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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Say What You Mean, Do What You Must

July 21, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Two doors down, a home burglar alarm cries wolf. Another false one. A neighbor and her young daughter saunter over to the house, let themselves in, punch some numbers into a keypad. As they wait for the security company to phone, the child wanders away to play with toys. The mother is drawn to a fragrant bowl of ripe nectarines in the kitchen. Unseen by the child, she reaches for the bowl, grabs one and sinks her teeth into the tangy yellow flesh. Her eyes close in contentment. She feels a twinge of guilt as she tosses the pit.

"Can I have some gum, Mommy?" asks the little girl. "It's in the drawer."

"I'll give you some gum at home," the mother replies, trying not to choke on her own hypocrisy. "We don't help ourselves to things at other people's houses when they aren't home."

Now the mother and child are sitting in a dark theater, watching Disney's new animated feature, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The overt sexuality and sadism (and sexual sadism) are surprising to the mother. She thought, because of the ads, that the movie was about the triumph of inner beauty.

The green-eyed heroine, based on the physical ideal universally embraced by truckers on their mud flaps, is destined to share a bed with the blond army captain of the craggy good looks.

Quasimodo, an ugly guy with a fine personality, sleeps alone. When romantic love is touted as the greatest prize of all, the mother wonders, exactly where is the hunchback's triumph? Any clear-eyed child could pierce the scrim of platitudes about inner beauty and see that in cartoons as in life, despite what we pretend, romantic rewards are showered upon the outwardly lovely while the rest have to struggle.

When it comes to imparting values to our children, we are a nation of liars and hypocrites. And that, if you'll forgive me for saying so, is absolutely how it has to be.

*

Children, unfortunately, learn more by observing than listening.

And, often, what they observe is at odds with what they are told.

We tell them not to yell at us, then yell at them to stop yelling.

We tell them not to use "bad words," then subject them to obscenities directed at drivers who cut us off on the freeway.

We tell them not to hit, then let them watch cartoons filled with anvil-squished heads. (Or, in abject frustration, we swat their little bottoms when they drive us around the bend.)

We imbue them with notions of fairness as soon as they become aware that other people exist. We spend the preschool years glorifying the practice of "sharing," of taking turns, of one at a time, then we smack them upside the head with the news, when it suits our purposes, that "life is not fair."

We fill our children's brains with formulas and bromides and ideals, because we wish the world could be a certain way all the while knowing full well it isn't.

And because it isn't, teaching them what in the end may turn out to be lies at least instills in them the sense of what should be as opposed to what is.

This is why they turn on us when they are old enough to discern the daily hypocrisies, when they begin to choke on what adults seem to have no problem swallowing.

This is why it is so painful, I think, to share a roof with an adolescent.

And this is why I felt so bad about eating that nectarine.

*

Last Sunday, the New York Times published a small item that was a tribute to the longtime Yankees announcer Mel Allen, who died last month.

The story was told by a reader who wrote that when she was a little girl, 10 or 11, she once met the announcer at Yankee stadium as he walked out of his booth.

When Allen lit up a cigarette, she was horrified--not because he was smoking, but because of what he was smoking.

"Mr. Allen," she said, "I thought you only smoked White Owls."

"Darling," he replied as he signed her autograph book, "you've just learned something very interesting about life."

And something, it ought to be noted, worth teaching every child. Eventually, anyway.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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