Tuesday, November 29, 2011

When is it okay to tell someone their little darling is a brat?

All kids have good days and bad. Little ones in general have shorter fuses than adults. Tears and howls of exhaustion and frustration aren't foreign to any parent I know. Tots sometimes throw tantrums, and they need to be constantly reminded to share, to keep their hands to themselves, to say thank you, and all that. They show off for company, sometimes in loud and exuberant ways.

These things happen. Most of us understand that you cannot control a pre-schooler's outbursts anywhere close to a hundred per cent of the time.

Though somewhere between the earliest months of toddlerhood and kindergarten age, most kids stop behaving like little savages and start picking up on what is and isn't socially acceptable.

But what about the ones who fail to make that leap? What about the five-year-olds whose parents let them run around with a twenty-month-old's manners, coupled with a first grader's physical prowess, and spiced up with a robust vocabulary?

The other day someone else's five year old said to the Grape (age 2): "If you touch my toy car, I will kill you."

Little brat's parent registered no reaction. I piped up and told the kid not to speak like that in my house.

This wasn't an isolated incident. The same child, during the course of a not-overly-long visit, barked all kinds of directives at various adults both familiar to him and not. He interrupted, screamed like a howler monkey when he didn't get his way, and then bawled like an infant when told not to touch items such as my computer. He displayed a complete and utter inability to entertain himself, for even five minutes, despite an abundance of books, art supplies and toys at his fingertips and playground equipment right outside our door.

He also showed a complete unwillingness to play with the Grape. Fine. Ignore him. I'm more than okay with that. The Grape is younger and therefore probably not all that interesting to a five-year-old. But don't come into his house and torment him, because that's, for lack of a better and PG rated word, lame.

And no, I'm not being unreasonable. We have various friends with older kids who visit all the time. We've NEVER seen anything like this.

And fret not, my most charitably minded readers: there is no medical/developmental disorder at play with our recent guest. It's just (yes I'm going to say it in print): incompetent parenting.

I asked the young visitor if he likes school, if he has friends there. Care to guess the response?

Parents who equip their children with no social savvy do them no favors. Other kids don't want to play with bullies. And I imagine their parents soon tire of hosting play dates with early elementary schoolers who say things like, "You'd better get me a chocolate milk right now!" Never mind that adults are talking, or God forbid, tending to some other task. Or how about this one: "You can't tell me not to go in that room."

I get that I should feel sorry for the poor bugger. He's a product of parents blinded by the sun rising and setting around their offspring. Perhaps they're so busy, as R. suggested, trying to be Junior's pal that they forget to be his parents. Or perhaps the kid just watches too much violent, fast paced television. I don't know. And I don't really care, because I've confirmed from sources close to the child that his behavior in my home wasn't an isolated instance of psychosis. It was the norm for this kid.

In hindsight, I almost wish I'd said something to the parent. But it's awkward. I'm a blunt person, but even I have a hard time saying to my guest, "Your kid is unfit for polite society. Please pass the pepper."

One thing's certain.

Next time they visit, if their kid threatens the Grape with demise or orders me around like a drunken sailor barking at a bar maid, I'm putting child and parent in time out.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Turkey "Italiano" and the Grape shops for stemware

Since my parents are European immigrants, Thanksgiving was never a big deal at our house. My father despises turkey, indeed so much so that I suspect he's created out-of-country "emergencies" in order to excuse himself from any event planned around the detested fowl. When my brother and I were little, my parents didn't bother with the traditional meal at all.

I remember observing, at the age of four, when we were invited to someone's "real American Thanksgiving," that the women worked all day while the men sat on their butts in front of the television. Even at that tender age, I could understand my mother's lack of enthusiasm for staging such a production.

Then I went to first grade. The day before the holiday weekend, my classmates and I donned construction paper hats reminiscent of the Wampanoag tribe and those badly dressed religious wing nuts commonly known as The Pilgrims. Then we went around the room and said what special foods we would eat the next day.

"Apple pie. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Turkey. Turkey. Turkey. Squash."

My turn was upon me.

"I don't know. Probably spaghetti." I stared down at my desk, certain I'd given a wrong answer when shocked murmurs filled the air.

Later that afternoon our teacher, Mrs. G, who had gotten the wrong idea in her head, endeavored to provide my mom with a bird. After that my parents fell in line with the national mandate to serve turkey every fourth Thursday of November.

As I will be doing next week. I don't have any great affinity for the holiday, although I totally appreciate that for millions of exhausted, leisure starved American workers, it's one of the few sacrosanct days left on the calendar. That fact alone is reason to celebrate.

But if I don't get misty just thinking about the smell of pumpkin pie, why would I want to host Thanksgiving?

Because R. comes from a long line of Connecticut Yankees, which means the Grape does too. I suppose I can make one attempt a year to embrace their culture. And frankly, I would so much rather cook than schlep.

