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It’s nature, damn it. Nature.

July 22, 2010

Unrelated image: Yvonne Decarlo

Hey, look, your job is boring anyway. Might as well spend a few minutes reading this awesome blog post on the New York Times from Richard A. Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan who’s so goddamn cool I’m thinking about faking Capgras Delusion again to become a patient. His subject is nature vs. nurture–in this case, how parents beat themselves up when their kids turn out to be assholes. His view, refreshingly, is that you can do all sort of things wrong and still wind up with a good person on your hands and (surprise!) you can do it all right and still wind up with a jerk.

For years, mental health professionals were trained to see children as mere products of their environment who were intrinsically good until influenced otherwise; where there is chronic bad behavior, there must be a bad parent behind it.

But while I do not mean to let bad parents off the hook — sadly, there are all too many of them, from malignant to merely apathetic — the fact remains that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children.

When I say “toxic,” I don’t mean psychopathic — those children who blossom into petty criminals, killers and everything in between. Much has been written about psychopaths in the scientific literature, including their frequent histories of childhood abuse, their early penchant for violating rules and their cruelty toward peers and animals. There are even some interesting studies suggesting that such antisocial behavior can be modified with parental coaching.

But there is little, if anything, in peer-reviewed journals about the paradox of good parents with toxic children.

There are few subjects, in my opinion, that get to the heart of nearly everything about modern parenting as this one. I’ve always thought that the one overriding obsession of our parenting generation is that we–beneficiaries of the best medical technology in human history; the greatest insights into the human character, mind and psyche; and the best developed sense of a child’s emotional needs–could and should be able to create perfect children: well-rounded, well-balanced, perfectly behaved and destined for cello-prodigy, cancer-curing immortality.

Friedman touches on the anxiety it causes parents to live in a world where there’s endless pressure on parents to make the right choices, and endless blame–often from the parents, aimed at themselves–when kids turn out, despite everything, to be dicks. (He also mentions the long-overdue, well-earned comeuppance of the odious Baby Einstein videos, which I somehow missed; God, that made me happy.)

I strongly urge you to read my new boyfriend’s entire blog post.

Side of nutmeg

July 19, 2010

Not pictured: 99% of Connecticut

I knew a guy when I was living in California who couldn’t get it out of his head that, because I was from Connecticut, I must have grown up wealthy. I was always trying to tell him that CT is mostly farms and strip malls full of bored teens who’ll turn either to whip hits or getting the hell out of Connecticut (or why not both?). I wish I’d had this story to make my point:

On Sunday, Torrington [CT] police received a tip that several young children were unsupervised and found them living in squalor. After a multi-town search, the parents are being held on bond and the children have been placed in state Department of Children and Families custody.

Inside the Wilson Avenue apartment, police said, they found four children, between the ages of 4 months and 5 years, with a babysitter who would not have been able to get up if they needed help. He had been drinking and has a handicap, the Waterbury Republican-American reports.

One of the children was sleeping in a dirty crib and another was sleeping on the floor near some food, officials said.

One child was so sick with fever that she needed medical care, the Republican-American reports.

The story goes on and on and the details just keep making it sound more and more like Jesus, I must have gone to high school with these parents. The article makes no mention of the apartment being strewn with empty store-brand whip cream containers, but let’s just assume.

Misery Index: 7/16/10

July 16, 2010

Back by popular demand, it’s the Misery Index, a measure of this week’s bad, tragic, haunting, damaging, misguided and just plain stupid things in parenting. Not all of them, of course. The internet isn’t big enough for that.

Mia Farrow, a UN Goodwill Ambassador, visited Uganda and met a bunch of children. Rumors she was handing out invitations to old colleague Roman Polanski‘s coming home party are unconfirmed.

A California girl who was abducted from a foster family’s home six years ago by three of her aunts has been found alive in Arizona under a pile of laundry.

The movement to take obese children away from their parents on the grounds of neglect is growing. Much like the children themselves.

When your sick kid whines, give him more drugs, for God’s sake.

Some people think 12-year-old girls shouldn’t get married.

I know an Ohio woman who should think about rejiggering her resume.

$5,000 a month for clothes? I wish I was breaking up with Melissa Etheridge.

Sometimes, the magic just wears off. Isn’t that right, Magic Jeff?

The worst thing about camping used to be the canned pupa.

