A boy and girl in our apartment building are being raised by a cantankerous veteran and his 1950s-subservient wife. The children, aged 12 and 9, are treated as though they are privates in his platoon. Although we live in Southern California, they wear long pants at all times, never shorts. They must be back in their barracks and asleep by 7 p.m. every night. There are no personal electronic devices allowed in their household, where, by the way, “hell” is still a curse word.
Our daughter, an only child who gets lonely on the weekends, plays with the Army buddies, as my wife and I call them. So they’re in our life and, occasionally, our apartment. The kids are sweet and polite, but always seem a bit uptight. And I can’t help think that how they’re being raised will not adequately prepare them for the choices presented by post-war life.
My wife used to worry about the effects of cursing in front of our daughter, watching Rick and Morty with her, and letting her sometimes stay up and watch her iPad as late as she wants. But she worries a lot less now. Maybe we’re biased, but our girl has turned out smarter, funnier, and better-behaved than any 7-year-old either of us has ever met. She won’t even utter a curse word around us when we ask her to.
Also, the Army buddies have taught us by example that it takes tons of energy to administer unnecessary discipline, and we’d rather use that energy for more necessary things. It’s taught us that talking shit about other parents behind their back is a fun form of marriage bonding, sure, but also a bigger lesson: That uniting in shared annoyance at a fellow parent, one who gives us a glimpse of the parents we might be if we went down that path, is, especially in today’s Instagrammed parenting world, extremely necessary. It helps us stay on target.
Another set of parents my wife and I talk about a lot behind their backs are my cousin Scott and his wife Amy. To them, what others think of their parenting is more important than their actual parenting. Their daughter Isabelle is as much a social-media reflection of their parenting skills as she is a girl who is now eight. Every milestone in this poor child’s life must be transformed into a Pinterest-perfect production.
“Running late to school this morning!” read the caption on a recent selfie of Scott driving with Isabelle behind him, holding their hands to their heads and mock-screaming. “Think we’ll make it, or is Isabelle’s A average in danger?”
Where do I even start with this one? First of all, I would definitely opt out of a private school that downgrades your kid’s average just for entering class three minutes late, once, with a parent in tow. But also, isn’t stopping your top-of-the-line BMW for three minutes to perfectly frame a photo, then type a caption you thought was hilarious but isn’t at all, the thing that actually made you late? I know, I know, he probably wasn’t actually late. He was merely doing that for the sake of his 300 followers. But the mind goes to dark places.
It used to take everything I had not to unfollow Scott and Amy or to reply: “No one gives a shit” to every Isabelle photo-op. (No matter the content, it pretty much would apply.) But I’m working on my negativity. So, instead, I choose to be entertained by every test Isabelle aces in math, every goal she scores in soccer, and every badge she earns in Girl Scouts.
For a while, I even took inspiration from these updates — reacting with a satirical blog I created, “Setting a Dad Example,” that lampooned Scott and Amy but changed the details of their lives to match mine as a stay-at-home dad.
“I’m raising my Toddler to be a Criminal,” screamed one of my fake headlines. There were also “The Benefits of Raising Your Child Like a Veal Calf” — complete with a photo of her clenching the bars from inside our dog’s crate — and “My Toddler Isn’t That Bright: There, I Said It.” Tempting fate, I linked Scott and Amy to each new blog, hoping they might get what I was doing.
Nope. One of them always LOLed at the blog with no clue that they inspired it. So I got bored and ended the series before CPS showed up at our house with questions.
But my wife and I believe we should, despite how much the urge to unfollow or even unfriend strikes, keep overbearing parents like the Army vet and his 1950s-subservient wife — and oversharing parents like Scott and Amy – around, rather than banish and shame them, because they serve a purpose. They create a dialog about parenting in general and who we are as parents specifically. They inspire the rest of us to better parenthood by showing us how we’d prefer to do it. How else would you know where the line is?
Like most first-time parents, my wife and I mostly don’t know what we’re doing. But one thing we do know is that we’re better than some of the freaks with whom we surround ourselves. In this age of performative parenting and constant one-upmanship, we think it’s good to keep that in mind.
For us, peeking into the lives of annoying parents is also good relationship-building. It brings us almost as close as we feel after dropping off my own parents at the airport following a weekend visit. Almost.