Monday, October 3, 2011

Parenthood and the Freedom of Speech

A few years ago, I was standing around with a group of parents at our church watching our children on swing on the monkey bars.   A young dad-to-be came over with his pregnant wife and started talking politics --  spouting about how the President and Congress were all losers, that the system was pretty corrupt and they were all crooks.   He still was raging against the machine when my daughter Amber came over and asked me she if she could get a cookie in the kitchen.   After she left, another dad pulled almost dad aside and explained that he needed to watch the "People in Power Suck" stuff.  Once his daughter was here, she would need to learn to respect adults that have authority in their life such as teachers and coaches.   This man looked at the group of us and said, "So once you become a parent you lose your freedom of speech?"

The rest of us looked at each other, laughed and said, yes - when you become a parent,  you do lose that part of the Bill of Rights around your kids.   We went onto explain the other rights that parents lose: the right to sleep in late on weekends;  the right to go out whenever you want to; the right to watch the late night talk shows; the right to watch movies that are not animated and the right to curse like a sailor when your little one is in the back seat and a truck has just cut you off from the exit lane.   Yeah, those good old fashioned human rights. 

Parents make a lot of sacrifices - eating the burnt toast at breakfast, waiting until your next paycheck to buy those new shoes because your child needs money for their field trip, etc.  Probably the biggest one is giving up the freedom of speech particularly when talking about other adults when those little ears are around.    I learned this when I was teaching acting in an after school program.   I was getting ready to start the class when a little boy named Conner started to talk about how Bill Clinton was ruining this country and that he was a lousy human being.   Conner was a first grader and I doubt that he came to that political viewpoint on his own (last I heard in first graders are still trying to figure out shapes and colors, not the dynamics of a two party system or the moral leanings of the Commander-in-Chief).   Conner was parroting what he heard from his parents.  Not surprisingly - he was also one of the kids that had the most trouble taking direction from adults.   Why should he show respect to a bunch of educators when his parents didn't show respect for the office of the President of the United States?  Amber was four at the time and I was pregnant with Daniel and from that time on I resolved not to speak badly of other adults in front of my children.  If Max and I had to talk about President Bush - the code name was "Commander Banana Cookoo."  If the kids over heard us talking and asked who Commander Banana Cookoo was we'd just say that he was a character on cartoon that adults had to watch.   When we were with other adults and there were no children around -- then it was cool to let the political river flow. 

I realized that I must have done something right when Amber was eight and the 2004 election was in full swing.  She asked me if I was voting for George Bush.  I had to think very carefully since as a liberal the last four years had been challenging to say the least and the idea of another four years of Bush made me feel as warm as an ice water enema.  I knew that if I couldn't say something nice and said nothing at all - it would invite more questions from my curious eight year old.  I took a breath and said that he is always is dressed neatly and that I'm sure that he loves his mother very much -- but that it was time for someone else to have a turn at being president.   She seemed satisfied with that as I tucked her into bed.    I told the truth without being disrespectful to the highest office in the land and faced four more years of intestinal fortitude.  

Now that Amber and Daniel are older and becoming more aware of the world,  I'm more likely to answer them directly if they have a political question like:  "Are people who disagree with President Obama racist?"   "No,"   I respond, "It's okay to disagree with the president - everyone does at one point or another and that's what makes our country great, you can respectfully disagree."    Sometimes it's hard to explain the personal attacks that pundits on both sides of the isle lob at each other like Molotov cocktails.  You have politicians walking out of meetings with other leaders when they don't get their own way.  How can we use them as examples for our own children to learn how to share and compromise when the people running our country seem incapable of it?   We can't ask more out of our children then we expect of our leaders.  

I'm sure that our founding fathers were not immune to the urge to talk smack about each other but hopefully out of the earshot of their children.  Imagine George Washington giving a speech at Constitution Hall and introducing Thomas Jefferson only to have his nine year old yell out - "Thomas Jefferson, that guy is a crazy ass wipe and a total douche bag!"  (insert awkward silence and  cut to Ben Franklin shaking his head).  My point is that you can't expect children to keep those comments private and they will more than likely be blurted out at the worst possible moment.   

So for new parents that might be lamenting the loss of some of their basic human rights - here are some of the rights you get in exchange for the ones you lose:  the right to break out into silly songs that makes you infant or toddler laugh;  the right to blow a tummy tuba right after a bath;  the right to enjoy the holidays through a child's eyes; the right to show your child how to skate, catch a fish or ride a bike for the first time; the right to dress up for a princess tea party and finally wear that feather boa you bought for Halloween; the right to raid your child's Halloween bag for that last Snickers; the right to get up early on Saturday morning, watch cartoons with them and eat Rice Krispies; and the right to share the best parts of your childhood.     This Bill of Rights might be different then what our Founding Fathers might have envisioned -- but my guess is that even Ben Franklin's dad had to show his kid how to fly a kite. 

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