There are moments in every parent’s life when they look at the behavior of their progeny and are simply horrified. At some low point during our parental tenure we will all wonder, “What, in the name of all things Holy, have I created?” A brief mental rewind can instantly illuminate several moments that still flood me with particular shame and embarrassment. For instance, when my oldest son James was three, we found ourselves in a social situation with a lovely Amish family. James was clothed in his everyday, self-selected attire: complete cowboy regalia. He was born equipped with a deep, gruff voice, and built-in swagger that authenticated his boots, cowboy hat, spurs, and ever-at-the-ready lasso (what was I thinking?).
The Amish family also had a 3-year-old son named James and the two looked very similar with their tow heads, blue eyes and toddler chubbiness. The Amish child was clad in his cultural outfit of dark pants and blue shirt with straw hat and both reminded everyone present of that ubiquitous picture of two blonde boys asking one another “Been farming long?” Both families formed a smiling half circle as the two babes stood bare toe to boot and silently eyed each other. After gentle prodding from his soft-spoken parents, the Amish cherub shyly offered a smiling, “Hello”, to which my own small heathen promptly and distinctly replied, “Hello, idiot.” In the deep, shocked silence that followed, I could hear the faint crackle of cultural bridges burning.
Not to be outdone by his older brother, my middle son Ben once wrought his own brand of havoc in the local Catholic Church. When the boys were ages 5, 4, and 3 we attended a mass with my mother, a member of St. Philomena. The boys had never attended a mass and the beauty and ceremony held them spellbound in their pew. The subject of the mass happened to be the Eucharist and as the priest began discussing the meaning and symbolism-the drinking of the wine that represented the blood of Christ and the taking of the host as His body, I glanced over at my small guys who were absorbing every word. I quickly did a double-take because the boys were not simply attentive to the priest; they were saucer-eyed, agape, apparently frozen in terror. I tried to smile reassuringly at the three, but to no avail. As the priest again extolled the drinking of the wine as blood and consuming the body of Christ, Ben could stand no more. He jumped up and yelled with sincere fear, “Mom, these people are all vampires and cannibals! Let’s get out of here!” I will borrow from Twain and ask to “draw a curtain of charity around the remainder of the scene.”
Now that the boys are older, we experience long stretches of relative calm and a welcome absence of parental humiliation. In fact it has been years since we’ve been excommunicated from a religious group with whom we have no formal affiliation. Occasionally, however, the boys still manage to create a mini-scandal or show such poor judgment in decision making that I am thrown into maternal despair.
Last week, I was expecting an important call from a well respected colleague who is a specialist in the field of sexual assault and violence against women. I had given her my various numbers including my cell number. However, because I am a hopeless flake, I unwittingly gave her my oldest son’s cell number instead of my own. When my son casually mentioned her name on his caller ID, I immediately called back. Normally warm, she was a bit cool and said she wondered if she didn’t have the wrong number when she hear the “music” played on my end while she waited. I had no idea what music she had heard and after we finished our business, I immediately called my 14 year old son’s cell number. I was greeted with that annoying recorded voice that urged me to , “Please enjoy the music while your party is located,” and then was suddenly loudly accosted by the following curse laden chant from a popular rap , “ B**CH STOP CALLIN ME!, B**CH STOP CALLIN ME!”, repeated many excruciating times.
Welcome to the world of cell phone technology, ring tones, clueless teens, gullible parents, and misogynistic hip hop music that enjoys a very lucrative association with all the above. With the ease of a button push, kids purchase and change the music on their phones almost as often as they change clothes. Not only had I been naïve in believing James would choose wisely, but to add insult to injury, I learned I had actually paid for Dem Franchize Boys’ to verbally abuse a colleague.
Cell phones and their accouterments are part of the vast wealth of technology that children and teens embrace and use with ease and which parents and others who care about kids and culture are struggling to fully understand. The technology and media that surround us can be incredibly useful, yet there are unintended consequences and side effects that we are just beginning to see and should start discussing.
Like many parents, I have put a great deal of thought and worry into what comes out of my children, what they do, what is visible. I realize that I need to focus an equal amount of time and energy thinking about what goes in, what they are culturally consuming, and the choices that are making. This is a difficult task in an age of social toxicity that makes parental gatekeeping almost impossible.