The Infantilization of Parenting

British author Alexander Pope was perhaps the first writer to turn a “bad hair day” into a poem—really, a satirical tragedy.  Modern Americans, bereft of a sense of humor and inclined to view reality through the lens of a selfie, turn their bad hair days into epic farces.

On the way to work in Washington last week, the ad at a bus stop asked me: “what would you do if your kid’s haircut turned into a brush cut?” It offered three options: lend the child daddy’s toupeé; get creative with glue; or try to convince Junior that sweatbands were making a comeback.

The ad went on to assure me that there are no perfect answers to parenting and, bucked up by that wisdom, I should not hesitate about becoming a foster parent. The goal was noble, the ad an attempt at humor. I wish them success in promoting foster parenting—kids need the help.

But I have to ask: are we so infantilized in our approach to parenting as the ad suggests?

Undoubtedly, for some teenagers the rape of their (hair) locks would undoubtedly represent a trauma at least akin to a micro-aggression. The teen years are, after all, times of trial where appearance can have an inordinate impact on self-worth. Any parent who has watched a child monitor acne knows that—and the smart ones will show some empathy.

But I also have to ask, as a father, whether we are preparing our children for a world in which, frankly, they will need often to “grin and bear it.” While a haircut that (d)evolves into a crew cut may be disappointing, it is only hair. It will grow back! The lad who lost his locks to a demon barber is hardly suffering like the kid who is bald because of chemotherapy.

It bothered me that one of the choices on my bus stop ad was not to consider how lucky I am in perspective. I’m normal, not sick. My hair will grow back. I lost my hair to a bad haircut, not because I have to retch my guts out from an illness. That’s life. Barbers gone wild aren’t.

Which raises the question of suffering and endurance. Once upon a time, kids (at least Catholic kids) were told to “offer it up.” Suffering, pain, disappointment, inconvenience—all could serve a better purpose. And, by reminding somebody of that, a parent taught a child to stop focusing on himself and refocus even his discomfort on others and their good.

I can’t help wonder whether the disappearance of this lesson does not go hand-in-hand with the disappearance of meaningful suffering and the concomitant rise of the culture of death. If a parent never teaches a child that suffering or disappointment—real or imagined—can have sense, at least in terms of “offering it up,” then it will have no sense. It will be a problem to be handled (by giving Junior daddy’s hairpiece, for example). Do we then doubt that such a child will grow up chronologically into an adult who continues to see suffering as meaningless, a hardship for which the only resolution is … technical? Utilitarian? Eliminating the suffering?

I do not suggest we become masochists but, honestly, being told sometimes to “suck it up” and “get a life” is good for people, if only to divert their focus from what oppresses them, be it real or imagined. It gives perspective. It challenges me to get beyond my ego.

I will confess that I find playgrounds today to be frightening places. Kids today do not play very much together. They hardly interact and, heaven forbid, the least roughhousing is called “bullying.” Go see the average American playground. It’s inhabited by little atomized individuals who are “bowling alone” under the watchful eyes of helicopter parents. Action here is not so much integrated as synchronized. But, like watching synchronized swimming, it gets boring fast.

Isn’t the current parenting style perfect for producing egocentric adults who find getting out of themselves a challenge? And when they encounter the least resistance to their wishes, are they at all prepared to suffer? Rather, is reality not expected to conform to their wishes? And is not getting those wishes merely a question in need of a technical solution?

I feel like a “girl” “trapped” in a boy’s body. Don’t bother with all that jazz about X and Y chromosomes and two sexes (the dreaded “gender binary”). A little surgical mutilation, the skills of plastic surgery, enough hormonal drugs and—voilà!—Bruce becomes Caitlin. Deny that “reality” and face a national chorus of “phobia!” And if Caitlin’s dysphoria proves even more unbearable, this person certainly cannot be refused euthanasia.

Since Belgium is already allowing minors to kill themselves and some folks in Canada would like to extend their euthanasia regime in the same direction, perhaps a bad hair day is the next excuse for a lethal injection. After all, how many parents have already been told that if their child has to go out after a haircut turned into a buzz cut, they “could just die”?

Editor’s note: The image above—depicting a barber and his teenage customer distracted by newspaper comics—is a detail from the cover illustration of the February 27, 1943 Saturday Evening Post painted by Howard Scott. 

John M. Grondelski

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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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