Columns 2007

Exactly where is Kingdom Come

Here’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever been told by a parent.  “I can’t make my kids to go to school if they don’t want to.” The kids in question were in elementary school.

My parents had surprisingly little difficulty in telling me what to do when I was in elementary school.  The had no trouble telling me what to do in high school. And they had no trouble telling me what to do when I was an adult. The only difference was that when I was an adult and not living at home, I didn’t necessarily do what they said. I must hastily add, though, that even then when I defied them, I spent a lot of time worrying that I was about to find out where kingdom come was.

Kingdom come, for those of you not familiar with the place, is where your mother and father promised to send you if you didn’t listen to them.  They didn’t tell you this to threaten you.  They told you this so you wouldn’t be surprised when you found yourself there.  Most of my friends and I spent a lot of our childhood unwilling to risk finding out that kingdom come was not as vaguely glorious as it might initially sound.  If fact, the tone used by our parents in offering us a one-way ticket there was such that we were pretty sure it had nothing to do with Camelot.

So I find myself truly puzzled when parents tell me that they can’t make their children do something as simple as go to school or come home on time when the children referred to are not old enough to ride public transportation alone.  It’s as though the inmates are in charge of the asylum.

If you can’t control your children when they still need your hand to cross the street, I think it’s a given that you won’t be able to control them when they’re teenagers. And yet for many parents I work with, this is the point in time where they look bewildered that things aren’t going exactly as they planned in their children’s lives.

Part of the problem is clearly the excess we dump on our children throughout their childhood, as though things can somehow make up for the absence of our control and influence in their lives.  Go into the room of just about any child in Middle America and you will find enough electronics to open a store.  Each year those electronics are updated because we are frightened at the thought our Johnny may not have what his friend Bobby has and then Johnny will feel bad. 

I think my mother’s response to that would be, “You think you feel bad now? Wait till I send you to kingdom come!”

But this goes beyond drowning our kids in material goods and raising them to believe this is their birthright.  This is about parents abdicating responsibility in their homes. This is about wanting to be a child’s friend, which precludes being their parent. If your child thinks he or she is your equal in the family, then there really is no family.  It’s just a bunch of roommates living together except that two of those roommates get to pay all the bills.

A few years ago, my favorite young friend and I were driving down the New Seward while she griped about the fact that her parents did not feel obligated to buy her a car for her sixteenth birthday.  In high indignation, she vented about the unfairness of it all. Then she turned to me, expecting full vindication, and asked, “How old were you when your parents bought you your first car?” I had to sadly explain to her that both my parents were dead and I was still waiting for them to do that.

I might be very old fashioned in the way I think of family but I must say that I always felt like an integral part of mine. This was not because of what I was given. It was because of the trust placed in me that I would earn my own way and help my family pay the bills to boot. I took pride in contributing to the general welfare of my family.

I turned over every paycheck I ever made directly to my mother until the day I moved out of her house. Those checks paid for my college education. I felt privileged that mom and dad loved me enough to spend my check on me when there were clearly so many things they needed to make their lives more comfortable.

I didn’t expect my parents to buy me a car.  I expected that some day, if I could avoid ending up in kingdom come, I would have the privilege of buying one for them.