Try to remember: The kids aren't bad, they're just kids

December 24, 1991|By Barbara T. Roessner | Barbara T. Roessner,The Hartford Courant

A PUBLIC service announcement came over the radio, designed to prevent child abuse by reminding parents that their children aren't all that bad; they just seem that way sometimes. Kids, for example, don't spill milk on purpose. They're just uncoordinated. Toddlers don't flagrantly disobey. They just don't have the best short-term memories. And so on.

My point is that there ought to be a special Christmas message from the child abuse-prevention people, something to reassure parents that their children are not totally, utterly, completely greedy, selfish and forever ego-obsessed, but are just temporarily overcome by the influences of rampant commercialism. At the very least, this would prevent a great deal of screaming and yelling about the disintegration of values in our homes. We could really use an authoritative guarantee right now that this, too, shall pass.

"I'm getting that!"

"Well I'm getting that and that and that!"

"No I'm getting that! And that!"

This is the way they watch television. This is the way they rip through the Sunday newspaper. This is the way they peruse every catalog that comes through the mail slot. This is the season of giving. Gimme, gimme, gimme.

The Toys R Us advertising supplement is a coveted item these days. Within minutes it is cut into scores of little paper squares resembling coupons. These they tally, negotiate and divide, then store in drawers, under pillows, beneath beds. Somehow they have the idea that each little ad serves as some sort of certificate of imminent ownership. They plan to leave these out on Christmas Eve, as an informational guide for Santa. Whatever happened to cookies and milk?

My friend says that his kid has announced that she wants "everything on TV." My daughter, upon reaching Santa's lap after an interminable wait in a velvet-roped line in a packed mall "courtyard," also chose to forgo the burden of itemization. When asked what special gift she might like, she declared, "All the toys."

Of course, we parents have plenty of reason to berate and blame ourselves for these wanton displays of avarice in our offspring. If only we were stronger and more principled we would ban television, confiscate the ad inserts, move to a log cabin and force the kids to swear off Nintendo and take up whittling.

But the fact is, it wouldn't be long before they got bored with their bird whistles and started whining for cornhusk dolls. Because what we're witnessing is really an intensified version of a year-round and timeworn drill, one I distinctly remember inflicting upon my own parents. "Spoiled kids," my mother used to mutter as we'd tick off our lists of the goods we expected to be left under the tree. And we'd stare at one another in amazement, wondering what she meant.

Children simply have fewer controls over basic human instincts, including the instinct to acquire. They also have a grossly exaggerated sense of self, which is supposed to diminish with maturity. They aren't bad people, really. They're just like the rest of us, only more so. How's that for a public service announcement?

For now, the most we can hope for is a momentary epiphany now and then. The other night I did manage to spur one. Instead of threatening to send them to their rooms for bickering over who would be first to take the scissors to the "Hearthsong" catalog, I threatened to go to my room if they didn't stop. They looked at each other, shocked and appalled at the very idea, then vowed to be generous and nice and kind and forever aglow with the Christmas spirit. Heartened, I asked them to define the Christmas spirit. They responded with a round of blank stares. Then the snipping began.

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