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Winter 1991
City Journal Winter 1991.
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A Child's World
Dana Mack
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In the lobby of the Plaza, there is a large, formal portrait of a little blond girl named Eloise. No one has ever met Eloise, but three generations of American girls have grown up reading about her merry, mischievous pranks in the classic children’s book, Eloise at the Plaza.

I first fell in love with Eloise 30 years ago. Last Christmas, when my daughter received her own copy, Eloise and I renewed our old acquaintance. Eloise, the superfluous scion of a jet-setting divorcée, was as hilarious as ever at upsetting the staid routine of a distinguished hotel: climbing chandeliers, pouring water down the mail chute, pushing elevator buttons to her heart’s content. The great joke on which the book turns is how resourcefully Eloise copes with being cooped up in the rarefied, hoity-toity, very adult environs of the Plaza. Thanks to her own ingenuity, she succeeds in living a fully childish life, despite the best efforts of befuddled hotel clerks and English nannies to enforce 24-hour-a-day propriety.

This time, reading Eloise, I noticed something new: Eloise is no longer a mere curiosity of children’s literature; her lifestyle is not much different from that of the average middle-class New York City kid. Certainly, Eloise’s predicament—confinement in luxury—today seems normal enough to many thousands of New York parents and children, many of whom feel obliged to shun public schools, public transportation, public streets, and public parks. In fact, confinement—even though not necessarily in luxury—is a reality for most children in today’s New York.

The majority of children in Manhattan cannot boast caretakers who deliver the injunction, “You cawn’t, cawn’t cawn’t” with the panache of Eloise’s British nanny. Nevertheless, the same injunction is delivered on a regular basis by thousands of mothers, teachers, housekeepers, and babysitters, when children commit the small sins which in a safer, less brutal, and yes, less affluent city, used to be considered an ordinary part of “child’s play.”

Try tagging along with your child during a class trip to the park playground. The list of serious no-nos has grown amazingly long: “Do Not Run Out of Sight, Do Not Pick Anything Up Off the Ground, Do Not Sit on the Pavement, Do Not Talk to Strangers, Do Not Touch the Animals. . . .” At a summer children’s program at the Hayden Planetarium, the moderator actually said that kids who want to see a rainbow must take care to go out only with an adult whom they “know well, love, and trust.” One wonders why children are willing to step out the door at all to investigate what adults insist is a very dangerous world.

Compare that to our own childhoods, or to the way children live in other societies. Our family lived for several years in Luxembourg, returning to New York only recently. In Luxembourg, a small but cosmopolitan city that is one of the three seats of the European Economic Community, the children in our neighborhood went to different schools, spoke different languages, came from different social classes. Yet all up and down our block, families maintained an “Open Door” policy, allowing neighborhood kids to come and go pretty much as they pleased. One child’s discovery of anything from an ancient Roman coin to a dead bird might spark a communal viewing expedition: The children who poured out the front door to gather in wonder would range in age from two to 13. There, as in many cities—as in New York some decades ago—children had the freedom to live in a children’s world: establishing their own rules for their own society, largely unconstrained by adult snobbery, adult schedules, or adult fears.

I was prepared to exercise considerably more control over my daughter’s movements when we moved to New York City. What I was not prepared for was the social pressure to turn necessity into virtue. Something was very different in the attitude toward children here. In New York City, children’s society has been suppressed.

Take that staple of New York children’s life, the “play date.” Here, to enjoy the society of other children, a child requires a social secretary, preferably one who occasionally moonlights as a parent. For small children, who may like each other one minute, and “vant to be alone” the next, the play date is a strange and unnatural social form. Play dates almost always take place indoors, where the children are left (like Eloise) to the care of a hapless housekeeper and with only a large television set to explore. In my daughter Nadia’s five most recent play dates, I retrieved her from a television set not less than four times. Twice, I walked in on soap-opera love scenes obviously selected more to please the baby-sitter than the children. One time, I was confronted by Mary Poppins displayed on a video screen the size of my couch. Nadia did not greet me enthusiastically. In fact, she did not notice me. Neither did she appear to notice her play date, nor he, her. Each was climbing distractedly all over the furniture, holding an umbrella. Personally I would rather have found the two kids engaged in hand-to-hand combat than wandering about in that somnambulist state. The little boy’s mother (who had spent the afternoon working in another room) insisted the children were having “a wonderful time together.” Nonsense. They were not together at all. There was no society in that room, just two children not bothering adults.

