Sneaking Away from the Family

ELLEN GOODMAN

November 08, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- We are talking about sneakers. Big sneakers. Size 12 sneakers. The new ones that are currently located on my friend's son's feet which are currently located on a high school floor.

The sneakers, which loom even larger than a size 12 in her mind's eye, came into her life all pumped up with hostility. Parent and child had wrangled over them for weeks.

This woman did not approve of the purchase. She and her husband regard $150 sneakers as proof of warped values, rip-off materialism, not to mention the decline and fall of Western civilization. Her son regards them as a necessity, an object of desire, proof of his need to make his own choices.

At the end of the family wrangling, the boy played his trump card or, more specifically, his paycheck. This is what he said: ''I'll use my own money.'' He went into the store with a portion of his summer earnings and walked out with scientifically designed, engineered and marketed ego-building shoes.

The woman and her husband were silenced by his declaration. And bothered by it.

This is what we talk about in the shadow of these sneakers, this woman and I: Our parents, ourselves, our children. Money and independence and family.

Our parents who were young during the Depression used to bring money home, put money on the table. Those were the expressions they used. The assumption was that whatever they earned went into the family pot for distribution. Little went directly to their own pockets.

Now half a century later, teen-agers earn ''their own money.'' They are much less likely to ''bring it home.'' In some families, that money may ease pressure on the family budget. In others it may be designated for college as well as compact discs and sneakers. But it is usually described and circumscribed as ''theirs.'' To do with as they will.

Immigrant families still seem to pool their resources. But American parents who depend on a teen-ager's earnings for groceries or rent are more likely to feel ashamed of themselves than proud of their children. Is this an economic piece of the heralded breakdown of the American family?

We count the many ways in which the marketplace treats us as individuals rather than members of families. Most adults are employed on our own as workers who now earn single wages, not family wages. We are subdivided as consumers with separate wants -- sneakers and Walkmen -- not shared needs. Even pre-schoolers have their Saturday morning TV market.

Increasingly, each generation is on its own, liberated and isolated in and by the economy. We appear less like a permanent family unit than like temporarily connected individuals, currently cohabiting.

It happens up and down the age spectrum. On the turnpike, I passed an elderly couple in a car decorated with a bumper sticker that read: ''If you don't go first class, your children will.'' My friend remembers laughing at a boat named ''My Children's Inheritance.''

We both know parents of our age wrestling with the costs of college. Should they borrow money on their house or have their children borrow? Should they invest in their children's future or their old age? Will helping their dependents leave them dependent?

What do they want-expect of their children later in life? The assumptions of family -- I will raise you and you will care for me -- have been replaced by the assumptions of independence. A reluctance to ask, a fear of needing.

Even divorce laws now accept the idea that husband and wife are separate economic units. The goal is to achieve independence, self-sufficiency as quickly as possible.

My friend's paycheck is, of course, not entirely her own, nor is her husband's. It is owned by the bank, the supermarket, credit-card companies -- the whole catastrophe, as Zorba might describe it. They don't ask their children to pay room and board, although in rancorous wrangling over these shoes, an ugly reference was made to this expense.

But in the aftermath of the Sneaker Affair, her family has done a great deal of thinking about money earned and shared. The pros and cons of our famed American self-reliance. About economic rights that belong to an individual and responsibilities that belong to a family.

This is not a simple talk. The mess of economics and emotions do not lend themselves to a bottom line. But this is what my friend has learned: It has become far too easy to run away from family in a pair of $150 sneakers.

;-

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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