The Case for a Little Benign Neglect

I came across this 2009 post of mine deep within the bowels of my blog’s archive. 

(Sorry for the colonic imagery.) 

I think it’s still relevant today, so…here you go.

AUGUST 24, 2009

By today’s standards for parenting, my entire generation shouldn’t have made it to adulthood.

lg_27helicoptersThe other day my daughter attended a “meet and greet” with the teachers at the private school my grand-kids attend.  She figured it would be the usual get-together where the teacher expounds upon the lesson plan for the year, the parent listens while politely munching on a cookie provided by the room mother, and then the teacher fields a few questions on mundane topics such as “can little Herkimer wear his orthodontic headgear in class.”

Instead, my daughter was taken aback by the grilling some of the mothers gave my grandson’s second grade teacher, Miss F., a young single gal with a bookish demeanor but, apparently, nerves of steel.

The intensity and depth of the questioning were quite surprising.

Sarah Palin was given more leeway by Katie Couric than the young Miss F. received from her inquisitors.

The climax of the interrogation arrived when one of the mothers said she wanted to personally deliver a Subway sandwich to her daughter every day for snack time.  (I will interject here that the kids in kindergarten through second grade get out of school at 12:15, so there is no actual lunch period.)

Our Miss F. maintained her cool while informing the mother that this was not an option.  She explained if the children want a snack, they must bring it with them from home.  Anything out of the norm would be disruptive to the class and interfere with the egalitarian atmosphere that the school was trying to project.

The mother wasn’t listening.  She pressed on by asking if she could just “hang it on the classroom doorknob” so as not to disturb anyone.  Miss F. wasn’t buying this either, but apparently it took some discussion before the case was closed.

When my daughter related this conversation to me, I raised my hands to shoulder level and made little fluttering motions with my fingers.

“What is that?” she asked.

“Helicopter parents” I said, to clarify that I wasn’t having a stroke or something.

She hadn’t heard that before, so I went on to explain the concept of parents who continuously hover over their kids, anticipating their every need.  These are parents who have completely invested themselves in their children, possibly setting up their kids for a rude awakening at some point when they discover the universe is not centered around them.

In the days since hearing of Miss F.’s inquisition, I’ve been reflecting upon my own upbringing.  Certainly my mother worried about things like me putting my eye out if I ran with scissors, but there wasn’t a lot of concern about many of the things that are taken for granted with child raising today.

We rode bikes everyday and didn’t wear protective helmets.  We wandered around the neighborhood and beyond all day and into the dusk, only returning home after hearing my father’s loud whistle from the front yard.

My mother used to put big gobs of Vicks Vapor Rub up our noses when we had colds.  If you actually read the directions, it emphatically says not to use it anywhere internally, only on the chest.  I should be dead right now.  But, if my mother had her way, she would have found a way to cure cancer with Vicks, she loved it so much.

My parents had a baby-blue Oldsmobile.  There were no seatbelts and the dashboard was solid metal.  We kids used to rattle around in the backseat and very often I would ride in what we called “the way back”, that spot that was sort of a ledge behind the backseat and below the rear window.  If there had been a quick deceleration, I would have been a projectile object.  No one gave it any thought.

I practiced a form of benign neglect with my own kids.  Yes, they wore seat belts, always.  (By that time we did have them, thankfully.)  But when it came to overseeing every little detail of their day, that I didn’t do.

Maybe this attitude of “live and let live” was a result of my mother always wanting to know what I was thinking.  It wasn’t out of concern for my well-being.  She just wanted to know what was going on in my little head at all times.  So perhaps allowing my kids to have some independence from the Thought Police resulted in my being more of a laissez-faire parent overall.

Yes, things have changed in this country since the 50’s and 60’s and not in good ways.  There are a lot more threats out there to children than there used to be.  But kids need room to grow into individuals and they can’t do it with Mom and Dad always fluttering overhead.

Be like my mother.  Send the kid to school with a warm tuna sandwich.

Now, that’s living dangerously.



