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Why Parents Need To Stop Letting Their Lives Revolve Around Their Kids

The following was written for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at [email protected].

We arrived in the early afternoon. This was about a year before my wife and I had our own kid. The occasion was the high school graduation of Dana’s niece. Who is still taller than I am. And I’m 5’10” … -ish.

The location was a McMansion in the North Texas ’burbs. The Keens Steakhouse-caliber kitchen was packed with adults, all women and all slaving away over side dishes and desserts: potato salad, brownies, queso, macaroni salad, those peanut butter cookies with the Hershey’s Kisses in the middle. All good stuff. The dad of the house and either his old man or old man-in-law were out back sweating over burgers, brats, and chicken breasts. Within sniffing distance of the Fiat-sized grill, a quorum of the dozen-plus teens in view frolicked in the waterfall-replete in-ground pool. The others were in the living room playing video games – I’ve seen less tricked-out movie theaters.

I nursed a couple of macrobrews while orbiting the grill/pool area and, for the occasional chip with dip, the kitchen, where the adults never stopped cooking.

Then Dad came in with the first of 2 trays, this one full of sausage: jalapeño and cheddar, garlic and onion, smoky bourbon. Mmm. Smells delish!

I inched closer to the serving area from my safe place by the kitchen door, the channel leading to the driveway and potentially to a quick escape from further boredom, tedium, or both.

Many adults have become strangers in their own households: following their children around and documenting their every move, praising them for expected behavior, cleaning up after them.

“Someone tell the kids the food’s ready,” one of the women said, not looking up from the queso she was stirring with one hand and the small glass bowl of chopped tomatoes, onions, and cilantro which she was gently tipping over the pot with the other. “By the time they come in,” she went on, “the burgers will be ready.”

Thus the call was made.

I am pretty much always super-hungry, and today was no different. One of the many downsides of my very serious, completely not made-up condition is that I also get hangry. And as the kids started piling into the kitchen/dining area – some of them, like my wife’s niece, taller than I am – my blood pressure began to skyrocket.

I moved closer.

“Don’t,” Dana said, appearing out of nowhere to stop me cold.

“This is total bullshit,” I growled quietly. Dana kept staring at me. I took a big swig of my beer. She never moved.
“Okay, okay,” I relented, backing up into my corner. “But I just want it on the record that I think kids being fed before adults is total bullshit!”

They were like animals, these adult-sized “children,” as they descended on the aromatic sausages and juicy burgers, and the creamy macaroni salad and the queso, and the velvety potato salad and the chicken-and-spinach quesadillas (one of the moms had also made chicken-and-spinach quesadillas), as if life itself hung in the balance.

“Ours is the first civilisation to find its deepest fulfillment in its descendants.”

This was a bounty that, while I don’t know for sure but can guarantee you, was also paid for and gathered by the adults.

Maybe it’s a Texas thing or a new thing. I wouldn’t know for sure, because I’ve been living in Houston, first, and then Fort Worth since the late 1990s. But back in my day in my old ’hood (old-man rant alert), kids weren’t treated like royalty. In fact, we were treated like quite the opposite.

In the 1970s and 80s in the blue-collar, Northeastern inner-city Italian-American enclave of my childhood, we had lots of family gatherings, and lots of food was involved. And not only were we kids not served first, we occasionally weren’t served at all. If you weren’t Gianni-on-the-spot when the last of the Donatelli’s spicy sausages was being hoisted from the charcoal grill or the remaining 2 or 3 scoops of linguini with clam sauce were being doled out, you were SOL. And you were thankful for the pleasure.

While I haven’t been back home long enough to test my suspicions, I have seen enough there to know that things are different now, there, in Texas, everywhere. What happened?

Some smart people have theorized that the hyper-competitive nature of contemporary life – spurred, no doubt, by social media and the ubiquity of reality-TV culture – has motivated parents, who are definitely too over the hill while probably too vested in the perhaps dreaded company store to do what honestly makes them happy, to see their children as avatars.

A British PM thinks most of us Westernized parents are addicted to our kids.

“If a Roman senator’s opium was his public life, a Viking’s was battle,” Rory Stewart writes in Intelligent Life. “Our ancestors have been addicted to honor, craved virtue and wealth, been hooked on conquest, on adventure, and on God. But ours is the first civilization to find its deepest fulfillment in its descendants. Our opium is our children.”

Why are we making childhood last longer?

In return, many adults have become strangers in their own households: following their children around and documenting their every move, praising them for expected behavior, cleaning up after them. It’s ridiculous.

It’s not good for the kids, either. Making sure they’re first or Number One, often at the expense of their friends, playmates, or classmates, is creating a generation of self-centered, not-so-little jerks.

And if some children are “losing their moral compass and failing to ‘launch’ into adult roles these days, how can we justify further amplifying the period, [childhood], when our kids are most indulged?”

Exactly. Why are we making childhood last longer? No wonder so many millennials are living with their parents.

Only after the last of the “kids” had nonchalantly bee-bopped back to the pool with his steaming plate of food, without thanking anyone publicly, of course, could we lowly adults approach the buffet. The biggest burger I could get my hands on was about the shape and size of a lump of coal, and it didn’t even have cheese on it. I had to drape a cold slice – retrieved from the fridge! by my own hand! – in between my bun.

I know what you’re thinking. It was a kid’s graduation party. Maybe the parents wanted their guest of honor and her friends to eat first in celebration of the historic occasion.

While nice and plausible, the thought doesn’t entirely reflect the context. Per my growling and grumbling, this wasn’t the first time some other adults and I had to wait while some “kids” got first crack at the food. And it probably won’t be the last.

Plus, I think we need to talk about R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Even if the teens had grown and harvested the crops and slaughtered the livestock to produce the spread, 10-to-17-year-olds should go before adults only at Six Flags, Hawaiian Falls, and Hangman’s House of Horrors, not at the dinner table. Never at the dinner table. We adults have earned the right to reap the rewards of our hard work. We’ve had to put up with these damn kids for years, for one thing.

Anthony Mariani, editor of and art critic for the Fort Worth Weekly, regular contributor to the Fatherly Forum, and a former freelancer for The Village Voice, Oxford American, and Paste magazine. He recently finished writing a memoir that is obviously “too real, man!” (his words) for any U.S. publisher, reputable or otherwise. He can be reached at [email protected].

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