Later that day, I called my mom. “How did you do it?” I asked. She snickered. Was her once upon a time rebellious, “All the kids are doing it…You just don’t get it…You’re tooooo old” daughter really coming to her for advice on how to hold on to the reins as the moral standards of the world were/are spinning out of control? Yep, I sure was. And, I was desperate.
Her answer didn’t surprise me; “We did what we had to do.” Most parents can relate to that. We’ve all manged to go full weeks at a time without sleep, create “nutritious” meals out of nothing when the cupboards are bare and, though certainly not pleasant, survived days without a shower. As parents, we’ve all done what we had to.
However, it was her follow-up comments that dropped my jaw; “I sure wouldn’t want to be raising kids today. Your job is much harder now than it was when we were raising children.” WHAT?! My job is harder? From the woman who miraculously managed to raise 3 boys and 6 girls to adulthood (relatively) unscathed, navigating us through years that were influenced by: Gloria Steinem, free-love, political and social unrest including presidential assassinations, resignations and the Vietnam War, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Woodstock, micro-mini’s, bra-burnings, pot smoking, punk-rock mosh pits, the rise of birth control and the advent of AIDS… ??? I could go on, and did so with my mother, but I think you get the picture. How could she possibly think it is tougher to raise a child today?
She countered, “We may have had all those things, but if we wanted to block access to something, we could and we did.” (They really did. Despite the fact my father briefly dated Marion Ross in high school, we weren’t even allowed to see Happy Days until Season 2 because of my parents concern that it portrayed the same rebellious, disrespectful teens seen in American Graffiti.) “Today,” my mom continued, “cable, the internet and cell phones make it vitually impossible to insulate your children.” I contested that we had been able to. Until the Britney Spears debacle, my girls had seen only PBS programming and heard only “mom approved” CD’s in the car. Again, she snickered, before she “enlightened” me about the influence of peers and the media as they grew.
As a mother with only 6 years experience under my belt, I had fooled myself into believing I would always have control over what my children did and didn’t see, hear, read, and mimic. Silly me! It was only a matter of time before the “world” would creep in past my blockades and through the back doors of dance classes, art classes, playgrounds, etc. “One way or another,” my mom told me, “they’re going to be exposed.” And, as was often her response to my requests for parenting guidance, she directed me to “choose my battles wisely.”
Since then, I have chosen plenty of battles. In hindsight, there were some I never needed to pick (the number of peas consumed), some I could have let go sooner (strict bedtimes), and some I would fight all over again. The battleground I defended most fiercely was my children’s ability to be children, while they were still children. Although not an easy fight, it was never open for negotiation. My children swung on swings and caught bugs in a garden; they played with dolls that looked like baby dolls, not street walkers, and dressed like little girls, not 30 year old bar-maids. Their father and I guarded their innocence for as long as possible through censorship of music, books, TV, and movies. Little girls and little boys emulate what they see, and what my children saw was other little girls and little boys behaving and dressing as children. Neither my husband nor I was in any hurry to rush the process. We fought hard to give them a childhood and protect their vulnerable self-esteems. We knew they would grow up soon enough, even faster when exposed to the pervasive and damaging portrayal of over-sexualized girls and the disintegration of basic morals. Over the years, we’ve had some real power struggles, primarily when this or that friend got to “do _______.” (Thankfully, a child’s logic is one thing that hasn’t changed with the times, and I easily rebut the “That’s so not fair!” argument with a simple, “Too bad. Next lifetime, choose better parents.”
Admittedly, I’m older than many of my friends, in particular the parents of my daughters’ friends, and I am likely the most “liberal” mom in the bunch. However, I also have friends that allow their children far more “freedoms” than mine have seen, or will see while still under my roof. As my girls move through their teen years, my reins have loosened and they have been exposed to programming, music and literature that many of their friends have not. Much of it by me. I use the lyrics of Pink’s music, the press release about Lady Gaga, or the choices made by the characters in a movie, program or book as “talking points.” We discuss the current culture in America and the world, and we have had some incredible conversations based upon them. At 17 and 14, I like “taking their pulse” on topics such as the dolls that are marketed to little girls, what they believe was really “pitched” in the deodorant ad that just ran, or their opinions of the current fashions as we walk through the children’s department. My daughters get to have “a voice” and I get to share my perspective. Helps me feel like I’m staying a little ahead of Madison Avenue’s advertising magic. 🙂 Typically, my girls are very forth-coming and use reasoning skills when expressing their opinions. Today, when shown pictures of little girls marketing a new line of underwear, they spewed their revulsion.
Their reactions were much like mine, and most of the world’s, when I showed them the images of little girls modeling a new lingerie line marketed at 4-12 year-old girls; it was pure disgust. In the first image, a fully made-up, coiffed 6 (-ish) year-old girl sits in a tank top with strands of pearls and offers a pouty smirk to the camera. My girls thought the image was benign; “She looks like a little girl playing dress up with mommy’s jewelry.” It was the second and third provocatively posed images that prompted, “What the heck?” and “The pedophiles will like it.” Marketed as “loungerie”, it is clearly identifiable as just what French designer Sophie Morin intends it to be, adult lingerie scaled down to size for little girls barely out of diapers. (Even just writing the words both nauseates and saddens me.) Both of my girls agreed, the lingerie and the ads seem entirely inappropriate. I then showed them pictures recently published in Vogue Paris. In them, a girl, heavily made up, wearing very high heels, and a very low plunging dress, sits seductively. My older daughter saw nothing wrong with the picture. “Girls model like that nowadays, Mom. What is she, 15, 16?” I told her she was 10. “That’s disgusting,” she said as she left the room. “She’s lost her childhood,” said her younger sister as she followed her out.
After they left, I felt a bit of relief and a great deal of sadness for the parents just starting out on their parenting journey. Their road will be much tougher than mine. I am almost through the roughest waters of parenting. Thankfully, we kept them at bay for a long time, passionately guarding our children’s childhoods. Almost instinctively, children push to grow up faster than is healthy, and it would seem society and the media have embraced the idea. When my girls were small, our battles were small. (How hard should it have been to find a pair of good old fashioned Mary-Jane’s without a 3 inch heels for an 8 year old?) And, as they grew, our battles grew, but so did the stakes; peer pressure and media exposure have prompted requests for overly mature clothing, eased internet restrictions, body piercings, and unlimited texting plans. As parents, my husband and I have held strong against the impact of the shifting, media-influenced mores, and we have come out (relatively) unscathed. Thankfully, so have our children.
I honestly don’t know how my parents did it, other than extreme breath holding. I have come to believe that much of parenting is spent just holding your breath –often while simultaneously saying “no” and praying. Growing little people into big people, with bodies and spirits in tact, is no easy job. It is often made harder by the negative influences of our media. I read somewhere that the world record for breath holding (underwater) was captured in 2010 by a Swiss free-diver that held his breath for 19 minutes and 21 seconds. And, while his record is commendable, it really can’t compete with a parent that holds their breath for 18+ years.
Click on the links, and let me know your thoughts on the photos and how you navigate the waters of parenting today.