The Bed and I


“When I was sick and lay a-bed,

I had two pillows at my head. 

And all my toys beside me lay

To keep me happy all the day.”

                               from Land of the Counterpane by Robert Louis Stevenson


On the rare occasion when I was sick enough to stay home and miss school, my mother would allow me to spend the day in my parents’ bed.  It was a double bed with an iron headboard and footboard, done in fancy scrolls to mimic the more expensive brass variety. 

Since my mother was a frustrated interior decorator, (who now gets to live vicariously through her furniture designer granddaughter) she painted it with an antique-gold paint to jazz it up. 

Getting to loll in that gilded bed, though achy with the flu, was a treat.

My mother would bring me Cream O’ Wheat for breakfast and hover over me throughout the day, feeling my forehead and fussing.

And then there was her reliable cure-all…the silver bullet of medicine…God’s gift to mothers everywhere…the magic elixir:  a jar of Vicks VapoRub. 

My mother is now 91 and I attribute her longevity to her liberal use of Vicks, applied to any area of skin or orifice above the waistline.  It didn’t matter that the label on the jar warned against using the product internally.  Pish, tosh!  That was for sissies. 

Mom put it up her nose, in her mouth and globbed big dollops of the stuff into the water of the vaporizer that spewed steam out at me all day and night during respiratory illnesses.

Her refusal to acknowledge the warnings about something she insisted was beneficial also surfaced once during a family dinner years ago. 

My brother, an adult by then, told her he couldn’t eat a particular Mexican dish she’d prepared because he was allergic to cilantro.  She told him “you’re going to eat it and you’re going to like it” and spun on her heel to return to the kitchen. 

I guess we were all lucky that Vicks didn’t turn up somewhere on the menu. 

To keep me entertained during my stay in the gilded bed, my mother would dig through our huge comic book collection in the den closet and bring me some choice Donald Ducks or Uncle Scrooges.  Also, there were many well-thumbed copies of Reader’s Digest to…well…digest. 

They were immensely better than the sad thing being passed off as the Digest now.  The old Digests of the 1950s actually had interesting stories and condensed books.  My mother-in-law sends us the Digest, so I went through a recent copy and ripped out every ad for pharmaceuticals or weight loss aids just to see what was left.  It was pretty pitiful.  

Enough to make you sick, if you weren’t already.

The best time I had while ill was when I was around twelve years old.  My mother had acquired a copy of the book “The Egg and I” by Betty MacDonald.  (A 1947 movie based on the book starred Claudette Colbert, Fred McMurray, Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride.) 

The story was about a husband and wife who start out their new marriage on a chicken farm in Washington state, although neither one of them has had any experience with farming or chickens.

I love to read aloud, so my mother sat at the foot of the gilded bed while I read to her.  Ma and Pa Kettle were the stand-outs of the story, with their kitchen filled with kids, chaos and roaming chickens. 

(Kind of like mine with roaming cats, but we won’t go there.) 

One of the Kettles’ many children was a daughter they’d nicknamed “Tits,” but Ma insisted it stood for “sister.”  For a twelve year-old this was heady stuff and high humor. 

We both rolled around on the bed with laughter throughout the time it took to finish the book, between applications of VapoRub and the shaking out of the sheets so my dad wouldn’t have to sleep on toast crumbs that night. 

Laughter is almost as good a medicine as Vicks.

My mother still has that bed, although she has slept in it by herself for the last eleven years since my father died.  A few months ago she gave it another coat of antique-gold paint because it was getting worn and patchy in a few spots. 

The bed seems so small now, nothing like the luxurious bed of my memory. 

And I recently replaced one of her ancient, satin-edged wool blankets that dated all the way back, some fifty-odd years ago, to spending sick days in that bed as a young child.  The blanket had become so tattered at the bottom it was almost like tissue paper, it was so thin.

Surprisingly, I experienced a twinge of regret at disposing of the wretched thing.  I had some good times lying underneath that blanket with Ma and Pa Kettle, Donald Duck, and my mother. 

And a jar of Vicks, of course.