Thanksgiving has always been amateur day at the airport. The delays caused by clueless people who seemingly have never flown before may have been tolerable a decade ago, when air travel was still marginally civilized. In this age of filthy, packed, beverage free planes, the masses and their larger than regulation carry ons, contraband toenail clippers and leaky fruit pies become too much to bear.

And there's almost nothing I loathe more than driving, even under the best of circumstances.

The Grape, on the other hand, loves car transportation. For precisely fifty-four minutes. That's his maximum, although an additional fifteen minutes of calm can be purchased with a donut. You don't get very far in less than an hour and a half on the busiest travel day of the year. My reluctance to schlep is further compounded by the fact that it's difficult to secure a pet sitter over a holiday weekend.

So I will cook gladly. And I won't just roast a bird and lob the more labor intensive sides off on my guests. I figure they're doing the distasteful part by schlepping. I can provide the food and wine.

Though in preparing to do so, I've learned a few things about Thanksgiving. It seems that many people frown on creative additions to the standard holiday menu. They like to know what they're getting. When I suggested an antipasti tray, R. looked at me as if I'd suggested he decapitate the bird himself, on our patio. Ditto for the raw oysters.

I've also realized that when you host a dinner party of this magnitude, a certain amount of advance procurement needs to happen. The Grape and I conducted an inventory the other day and discovered we own six place mats and no table cloth. This is because, when I got married in my twenties, I lacked the maturity and gravitas for the institution. As evidenced by the fact that I registered for martini, cognac and margarita service for twelve, while ignoring the linens situation entirely.

Despite my extensive glassware reserves, my household has managed to break a decent amount of glass in recent years. So on Wednesday the Grape and I set out on a shopping expedition. (Note: Next time you can't find a salesperson to help you, go stand in the middle of a stemware display with a two-year-old and start touching the merchandise. At least three associates will stampede to your side.)

Now that we've acquired the necessary infrastructure to host the holiday, I can move on to finalizing a menu traditional enough to pass 13th generation American muster, but interesting enough to be worth cooking.

And while I'm at it, would it be so wrong to include a side dish of spaghetti?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Of priests and coaches and those who protect them

I'm not a churchy person. Nor was I raised Catholic. So when I say there's no amount of money you could pay me to leave the Grape alone with a priest, the whole statement is academic.

Frankly, I don't trust the church. Of course, there are many good, non-criminal clergymen in the ranks. But to me, their mere participation in a hierarchy that preys upon the most vulnerable members of the flock disqualifies them as fit supervisors for anyone's children. The priesthood in the Catholic church is a fraternity. And allegiance to the frat trumps everything else.

Maureen Dowd described my general feeling about the whole situation in her column today: "it's an insular world that protects its own, that operates outside of societal norms as long as victories and cash continue to flow bountifully."

Of course, Ms. Dowd was addressing the tragic events at Penn State, and the victories and cash in question there were generated by the school's football program. But Ms. Dowd's statement also describes the church perfectly. As long as the pews are full of souls and the coffers flush, the hierarchy can ignore even the most offensive behavior among their ranks with impunity.

Priest molests a little boy and gets caught? No problem. The bishop can transfer the offender to some one horse town several hours away and pretend nothing happened. The cardinal, when caught lying about the systematic cover up, can flee to Rome and live out his old age in the Vatican.

Until the Penn State news broke, I confess I was blissfully unaware of the similar fraternity that exists among big school sports officials. And frankly, I cannot fathom why anyone who has a child would have even the tiniest shred of sympathy for Joe Paterno over his now ruined "legacy."

I don't believe in hell. But if I'm wrong and it exists, I'm sure they have space for those who fail to intervene when someone abuses a child.

Mr. Paterno was informed that his assistant raped a ten-year-old boy in the showers in Penn State's locker room. He failed to call the authorities. In fact, two days later, Mr. Paterno washed his hands of the whole thing when he reported the incident to the university's athletic director, who also failed to call the authorities.

Mr. Paterno, who for 46 years portrayed himself as a paragon of morality and good conduct, washed his hands of the whole unpleasant matter, thereby proving himself every bit as despicable as Boston's former Cardinal Bernard Law, who oversaw the systematic cover up of hundreds of counts of child abuse before fleeing the country.

You say it's not Mr. Paterno's job? If that was your ten-year-old, and the big boss heard his assistant victimized your kid in such an unspeakable manner, wouldn't you be beyond livid if the supervisor failed to follow up?

The Penn State debacle will no doubt make thousands of parents think twice about leaving their kids with strangers. Which is both a good and a bad thing. I cringe at the notion that all strangers are dangerous. I think it's possible to raise a child who can interact confidently with neighbors and members of the public, but who understands that adults shouldn't want to lure them alone to dark places to do dark deeds.