Should children be routinely screened for high cholesterol? Hell, why not?

A mom has been ordered not to breastfeed her kid. The Saudis are going to be pissed.

The fleshy part of the thigh

July 16, 2010

In lieu of a relevant photo, I give you Rita Hayworth

Turns out getting shot is good for more than just improving your record sales. It’s also good for getting custody of your son. Unless you die in the shooting. They don’t award custody to corpses, not even Texas:

A Dallas man died while executing a twisted plot to win custody of his child, police said.

According to investigators, 20-year-old Dwayne Lamont Moten hired a friend to shoot him, intending to blame the crime on his wife’s boyfriend and gain custody of his three-year-old son, Dwayne Jr., myfoxdfw.com reported Friday.

Moten, the article says, had a criminal record, as did his friend, who’s now being charged with murder (that’s where friendship gets you), as well as an unrelated aggravated robbery charge, so it isn’t that surprising that this would seem to Moten like the best way to go at this little problem: Lawyers sue, criminals shoot, the scorpion stings. This is the way of the world.

Anyway, there’s something sort of winning about Dwayne, Sr. here; I’m conflicted. Isn’t it kind of sweet that he’d make a sacrifice like this not for a sweet stereo or a bag of crack, but for his son? Rest in peace, Dwayne. We’re all pulling for you on that Darwin Award.

Montana kids may learn truth about pee-pees, hoo-hoos

July 15, 2010

What I like to call "the cabbage patch"

Rugged Montana folk are straight-shooters, damn it, and have no patience for you liberal candy-asses with your double-talk and hemming and hawing. Except when it comes to sex education, in which case we should just teach the kids that babies are made when mommy and daddy give each other a “special hug.” So say the forward-thinking people of Helena, Montana.

A proposed sex education program that teaches fifth-graders the different ways people have intercourse and first-graders about gay love has infuriated parents and forced the school board to take a closer look at the issue.

–snip–

The proposed 62-page document covers a broad health and nutrition education program and took two years to draft. But it is the small portion dealing with sexual education that has drawn the ire of many in the community who feel it is being pushed forward despite its obvious controversial nature.

Parents appeared most worried about pieces of the plan that teaches first-graders about same-gender relationships, fifth-graders that sexual intercourse includes “vaginal, oral, or anal penetration,” and high school students about erotic art. The curriculum would also teach kindergartners anatomical terms such as penis, vagina, breast, nipples, testicles, scrotum and uterus.

Aaaaaaas you can imagine, this has proven to be just a slightly controversial issue, with parents turning out in droves to decry the whole idea of letting kids know facts about stuff. The fair and balanced Fox News has seized the issue with their usual level approach, putting out a host of articles and news show bits about how terrible it all is, including this awesome editorial by Jim Sedlak. (Jim Sedlak, in case you don’t know him, is the Vice President of the American Life League, a Roman Catholic educational organization that opposes any and all birth control, abortion, vaccine research, and euthanasia, but takes time out of its busy extremist schedule to accuse Disney of secretly planting priest erections, or cleverly encouraging people to have sex, in its cartoons.) Sedlak, in a tour de force of trying to sound mainstream when he couldn’t live more on the fringe without giving up running water, tries to make the case that from roughly 6-12 children are ravenously curious about everything. Everything except, miraculously, sex:

Most educators will tell you that this is the age when children are most able to be educated. They are like a sponge [really? all them like a single sponge? like a contraceptive sponge? is this subliminally encouraging birth control?–Ed.], soaking up math and science and languages and anything else that piques their interest. They want to know why the sky is blue; why the grass is green; how do airplanes fly; and a host of other things. They do not want to know about sex. At this stage in their lives, it is just not important to them.

No, Jim. Of course it isn’t.

Anyway, my favorite part of this whole controversy (aside from the fact that one of the school board members quoted is a guy named Terry Beaver, who I propose for a steel cage match with Max Mania), is that parents seem to be upset at the idea that fifth graders will, under this proposed plan, learn that it’s possible to put your penis in a whole variety of places, including anuses (this will naturally turn them gay; I hope I don’t have to connect those dots for you). Fifth graders. My memories of fifth grade are dim, but what remains is comprised almost entirely of male students calling each other “fag.” I’d say if you want to keep kids from turning gay, putting them through fifth grade with a bunch of other fifth graders is about the best way of doing it.

