Katie's musings, mostly on things related to family life

Monday, February 24, 2003  

A Walk on the Safe Side

by Katie Allison Granju

My nine year old son can navigate email and hard drives, but he has never gone into a public restroom by himself. He has eaten in a five star restaurant in Paris, but he isn’t allowed to go alone to skip rocks in the small lake at the end of our street. He can read at a high school level, but is still required to sit where I can see him when we go to a movie.

And although he still has a good seven or eight years before he is fully “cooked” and begins easing his way completely out of my protective parental clutches, I am beginning to worry. How will he learn to cross the street, avoid weird looking strangers, and count out his change after making a purchase if I am constantly hovering over his shoulder? In short, how can my child gracefully enter adulthood in a world
where his freedom is so restricted?

I am not really sure when childhood became this cushioned and sanitized and proscribed. I am only 33 and I spent my childhood jumping out of dangerous haylofts, riding my pony bareback at breakneck speed, and walking alone the two miles from our small farm to the general store in order to buy a coke. But it wasn’t just my idyllic country childhood that afforded such freedom to kids. My husband, age 31, grew up in a suburban subdivision straight out of ‘The Brady Bunch.’ He remembers riding his bike all over the neighborhood with a pack of other children, building
rickety wooden ramps upon which to perform Evil Knievil-style stunts, and being dropped off at the mall and arcade for hours at a time
with no grown-up supervision.

Already my son is chafing at his constant supervision. Even though most of his friends live in the same world he does – one of being driven to
organized playdates or lessons rather than simply meeting at the ball field to play – something deep within him seems to be aware that this isn’t how it should be. He longs to be alone sometimes, just as we all do, to put his hands in his pockets and walk a few miles and just think. But I can’t let him do that…or can I?

Lately I have begun to wonder how much of our habit today of placing our children inside a plastic bubble is really necessary and how much is hysteria. Child abduction by a stranger -- every parent’s most primal fear -- is actually a statistical anomaly. It just hardly ever happens. We hear about it a lot now – on ‘America’s Most Wanted’ and in the newspaper, but that doesn’t mean it is more likely than it was a generation ago.

Of course, to the parent of a child who disappears, statistics mean nothing. And it is this thought that drives us to hover over our offspring in the way that we do. But I believe we should be giving some thought to what type of adults this new millennial childhood is going to produce.

As a culture, we have always vilified the archetypal “mama’s boy,” the child who was never allowed any activities outside his parents’ watchful eye and who was coddled and protected from all conceivable risk. This type of childhood, we have always believed, produced individuals who were stunted in their ability to make bold moves or take leadership roles -- or even function independently. Yet, in our well-intentioned desire to make sure that our kids aren’t run over, kidnapped, or exposed to the wrong influences, we have become an entire nation of these hovering, over-involved

Today my child asked if he could walk to a friend’s house…by himself. I gritted my teeth and told him that he could. His surprise at my response made him so happy that he let loose a war whoop of joy. He smiled broadly and literally skipped out the front door, happy to be on his short –but-trailblazing journey. I wondered again to myself what sort of childhood my kid is getting when a walk up the street seemed that exciting to him. Then I pressed my face to the window and craned my neck to watch him as long as I could before he crested a small hill and passed out of my

Copyright Katie Allison Granju. 2000-2003. All rights reserved.
Originally appeared in Metro Pulse

posted by Julie | 8:28 AM

Playing Politics

by Katie Allison Granju

I grew up in a house full of liberal Democrats. One of my very first baby photos depicts me – at the tender age of two weeks – being carried on a labor picket line with my striking journalist father. At age ten or so, I became involved in my first political campaign when I wore a dancing potato costume at various election stops for Bob Clement, who was then campaigning to become Tennessee's governor. No one in my family can recall what the potato was supposed to signify, but we all remember the costume. As a high school and college student I spent several summers in D.C. working for two Democratic members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation.

The first time I remember seeing my future husband was as he was hanging around the anti-apartheid shanty town that graced the lawn of the University of Tennessee’s Humanities Building in the spring of 1989. He and I went on to involve ourselves jointly in a variety of progressive causes that mattered to us, and in fact, one of our first dates was captured on the front page of The Tennesseean; we were marching together at a peace rally near the Oak Ridge Y-12 plant.

And then we became parents. Our son Henry was born in the fall of 1991 and we brought him home to our shabby but well-loved Fort Sanders apartment, sure that we had together given life to a budding little activist. We played him Public Enemy and Fugazi and Arlo Guthrie. He appeared on the local news as we strolled him through downtown in Knoxville’s annual Gay Pride parade. From the time he could babble, we encouraged him to develop his own ideas and to take a stand for things he believes in.

So it shouldn’t have surprised us too much when, at the age of five, he announced that he had developed a strong preference in the 1996 presidential election.

“I’m for Bob Dole,” he proclaimed with unwavering authority.

My husband Chris and I both stared down at Henry, sure we had misunderstood.

“But Henry, why are you for Bob Dole?” we asked. I figured that in a Republican town like Knoxville, Bob Dole was getting all the playground buzz. Maybe Henry was just trying to fit in with his friends at Rocky Hill Elementary.

“I ‘m for Bob Dole because he’s a war hero and has a lot of experience. I like his ideas on lower taxes,” explained Henry.

Despite our calmly reasoned protestations, Henry stuck with Dole to the bitter end of the ’96 campaign. After it was over, Chris and I continued to talk politics with our little supply-sider in hopes that his support for Mr. Viagra had been a fluke, a childish whim. But as the 2000 election year rolled around, Henry again went for the Republican nominee. He became a vocal Bush supporter early in the primaries and hung with him until the last chad was (not) counted.