In fact, many psychologists say that the most confident kids are less likely to become victims. So the idea that we must fear all strangers is counter-productive. On the contrary, I think kids are better served if they're able to speak up for themselves with adults, whether they know those adults well or not.

Which leaves us with the sticky situation of the family priest, soccer coach, scout leader, music teacher, school principal, etc. You know, the people we assume to be moral pillars of the community.

Maybe the most prudent course is to ensure that kids know that anytime the adult leader of some activity seeks to separate one child from the group for "special time," that's a red flag. Anytime an adult wants to have "secrets" or a "special friendship" with a child, that's also a huge red flag. Anytime an adult supervising a group singles out a child for gift giving, the sirens should be wailing along with the huge red flag.

Fortunately, most organizations that work with kids lack the institutionalized fraternity exhibited by Penn State Athletics and the Catholic Church. And maybe some of those frat-type groups that work with kids will finally take notice that perhaps it doesn't pay (at least in the long term) to protect the Jerry Sandusky's among them.

I hope that Mr. Paterno and the university's president, Graham Spanier (with whom the buck should stop), pay for the cover up by losing their jobs.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Preposterous Parental Indulgence

Sometimes, it's tough to write believable fiction when real life seems so over the top. No, I'm not going to write about the Texas woman assaulted with a frozen armadillo earlier this week. That story made me say wow, but I saw no parenting angle. Other than the old don't hit people, it's not nice bit. I imagine it's doubly not nice to use an icebound carcass as a weapon, but I digress.

This particular story takes wow to a whole new level. The New York Times reported yesterday that an unemployed equity analyst named Todd Remis has sued his wedding photographers for breach of contract over his 2003 wedding (a concurrently filed claim for emotional distress was tossed by the judge). Now, as 2011 winds down, he seeks to recoup the $4100 paid to the photography studio, as well as an additional $48,000 to re-enact the entire event.

Why does Mr. Remis want his wedding re-enacted? So that another photographer can capture the bouquet toss and last dance, events Mr. Remis now contends that the photographers missed.

Here's the punchline: The marriage ended in divorce four years ago. Mr. Remis' former bride's whereabouts are unknown. Parties to the suit suggest she may have returned to her native Latvia.

So what kind of hack takes such a ridiculous case to court?

One of the nation's top law firms.

You see, Todd Remis' father is a man called Shepard Remis, and he's a prominent partner at a major national law firm called Goodwin Procter.

The senior Mr. Remis chairs the firm's intellectual property litigation department. I know he's a big deal at the firm because he's served on the executive and allocation committee. Law firms like Goodwin never let just any partner serve in such a key role.

Goodwin Procter is a fine law firm, full of talented, credentialed, serious professionals who do not usually make their living by filing silly lawsuits against small business owners.

Sicking a firm like Goodwin Procter on a family photography business is not unlike trying to fix a household rodent problem with a grenade launcher.

Let's just say that reasonable minds can infer that the younger Mr. Remis did not choose his counsel utterly at random. It's also safe to say Shepard Remis could have easily prevented his firm from accepting his son's case.

I understand wanting to give your child what he wants. Really, I do. But when what he wants is not only ridiculous, but indulging him opens your family and your employer to national ridicule, I think it's fair to criticize your parenting.

Perhaps the senior Mr. Remis might have persuaded his son that spending five figures to sue for five figures doesn't make a lot of sense, especially since Todd Remis hasn't held a job for three years. A far-fetched contract claim against a sympathetic small business doesn't strike me as the absolute best way for him to chip away at whatever savings, family funds or lottery winnings he may have in his bank account.

Similarly, one thing parents often must teach their children is when to let go.

Re-enacting a wedding that led to a failed marriage is creepy and weird.

I expect most people who were guests at the first event (from both sides) would decline to participate in such a wasteful, pointless charade. Mr. Remis' argument that he wants the photos for posterity also rings hollow. No children were born of his marriage, so it's safe to presume nobody will be scarred by the absence of a bouquet toss photo.

I can't be the only person who read the NYT piece and came away with the impression that Todd Remis harbors an obsession with his ex-wife that borders on scary.

If I were her, I'd stay in Latvia. Presumably she's moved on with her life.

Instead of indulging his adult son's insane behavior, Todd Remis' father might have encouraged his kid to move on with his.

Because ultimately, for the plaintiff, this case isn't about the cash. Assuming the senior Mr. Remis makes just the average annual partner's salary at Goodwin Procter, that means last year, he took home $1,450,000 (according to The American Lawyer). If his son were strapped for cash, he could presumably ask his indulgent dad for a loan of the $52,100 sought in the lawsuit. Maybe the older Mr. Remis doesn't want to give handouts to his adult kid. Who knows?

But one thing I'm pretty sure about is that parents who either passively or actively help their children lick old wounds for years on end do them no favors.

Life's too short to sulk over photos of the past.