Drowning is now bad, report suggests

July 14, 2010

One of the many horrible child-related stories to appear in recent weeks is this one about 12-year-old Nicole Suriel, who drowned during a school field trip to Long Island. The tragedy quickly became an angry controversy when it was discovered that permission slips hadn’t been gathered properly, and teachers at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering in Harlem had ignored signs warning that no life guard was on duty, and that the beach was closed to swimmers. Teachers allowed students to swim anyway, and in the wake of the death parental rage was such that the school’s principal was angrily confronted at Suriel’s funeral. Because there’s no funeral like the funeral of a sixth-grader featuring screaming and accusations.

Now a report from the New York Education Department reveals that letting kids without permission to even be on the trip swim at closed beaches without a lifeguard on hand is a bad idea.

“Nicole Suriel’s death was a tragedy,” the report concluded. “Certainly Columbia Secondary School personnel did not intend to cause her harm. Nevertheless, there was a lack of adequate planning by the principal and the assistant principal, a failure to provide a sufficient number of adults to supervise the children at the beach and poor judgment by the teacher in charge who either failed to realize that there were no lifeguards on duty or failed to recognize the additional danger presented by their absence.”

Parents have every right to be angry, and in the wake of this horrible death, it might be better that they have a place to focus their grief and horror–better for them, not so great for the principal and vice-principal, who, rightly or wrongly, should probably think about going back to grad school to get those culinary degrees they’ve always daydreamed about. But when I read this story, I instantly thought of the trip my son’s kindergarten class took the the New England Aquarium at the end of the year. There were permission slips, and I signed one. But what if my son had been, say, abducted during that trip? The New England Aquarium is, year-round, a place of unmitigated mayhem, noise and confusion, and it’s easy to imagine such a thing happening. There could be an investigation that showed that there were three adults to supervise 20 kids, and could someone have been blamed? Of course. You can always blame someone if you really need to, and if someone’s made a mistake, it’s all the easier, even if the mistake has nothing to do with the tragedy.

But if each and every parent of a student in Suriel’s class had gotten a slip, would they all have signed? There would have been no reason not to. In my experience, most parents, with a permission slip in front of them, are more worried about not getting it in on time than they are about the particulars of the trip. We tend to trust educators, teachers, daycare workers, babysitters, family members. The fact is that being a parent means sending your kids off–innumerable times, under innumerable circumstances–into the world and hoping for the best. Hell, “hoping for the best” describes at least half of parenting. Most of the time things work out fine. The risks are not only statistically reasonable, but necessary in the endeavor to guide our children into personhood. Sometimes things don’t work out. This is one of those times, and whatever mistakes were made, however many thing you can point to that might have prevented this awful thing, no one is really to blame.

UPDATE: Turns out that principal got tenure right after the drowning, so I guess his family can stop comparison shopping on toques.

I hope you’re sitting down

July 14, 2010

Who wants to go to Kazakhstan?!

So much awfulness has been going on in the world of children and parents while I’ve been on vacation that I hardly know where to start. How about with this little tidbit: While I struggle to get my 6-year-old to walk his dirty underwear four feet from the bathroom floor where he dropped it to the hamper, our old friends at Philip Morris are busy making kids pick tobacco:

Human Rights Watch, the group best known for documenting governmental abuse and war crimes, plans to release a report on Wednesday showing that child and forced labor is widespread on farms that supply a cigarette factory owned by Philip Morris International in Kazakhstan, in Central Asia.

While child labor should be condemned in any setting, the report said, employing children on tobacco farms is particularly hazardous because tobacco field laborers are exposed to high levels of nicotine while doing their jobs.

Philip Morris responds with the boilerplate “we had no idea, oh my word,” after which they clutched a hanky, pressed the back of their collective wrist against their collective forehead, and fainted dead away on a velvet divan. Of course, it’s possible that they really didn’t know–the article points out that the company buys little of its tobacco from Kazakhstan, and most of it is used for cigarettes in the Soviet Union (phew! That makes it better!). But given that we’re talking about a tobacco company here, isn’t it more likely that right now they’re beating some mid-level operations manager with a battery in a sock for failing to think of this on his own? At the very least, I think they should install a vendor near the field selling some of that sweet, sweet tobacco candy. You know, give those little Kazakhs something to get out of their polluted irrigation ditches for in the morning.