November 30, 2000
The 700 Habits of Highly Defective Parents
"Carpool Tunnel Syndrome: Motherhood as Shuttle Diplomacy" (Heaven Ink Publishing, $12.95) is the first book by longtime Jewish Journal contributing writer Judy Gruen. In it, Pico-Robertson resident Gruen examines the pain, inconvenience, stress and heartache of parenthood, laughing all the way. As the following excerpt shows, Gruen succeeds in becoming an Erma Bombeck for the New Millenium. Woman's Day magazine will feature the book in its February issue, and the title chapter has been selected for inclusion in the next edition of "Mirth of a Nation," a collection of the best of contemporary American humor (Perennial, 2002).
Gone are the days when responsible parents could get all the child-rearing wisdom they needed from Dr. Spock's "Baby and Child Care" and the occasional coffee-klatch with another parent or a clergyman. Now, even pregnancy books are specialized, with titles such as, "What to Eat During Your Fourth Month of Pregnancy"; "Feng Shui, Baby and Me"; and a 450-page book titled "Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Conception to Sixteen Weeks Gestation."
The publisher is no doubt rushing the sequel to market now, so as not to leave expectant mothers in their fifth month or later hanging in suspense.
Child guidance experts have kept themselves plenty busy penning books to help parents deal with every eventuality. Although I had gone in search of some general parenting tips, no such thing exists anymore. I had no idea that today's parents needed so much advice until I saw what was out there. Some of the more remarkable titles I found include: "Raising Your Brave, Kind Yet Explosively Tempered Child"; "I Hate You Mom, but Can You Drive Me to the Movies?"; "Raising Your Right-Brained Child in a Pacific Standard Time Zone"; "Don't Be Afraid to Discipline Your Hyperactive, Lactose-Intolerant Child"; "The Secret Emotional Life of Your Pet Gerbil"; and "Who Moved My Cheez-Whiz? Strategies for Junk-Food-Addicted Parents."
These days, the topic of mothers and sons is hotter than jalapeño pepper salsa. Dozens of books instruct us to hug our sons more to make them into masculine, yet sensitive men. We should support their innate masculinity, the books say. We should support their emotional fragility. We should acknowledge how hard it is to be a boy in this society where gender issues have become so complex. This is all true. But in addition, I think we should also do something even more fundamental for our boys: put up a basketball hoop in the backyard, buy them a slushie at least once a week at the local mini-mart, and don't make them shower more than three times a week.
Personally, I already have a whole slew of child-rearing titles at home. I have even read some of them and attempted a few of the strategies. Despite this, none of my children has ever been removed from my custody by the authorities. But then again, the books on my shelf were not targeted to my particular situations. If they had been, I surely would have read titles such as "Healthy Menus for Kids Who Eat Only Raw Noodles and Ketchup" and "How to Rear Children Who Know Infinitely More Than You Do."
That's the real tar baby in this whole child-rearing literature racket. No matter how much the authors tailor their work to specific kinds of kids, the gambits never quite work for you.
"I'm never buying another child-development book again," huffed my friend Mary when we spoke about the issue. "Sure, the methods always work great on paper and with someone else's kids, but when I try them at home, the kids just look at me funny and ask, 'Are you trying to improve our family life again?' I've had enough advice."
I know what Mary means. Many times I've run out to buy books that my friends said were "must-reads." These have included "Raising Boys to Lower the Toilet Seat" and "1,002 Ways to Get Your Daughter Off the Phone." This niche marketing is pretty clever, since many of the titles fairly scream out for sequels. So, one shelf in the bookstore where I shopped began with the book, "What Your Sixth-Grader Must Know," which burgeoned into a series focused on every grade from graduate school all the way down to "What Every Six-Week Fetus Needs to Know."
We already live in a world of information overload. I want my advice simple and straightforward. But many of these advice books are chock-full of charts and gimmicks that you've got to individualize for each kid. Housework charts, good-behavior charts, homework charts, healthy-eating charts. There were so many graphs and charts in one opus that I thought I was reading an actuarial table.
I've also attended numerous lectures on how to raise good children. I usually sit up front, afraid to miss any choice suggestions. One time the speaker was a young mother and educator, who told us that some of her best advice had come from a renowned educator who had raised eight kids successfully.
According to widely circulated reports, all were credits to the human race. How had he done it? the speaker had asked him one day. He looked at her a moment, not saying anything, then just shrugged his shoulders and began to walk away.
"Wait! You didn't answer my question!" the woman persisted. "You've got valuable information that the world needs! Can't you tell me something about your method for raising great children? What did you and your wife do? Or what didn't you do?"
Again he shrugged his response, though in a very philosophical pose, and again she doggedly pursued him. Finally, seeing that he couldn't escape the grilling, he said, "Just don't get personally involved."