No amount of reasoning could sway my third grade son from his choice. In fact, to my daily annoyance, he took to proselytizing to his sister and brother, five-year-old Jane and three year old Elliot.

“Now Elliot,” he would start in whenever he wanted to get a rise out of me, “tell Mama who you want to be president.”

“George W. Bush!” Elliot would warble with gusto as I cringed.

I am happy to report that my daughter went for Nader (one of her kindergarten-age buddies told his parents that he too was for the candidate he thought was named “The Ralphinator”), but Jane ended up switching her allegiance to Gore when it came time for her to enter the “Kids Voting” booth on election day.

After the election was all over, Henry and I went out to dinner together in the Old City and I again tried to get to the heart of his political views. I talked to him about the values that matter to me, about my views on world events and social issues.

“I understand all that stuff Mom,” he responded with some frustration. “That’s why I was for Bush. Because he represents things that matter to me, like being against abortion. I’m against abortion. And it really bothered me when Gore said stuff during the campaign that wasn’t exactly true. You always told me that was wrong.”

Suddenly, I was speechless. I looked at my handsome, earnest son gazing back at me over his child’s plate of spaghetti, and I suddenly felt so incredibly proud of him. And I experienced one of those oh-so- fleeting moments as a parent when you know you’re doing OK.

Even though Henry may not agree with me on the details, he has absorbed the family values we are trying to impart: honesty, civic engagement, integrity, and personal responsibility for one’s decisions. I had been browbeating him with my opinions when in fact, he was carefully weighing his own.

As happy as I am that Henry is so interested in politics, I do hope he doesn’t go the Young Republican route in ‘04. After all, I love the kid a lot and I’d really hate to have to send him away to be a foreign exchange student until the election is over.

Copyright Katie Allison Granju 2000-2003. All rights reserved
Originally appeared in Metro Pulse

posted by Julie | 8:04 AM

Of Guns and Sons

by Katie Allison Granju

Our house is full of guns. We’ve got pistols, rifles, muskets, and shotguns. I trip over them on the floor during the night and occasionally find them buried under the covers in my bed. Once I nearly broke my tailbone when I stepped on one in a slippery bathtub and took a painful fall.

Of course, none of the firearms hanging around our house are real. They’re toys made of plastic, wood, and metal. Some shoot caps, some shoot clothespins, and one shoots ping pong balls. Lots of them squirt water. But they still look like guns and are played with as weaponry by the boys who race around my yard making shooting noises and ducking behind trees.

There was a time, at the beginning of my parenting journey nine years ago, when I would have shuddered at the thought of this scene playing itself out at our house. While still pregnant with my now nine year old son, Henry, I announced to anyone who would listen that my child would never engage in violent play with toy weapons. With the perfect confidence borne of never having actually parented a child myself, I lectured friends and relatives on the dangers to society of raising boys on a diet of toy guns, swords and soldiers. My comeuppance began almost immediately.

From the time Henry could manipulate blocks, playdoh, legos, and crayons, weapons became making a daily appearance around our house. Like the Richard Dreyfus character in "Close Encounters," Henry seemed compelled by some force beyond his control to mold everything, including his mashed potatoes, into various gun shapes. Ignoring the carefully chosen, non-sexist dress-up clothes, dolls, art supplies, and wooden animals with which we so thoughtfully provided him, he concentrated his energies on begging us to provide him with a "real" toy gun, as opposed to his homemade ones.

For several years, we stood firm. But something about my position on this issue rang hollow to me. My personal position on gun issues leans toward the libertarian; although I believe strongly in safety locks and background checks, I never want to live in a society where only the police and the military have access to weapons. Henry himself appeared to have a genuine and abiding interest in the topic, enjoying books and movies about military history. Before he entered first grade, he had taught himself how to identify by photograph a variety of 19th century American firearms. I started to wonder if there wasn’t something unhealthy about completely banning his access to a particular area of interest.

I also began to notice the way other little boys we knew – almost all of whom had parents who also disallowed toy guns in the home – acted out their clandestine desire to play with weapons. Running around the park or birthday parties, four and five-year-old boys who had never actually held a toy gun chased each other with sticks, discarded straws or whatever else they could find and "shot" at each other as parents tried not to notice or shook their heads in dismay.

My husband and I decided that Henry deserved to learn the truth about guns. Seeing so many boys besotted with the idea of guns without any idea of the difference between a toy and a real weapon began to seem very dishonest and feel very dangerous to me. I never wanted my child to confuse fantasy with reality when it came to something as deadly serious as a gun.

So we bought him his first toy gun – a wooden replica of a Civil War musket ordered from the legendary Parris Toy Company. Then we asked some of the gun-wise men in Henry’s life (which doesn’t include my husband, who has never had any interest in firearms) to begin teaching Henry about gun safety. In the past three years, Henry has become an excellent shot as a result of many target shooting expeditions with his grandfather, godfather, and uncles. He has seen a gunshot rip into a hay bale, a clay pigeon, and a target. He has seen men return from hunting trips (although Henry has been invited to go along, he has chosen not to hunt because he is too much of an animal lover to consciously cause another living creature pain) with gaping holes in their flesh. And when he is old enough, he will enroll in our state sponsored hunter safety course to learn more about gun safety.

As with most banned activities, allowing Henry the chance to acquire a few toy guns immediately lessened the intensity of his interest. And feeling the power of a real rifle as it kicks back against his shoulder assisted him in grasping the power of a genuine firearm. He now understands– to the extent that any nine year old child can understand such a serious issue – the very real damage that a gun can do. And unlike perhaps too many children in America today, he clearly knows the difference between a super-soaker and a shotgun.

COPYRIGHT KATIE ALLISON GRANJU 2001-2003 - All Rights Reserved

posted by Julie | 6:45 AM