By Susanna Rodell
The Charleston Gazette
A recent New Yorker cartoon by the great Roz Chast says it all. Under the heading "Assisted Living on West 84th Street," a spotty teen-ager slouches in an armchair, issuing demands for money, food and sports equipment.
Kids today. I hear it everywhere: They demand expensive stuff, have no work ethic and no respect for their elders. All they care about is spending money at the mall, eating junk food and playing with their Gameboys. They dress like thugs or trollops (depending on their gender) and listen to tuneless music that's full of obscenities.
Hmm. I have four kids, ranging in age from 13 to 28, so I've been at this for quite a while. I'm also a single mom, and although that's an uncomfortable station in American society, it can have some surprising advantages.
1: Your kids don't take you for granted. Yes, they lack the security, emotional and financial, of a family anchored by two connected adults. But they also know that you, and you alone, are the only thing that stands between them and the big, bad world. They can't afford to undermine you. My kids are fiercely loyal, and they're often shocked to hear their peers putting down their own mothers.
2: You're more accessible to your kids. A mom-and-dad couple form a united front - a good thing, mostly. But sometimes kids can see that unit as hard to penetrate, even exclusive. I'm almost always available. My kids don't have to compete for my attention, except with each other or my job. There's never a sliver of doubt that they're the most important people in my life.
3: You're (usually) poor. "What?" you say. "You call that an advantage?" Yup, I do. It's a terrible burden, of course, but being a middle-class family trying to survive on one income has its rewards. Trips to the mall don't often happen, and the kids don't expect them. They learn to be happy with hand-me-downs and consignment-shop treasures. They turn it into a creative challenge, defiantly finding ways to look cool on nothing. My son, in his high-school days, felt oh so slick showing up at school in a $500 suit I'd found at the local Episcopal Church thrift shop for $20, worn with a blue-and-white striped Pepsi deliveryman's shirt underneath.
If they want something badly, they know they need to work for it. And it would never occur to them, in their wildest dreams, to sit on their behinds and ask me to wait on them.
4: You're also more accessible to other people's kids. I'm not exactly sure why this is, but my house has often become a place for my kids' friends to hang out and relax. From them I learn why they like the music that my generation hates, and why they sometimes feel alienated and hopeless. You might be surprised to hear the stories that come out of some of those healthy-looking two-parent families. The themes are pretty consistent:
My parents never tell me they love me.
My parents never hug me.
No matter how hard I try, my parents find fault with me.
I'm a good kid. I don't do drugs. I do all my homework. Why won't they trust me?
Of course I know there's another side to many of these complaints, but some situations defy sympathy. Take the Thanksgiving a couple of years ago when a friend of my daughter's called. Could she come over?
Her prosperous, stable two-parent unit had decided at the last minute that Thanksgiving at the beach would be fun. Without kids. So they found a family to take in their younger son and left 14-year-old Angie at home by herself.
This was a child who had a credit card for every store at the mall. She bought clothes so fast that she had to keep giving them away to my daughter to make room in her closet. At 16 she immediately got a brand-new car. She had dance lessons from the age of 3 and every electronic gadget imaginable and she was one of the saddest kids I've ever met. My kids felt sorry for her.
Being a single mom has been a pretty tough road, but at least it has saved me from the Consumer Parent Syndrome, a malady that seems all too common these days and is at least partly to blame for the number of disaffected, messed-up kids out there. Too many families have become sold on parenting as a consumer activity: Buy them enough clothes, gadgets, dance, piano and archery lessons, send them to enough camps, and they should turn out just dandy. If they don't, quick, find a therapist and get them on some drugs!
Having said all that, I have to observe that there are a lot of families out there doing it right, loving their kids, letting them push up against the parental boundaries and gently pushing them back, keeping a sense of humor, being liberal with the hugs. And to those who watch in horror as the thugs and trollops parade their wares on TV, I have some good news. Most kids aren't like that. Go and spend some time in your local high school and you'll meet them. They're funny and sweet and smart. They're the ones who aren't in the news stories, and they're worth knowing.
They're the ones who might try, just for fun, to order their moms around. When that happens, I know what their moms do. They fall on the floor, laughing.
© 2004, The Charleston Gazette
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune