In the past few days, I’ve been catching up with an old friend – “Can This Marriage Be Saved?,” a standing feature in the Ladies’ Home Journal. I’ve loved that column since I was a kid for the same reasons that I slow down to check out accidents. Schadenfreude.
The format has been the same since I can remember: first the wife tells her side (this is, after all, a women’s magazine), the husband tells his side, then the counselor gets a turn. I read the feature uncritically when I was younger, but now I’ve started taking a harder look. The counselors tend to be Freudian in their approach to problems, meaning that they look for the root cause of each person’s issues in that person’s childhood. People who tuned out when their spouse expressed dissatisfaction had distant, cold parents. People who couldn’t let go of any wrongs done to them had suffered some defining trauma early in life that they couldn’t get past. People who assumed incorrectly that they shared goals and feelings with a spouse who was silently seething with pent-up resentment had parents who never talked openly, and the spouses had parents who either fought all the time or never fought at all, making the spouse need to avoid conflict at all costs. The fact that the sitcom format of problem and resolution that resolves itself in just a few column inches gives the illusion that if you can just learn to speak in “I” statements, count to 10 before responding to criticism and plan 2 dates nights a month with your spouse, no amount of lying, cheating or fighting will put your union asunder.
I spent yesterday at The Exploratorium in San Francisco. The place was packed to capacity with groups of parents and their children acting in the same ways that you see them act at Disneyland, the zoo, the supermarket, in restaurants, at the movies, etc. As adults, we may act differently in the office than we do at home or out with friends, but as parents with our children, our act never varies.
What fascinated me most were the kids that drive everyone else nuts. These kids were losing their shit. Screaming, throwing themselves on the floor, clamping themselves onto their parents legs while begging for whatever they felt they can’t live without. Every time I saw a kid melt down when Mommy had her hands full and was looking the other way for a millisecond, or kids who ran between tables terrorizing other patrons while their parents ignored not only their kids’ behavior, but the reaction it was getting from other adults, I thought “Your kid is going to grow up, get married, and end up on the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal, and it’ll be your fault.”
The kicker came after the museum closed. The Pirate and I waited outside for the girls to finish up their tour of the Tactile Dome. A boy of about 12 tackled his grandmother, knocking the woman to the ground. The woman sat there, looking dazed and monitoring herself for possible injury for a few minutes while the kid stood over her, grinning. A man I presumed to be the kid’s father came up and scolded him, but the grin never left the kid’s face, he never apologized, and once granny got up and went away limping, the kid ran off to play with his siblings/friends. Even the adults said nothing about it among themselves, acting as though it was perfectly okay that this woman would certainly have bruises and scrapes (she had fallen hard on a concrete sidewalk) and could have more serious injuries (she fell right onto her tailbone – a sure recipe for back injury). Nobody walked the older lady to her car or looked in her direction as she shuffled away.
This kid is going to grow up with the sense that his actions have no consequences about which he need ever be concerned. He’s going to think that no matter what he does, it’s someone else’s problem. He will never feel that he has to monitor himself or take responsibility for any mess he makes. What kind of adult relationships can he look forward to?
I despair of a country that sees children as either decorative imbeciles too stupid to be given any responsibility or as bothersome pests, best ignored until they’re old enough to make entertaining party conversation. Neither does anything to prepare children for the life of a responsible, self-actualized adult. But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I should be more grateful that parents everywhere are grooming their children to entertain me by becoming the subject of columns with titles like “I’m a Hoarder and My Husband Hates It.” Your husband may hate it, but I can’t get enough of that stuff.