New York City is, for many reasons, a difficult place to raise children. Many parents face a double bind, not of their own making: Thanks to crime, litter, and vagrants, it is not safe for children to play outside, and yet, thanks to the housing shortage, there is no room for them to play inside either. But am I wrong in sensing that one reason adults killed off children’s society is that we are too busy, or too tired, to channel our children’s natural energy, rather than merely tranquilize it? Creating an environment in which children feel free to use their own initiative, creativity, and enterprise requires, paradoxically, a great deal of adult energy and adult supervision. Liberty requires order, and ordering, as any parent can testify, can be an exhausting and time-consuming endeavor.

Many well-meaning but weary parents have reconciled themselves to the fact that the paid surrogates on whom they depend for help with child care will opt for the easy way out—that of stunting children with passive entertainment. How else can one explain that horror of horrors, the modern Manhattan birthday party. You remember what a children’s birthday party is like: the excited child who sits at the head of the table, blowing out birthday candles, making wishes; the squeal of delight as the birthday boy tears off the wrapping paper, the smiles on the giver’s face; balloons, musical chairs, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. The birthday party is one of the great treasured celebrations of childhood. It is also a rite of passage in which children learn some important lessons: how to select, wrap, and cheerfully give away toys you really like; how to delay the gratification of ripping open presents until the appointed time; how to wait your turn for cake and ice cream; what to say when you spill said ice cream on the carpet; how to thank people for the gifts you love and (hard lesson!) also for the gifts you don’t.

Remember? Now, put that all out of your head. In modern day Manhattan, the birthday party has been revved up, stripped down, and moved out of the house, indeed out of the realm of social activity altogether: The thoroughly modern Manhattan birthday party is a commercial enterprise and a media event.

Take, for example, the birthday party Nadia attended last December. It was at, well, let’s just call it a very popular children’s-party catering place, one that has been written up favorably in the national press. When I stepped out of the taxi with Nadia and a classmate, I was greeted with a scolding for being five minutes late, followed by a brusque shove down the stairs leading to the brownstone entrance. That was only the beginning.

This establishment’s party room features a plethora of cheap party-shop chochkes hanging from the ceiling. The decor struck me as neoclaustrophobic. The children, however, seemed to find the collection quite impressive. If so, it is the proprietor’s only concession to children’s predilections. What passed for a birthday party was 90 minutes of Borscht-belt standup comedy routines, as grotesque for their banality as for their inappropriateness. One joke, which the proprietor and master of ceremonies liked so much he used it repeatedly, went as follows:

M.C. to birthday boy: “Hey, do you want to marry my sister?” Birthday boy: “No...” M.C.: “Oh, I guess you’ve met my sister!” [Ba-dump-BUM]

The heart of the party was a tasteless and upsetting “roast” of the birthday child, his siblings and family, liberally interspersed with advertisements for coming attractions. The children were told, at least every five minutes, that they would not be sent home without first eating the proprietor’s pizza and ice cream, seeing the proprietor’s “famous” light show, and viewing themselves on the proprietor’s video camera.

During the stand-up act, the children were strictly charged to sit cross-legged and silent, hands on their laps throughout. They were not allowed to talk to each other or (heaven forbid) to the child whose birthday they had come together to celebrate. If they had any necessary comments, they had to raise their hands and wait their turn to be called upon. And heaven help the little tyke whose restless movements made any extraneous noisse. At this establishment, the greatest sin is finger-tapping. Why? The video is rolling.

