The Common Good
April 2006

No Visible Means of Support

by Ed Spivey Jr. | April 2006

Today's toddler, in his front-facing carrier, thinks he can fly.

As a father who has raised two children successfully (judged by the fact they seldom drool), I feel qualified to observe and comment on today’s version of familius americanis typicalis. To put this in perspective, let’s first review a moment from 1990, when two young parents were attempting to establish good nutritional standards for their youngsters.

Wife: Eat your steamed carrots, please.

Daughter #1: Okay, Mom.

Daughter #2: All gone, Mommie.

Husband: But...they’re yucky.

Many years have passed for this control family, and the children have reached adulthood with a clear sense of self and vocation, although somewhat divided in the important category of church preference. While the oldest, like her mother, considers herself Catholic, the youngest does not. Thus, she and her father—a recovering Southern Baptist—feel the need to wear Groucho Marx glasses when taking communion. They also hope no one asks them for the secret handshake.

Religious concerns aside, however, I understand the challenges facing today’s young parents. When I see them in public places, I often walk up and helpfully shout out important suggestions, such as “Why are you just standing there?! You should be home saving for college!” They look at me, their eyes wide with deep appreciation, and I walk away happy to have touched another life.

And I’m especially concerned about the bewildering array of devices new parents feel compelled to use with their youngsters. Take the modern child carrier, for example. Gone are the days of carrying your child in a backpack where she was free to enjoy the view, lovingly pick at her dad’s baldspot, and reach around to grab his eyeglasses and fling them under a passing bus. Instead, today’s child is strapped to the parent’s chest, face forward, with legs dangling and arms flailing.

In these front carriers, the child feels alone, suspended in mid-air with no visible means of support, floating above sidewalks and wondering if he’s being used as an emergency flotation device. (Child to parent: “What am I, your airbag?!”)

At best, the child thinks the shoes walking in and out of view far below are his own, and that he’s really, really tall. At worst, however, we’re raising an entire generation of children who think they can fly.

One wonders what will happen when, say, on the first day of kindergarten a child shows up with the bold self-confidence you get when you’re a 4-year-old with super powers. (Child: “Hey, now that I finally got rid of that dead weight on my back, watch how high I can fly!” Teacher: “Carl, it’s circle time. Please come down off the bookcase.”)

And have you seen the playseats they put babies in these days? A recent visit to our 4-month-old niece found her sitting in a large circular device with at least a dozen dials, wheels, and gizmos. My own children sat in a simple wheeled chair, which permitted them to roll around and experience the mysteries of their home environment, such as what cat hair tastes like. But today’s child is trapped in a device that looks like the cockpit of a space shuttle. And just as complicated, even for an extremely intelligent adult like me. I tried unsuccessfully to manipulate this one object until finally the baby reached out, moved it a quarter turn to the left, and up popped a smiley clown singing a little jingle. (In my defense, the baby had read the instruction manual.) Anyway, an hour alone in this over-stimulating device and a kid needs a cigarette just to calm down.

And don’t get me started about those blinking tennis shoes. Are they designed for these kids to lead their parents into darkened tunnels and caves? (And if so...is it a trap?!) On dark nights, do airline pilots get confused while landing and follow the rows of lights into Chuck E. Cheese’s or a Toys R Us?

The good news is that today’s kids are made of strong stuff. Recently I drew the short straw to take my young nephew outside to play. It was in Cleveland and it was winter (or is that redundant?), and the frigid northern Ohio winds whipped unceasingly up my sleeves and down my neck. The 2-year-old didn’t seem to notice, though, because he was poking a piece of ice with a stick. For an hour.

I was so numb from the cold I declined the child’s invitation to get my own stick and join in the fun. Fortunately, a passing St. Bernard saw the blinking lights and rescued me.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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