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Sandy Banks

What Are Boomer Parents Teaching Kids?

August 15, 2000|Sandy Banks

They were new neighbors, decent enough people with nice cars, a well-maintained home, one handsome, well-behaved young son. Their housewarming party was an all-night affair, with good music, catered food, a poolside bar.

It was long past midnight when the kids began crowding the patio bar. A bunch of 12-year-olds, arms outstretched, paper cups in hand. "Can you put a little vodka in this, please," the young son of the hostess politely inquired.

The bartender eyed him suspiciously. "For you?" she asked. "You must be kidding."

"For me," he said, thrusting his cup toward her. "C'mon . . . my mom said it's OK." The bartender shook her head and put the vodka bottle away. "I don't serve children." Then mom breezed up, uncapped the bottle and poured a short stream of vodka into her son's cup. "Just a capful," she announced resolutely, as if she were handing out candy on Halloween. Her son's buddies bellied up to the bar . . . capfuls of vodka all around.

A few party-goers raised voices in protest: Aren't they a little young? Isn't that illegal? But we grew quiet when Mom waved us off, as if she were guilty of nothing more serious than serving cake before dinner. "Oh, it's not going to hurt them. It's just a capful . . . what's the big deal?"

I rose to leave, feeling heartsick as I watched these little boys swig vodka. They grimaced as they choked it down, then slapped high-fives to celebrate. And I couldn't help but think about their mothers, blissfully ignorant at home, never dreaming that a sleepover would make social drinkers of their preteen sons.

Or maybe not. Maybe they serve their kids liquor too.

*

It was easy when my three children were small to imagine that every family was just like ours, followed the same conventions, adhered to the same set of parenting rules. But the older they get, the more I realize how little I know about what goes on in homes that once seemed very much like my own.

I have had to disabuse myself of the notion that every "good" parent is raising his or her kids just like I am, that there is one universal set of behavioral standards that guides us all through this thicket of parenting choices.

Still, I am caught off-guard by what I see and hear:

An 11-year-old lets loose with a string of swear words. Her mother shushes her gently with this admonition: "Now you know you're not to talk that way in public." How can that be? These are good parents, responsible, well-educated. Mom stays at home with her kids, sends them to Catholic school . . . and lets them curse around the dinner table.

My baby-sitter opens her mouth to show my daughters her birthday present--a giant gold stud pierced through her tongue. She is 16, still wears braces on her teeth, is deemed by her mom too young to date. Yet piercing her tongue seems somehow not extreme. "My mom got hers pierced too," she tells us. "And if I do well on my SATs, she might let me get a tattoo for Christmas."

I question their choices, then suddenly, unwittingly, I land on the outlaw mother side.

I've invited my daughters' friends to join us for a movie. They are 9- and 11-years-old--suburban girls like mine, sheltered, but not naive. The movie--"Nutty Professor II"--is PG-13.

It is raucously funny, albeit a little risque. I laugh but cringe at the off-color gags and four-letter words. But the theater is full of children, so how bad can this be? Very bad, I realize later, when I'm confronted by a disapproving 11-year-old. "Did you guys like the movie," I ask, as we gather our things to leave.

My daughter glances at her friend, who shakes her head and looks away. "It was inappropriate, Mommy," my daughter says firmly. "I didn't think you'd let us watch something with so many bad words."

Our guests are quiet as I drive them home. Could it be this is unlike anything their own mothers would have let them see? I rehearse in my mind the apologies I'll have to deliver. And when I drop them off and spill out my contrition, I see in the eyes of their mothers disappointment, and this unspoken question:

"What kind of mother is she?"

*

They are not the "family values" politicians crow about, these micro issues we confront in the day-to-day raising of our kids. But they are the choices that go to the heart of who we are as parents and families today.

How much freedom is too much for our children? At what age do you let them go off alone to Magic Mountain? Is a 9-year-old too young for a second hole in her ear? Should I let my 15-year-old see an R-rated movie, my 11-year-old listen to her friend's obscenity-laced rap CD?

I imagine I am no different than many parents, caught in a muddle of confusion over shifting standards and sensibilities.

"It's not hard to know how we feel about the big issues," says USC sociology professor Constance Ahrons. "What's harder is the small stuff that comes up day to day, the decisions that raising children forces you to make. That's where we're bombarded with pressures, and every parent is not going to respond the same way."

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