About forty-five minutes into the affair, the children were seated at the table, on benches lined against the back wall, where they were effectively trapped for the duration of the party. The proprietor’s helpers slapped one slice of pizza on a paper plate in front of each child. During the few short minutes allotted to the consumption of this snack, the entertainment never stopped. Pity the poor child who was distracted by it. Some were in the act of biting when the pizza was snatched out of their mouths and whisked into the garbage. The proprietor, need you be reminded, allows no standing or kneeling on the benches. And no talking either.

The birthday cake made a cameo appearance at the end of the light show, but was never cut. Instead, the children were served prepared portions of ice cream. There was no time to tarry over culinary delights, however. The ice cream rapidly went the way of the pizza: The video show was pressing.

For this portion of the entertainment, each child was required to submit to the humiliation of a taped interview in which he was asked, for example, whether he might like a bop on the head with the proprietor’s plastic hammer, or whether he would go out with the proprietors sister.

Most horrifying was the proprietor’s penchant for reminding the children that birthday celebrations are commodities. He is famous for publicly chiding parents who have selected the less expensive party plans, often mentioning in his patter not only what the current party package includes, but what it excludes.

This horrifying establishment is an extreme example, of course, but it reflects the increasingly superficial quality of the social forms to which we introduce our children. At Manhattan birthday parties, in my experience, presents are never opened. The gifts are carted away, never to be seen again; and the givers are seldom thanked, either in person or by note. On the way home from her very first birthday party in New York, Nadia broke into tears, insisting the gift she had brought had been lost.

When we offer our children commercial ventures in the place of social life, we teach them that there is not much difference between a friend and a vendor, between a market and a home. In this way, the collapse of children’s society mirrors Americans’ increasing tendency (much to Miss Manners’ dismay) to confuse social and business engagements, or, rather more accurately, to transform all social engagements into business opportunities. Thus, one’s private and public life become indistinguishable—that is to say, one’s private life disappears.

In such a culture, children learn to judge people by their lifestyles rather than by the content of their characters, or even the quality of their accomplishments. Children receive the message that the great divider between human beings is not their degree of moral or intellectual cultivation, but their ability to display the pricey accoutrements of culture.

Tormented by profound anxiety about their children’s future, New York parents do push their children to excel, but often only by the standards of the adult world. One mother in my little girl’s nursery class, a quiet, shy woman, responded to a compliment about her son with the despairing comment, “I know he does well . . . but he doesn’t seem to realize or care. I wish he were more competitive!” Anxious parents like these seem to be under the mistaken impression that toddlers are just like adults, only shorter. Hardly surprising then that their children, deprived of old coins and dead birds and the neighborhood gang, mirror their parents’ desire for status, frantically mounting up collections of faddish toys, clothes, and videos.

Thankfully, Nadia is not yet as jaded as one of her classmates who, upon arriving at our apartment remarked, “Your house is better than ours because your lobby is prettier.” But I gather from various stray remarks that my daughter perceives New York as a city composed of the rich and the beggars. Everyone else—the vast majority of us—pales in her vision. She frequently inquires, “Mommy, when are we going to be rich?” For that eventuality, my daughter is already making plans.

By subjecting children to unrelenting pressure to succeed, and ignoring them when they play, by cramping their movements but offering them unlimited opportunities to be passive spectators, we can hardly nurture a generation of “independent” children. In reality, we end up infantilizing, not only toddlers, but older children as well. The self-governing children’s society of our youth, in which children—on the road to maturity and independence—explored the world of their neighborhood with their peers, has become an historical curiosity, or worse a merely televised reality, what they do over at Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

It is not fair ultimately to place all the blame on ourselves, at least on ourselves as parents rather than citizens. Children’s society is fundamentally threatened by a city that first creates, then ignores parental fears. After all, if we allow muttering madmen to wander our streets, then we must forbid our children to go outside and play.

The generation that wanted to Question Authority evidently has a peculiarly difficult time exerting any, either individually or collectively. The result of our unwillingness to shoulder the responsibilities of adults and say a firm “no” to those who make our streets—or our birthday parties—unsafe is that our children are being denied the privileges of childhood, including the basics: a yard, playground, park, or at the very least, a sidewalk of one’s own.

 

 


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