As she related this story, we were all slack-jawed. While everyone and their brother-in-law insist that we parents must be intricately involved with every facet of our children's lives, along comes this guy with a bunch of well-adjusted kids all grown up and the sum total of his advice is basically, "hands off." She said that this had come as an extraordinary revelation to her, and that she had co-opted this philosophy successfully. (This didn't include the time, however, that one of her youngsters had decided to shear all her siblings' hair with a manicure scissors.)
I considered this new aloof parenting tactic. Get some emotional distance from the kids. Yes, that just might be the ticket. But this didn't work either, as I quickly learned at home.
"MOMMY! He called me STUPID!"
I would not get embroiled this time. I would not get personally involved. I continued to slice vegetables for soup. For no particular reason, I began humming Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G Minor. "DID YOU HEAR ME, MOMMY?" my daughter repeated, fortissimo. This is a girl who specialized in living in a state of perpetual outrage.
"Oh, did you say something, darling? Well, of course you're not stupid, so just ignore it."
I thought this was brilliant. Yes, this would work. Stay calm, above the fray. However, my daughter began to have what we politely call a meltdown due to my callous indifference, thwarting my efforts to remain parentally detached. Well, I would try it with the boys, I told myself as I reverted to my old, sympathetic parenting style.
In my career as a mother, I've tried more child-rearing schemes than I have dinner recipes. I've "reflected" my children's feelings back to them to encourage communication. This worked beautifully on some kids, and, buoyed by my triumph, I tried it on another. That's when my winning streak ended. When I "reflected" back to this child, he cocked his head slightly and inquired, "You feeling okay, Mom?"
I've drawn up "star charts" to encourage good behavior. These never worked for me, either, since my kids would often sneak into the room where I kept the charts and fill in entire rows with stars, "proving" that they had earned the grand prize of a trip to the toy store.
When I had exhausted my pool of "positive" approaches, I tried to restore order in the family with a tough-love approach. I've tried ignoring fights, mediating fights, and putting myself in time-out. I suppose I should have read "Wednesdays with Winston," about a kindly old man who came over each week to babysit and share his philosophy of life while the mother made a beeline out of the house for a few hours by herself.
Sometimes, I end up sounding more like a bad television cop show than any sage child-rearing tome when I'm trying to discipline my kids. Running to a room where the kids have come to blows, I have actually said, "Don't anybody move! Just put your hands up and no one gets hurt!"
And so, when they insist on reenacting scenes from "America's Most Wanted," I end up as (who else?) Judge Judy, enforcing "the long arm of the Ma." I need to do this when my sons decide the only thing they can think of to put off their homework any longer is to take turns putting their sister in a full headlock and then ricocheting around the house with invisible "Star Wars" weaponry, speaking Jedi. Of course, it is only fun to do this in the one room in the house where I have dared to display breakable objects.
At times like these, I don't run for the child-rearing books. Who has time to reference the chapter on Testosterone Poisoning in the Home? Instead, I go into June Cleaver mode: "I'm going to tell your father about this!" I warn the great unwashed, who suddenly recover their hearing. (Happily, I remember not to call my husband "Ward" when he comes home. And I neglect to wear pearls when I vacuum.)
I'm not surprised that military academies sprang up before our nation was assaulted with this avalanche of parenting advice. In fact, watching boys at "play" I understand the entire concept of the military in a way I never could when I was young and pasted bumper stickers on my car that said, "One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day." Now I realize that boys need structure, lots of it, and who better to dole it out than men wearing uniforms with ammunition belts?
This may also explain the slew of books all about boys, none of which I have bothered to read. First of all, I'd need a different book for each son, since the books are so specific. Maybe, if those New Age baby name books had been published back when I was shopping for names, it would have been easier. One such book I saw encouraged parents to bestow names with cultural and symbolic meaning. These names might also instill wonderful, peaceful personal qualities and traits in the child, according to the book's rhapsodic authors. To accomplish this, parents are instructed to take names, or parts of names, from Swahili, Nibaw and the Ibo languages, among others, to create a conceptually beautiful yet gender-neutral name. But it's too late to start calling my kids Oriba Alka, or Kamata, or even Montel.
For my money, the most relevant book I saw in the bookstore that day was "The 700 Habits of Highly Defective Parents." This book, at least, seemed to offer something for everyone.
Judy Gruen will be singing her book on Dec. 12 at the AMIT Chanukah Boutique, a benefit for the children of AMIT, 2 p.m.-8 p.m. at 313 S. Clark Drive in Beverly Hills.
Excerpted with permission from "Carpool Tunnel Syndrome: Motherhood as Shuttle Diplomacy" by Judy Gruen. To order, call toll-free: (866) 836-2444.