Monday, February 28, 2000

No bad kids, just bad parents

Faithful readers will notice the shiny new Amazon links popping up all over "Mothers with Attitude" throughout the week (or however darn much time it takes me to update everything), so it seems an appropriate time to bring up a book recently touted in one of Amazon's periodic newsletters about books on parenting and families. Now, I don't know about you, but I seem to read parenting and family books just about exclusively anymore. I remember a time when I used to read novels, but now, save for the occasional Jan Karon snuck in on a quiet weekend, I'm all about neurology and sensory integration and behavior management and no fun.

Still, this description for a new book gave me pause: "In Reclaiming Our Children: The Healing Solution for a Nation in Crisis, noted psychiatrist Peter Breggin asserts that parents and other adults are the source of our children's problems--not genetics or drugs or television."

Well. Interesting news. Apparently all those teenagers are right--it's our fault. We've ruined their lives. No blaming it on anything else, Mom and Dad. It's you. You, you, you. Shape up!

Now, the first thing I find confusing about this is that it doesn't seem very long ago that another book came out which said expressly the opposite: that nothing parents do matters, and that peer pressure is everything. "The Nurture Assumption explores the mountain of evidence pointing away from parents and toward peer groups as the strongest environmental influence on personality development," goes the Amazon review on that volume. And so here I thought we were off the hook, and we could blame the way our kids turned out on that bad crowd they took up with. But now, it seems, the onus is back on us.

And that's okay, because I was never comfortable with the idea that parents are powerless puppets in their children's lives. But neither am I willing to concede that all our children's problems are due to nothing more than their parents' inability to give them the time, attention, and discipline they need. Some problems, no doubt. But all? That's a heck of a lot of blame to be passing out, even for a self-help book.

I think what this approach fails to take into account--and I don't deny that it's an appealing approach not just to our children, who will blame us no matter what, but to all those armchair parents out there who know that they could do better--is how very difficult it is to be a parent these days. I'm not just talking about jobs that don't value family time and schools that assign so much homework that there is no time for family time and schedules, kids' and parents' both, that have family members passing like ships in the night. I'm talking about discipline, and the absolute lack of a consensus in our society about what's appropriate, and the absolute judgments that are passed on folks who don't seem to be doing that right. And since nobody agrees on what right is, that would be just about everybody.

There's a lot of talk about how parents are too permissive, and let their children run wild, and put the kids in charge of the household. We've all looked askance at parents who let their children scream, or misbehave, or bully others, or talk back. But we've also looked askance at parents who yell at their children, or pull them roughly, or smack them. The words, "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" come to mind. To discipline your child in public is to risk stern looks at best, and police involvement at worst. But don't discipline them, and, well, you're ruining their lives. There ought to be a happy medium there, but it's awful hard to find. No matter what you do, it seems, someone will tell you to lighten up and someone will tell you to tighten up.

In a perfect world where every child was well-behaved, there would be no discipline dilemmas. But I don't know that that world has ever existed. Corporal punishment may have made many children at least attempt to appear well-behaved in front of their elders, but that tool has pretty much been removed from today's parenting arsenal. I'm comfortable with that; I have no desire to smack my kids. But at the same time, I can't help but think how amusing someone like, say, Tom Sawyer would have found time-outs.

Friday, February 25, 2000

Fox family

Well, it looks like the lovebirds from "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire" are headed for splitsville. We're shocked, shocked to learn that they didn't fall deeply in love in those 50 or 60 seconds between meeting and marrying. It's enough to make you lose faith in the matchmaking abilities of sleazy TV shows. Next they'll tell us that none of those dates on "The Dating Game" ever worked out, either.

In truth, nobody should be shocked that this microwave marriage cooled so quickly--and if you are, then there's a lovely bridge for sale in Brooklyn, and perhaps I can broker a deal. That would put me in the same profession as the alleged multi-millionaire groom, who turns out to have a misleading bankbook and a mad former fiancé. His momentary bride claims to never have been interested in his money anyway, but just wanted to be on a TV show and have a little fun. And hey, what could be more fun than parading around in a bathing suit and answering questions from unseen strangers? She was shocked, shocked when she won. So shocked, that all she could manage to say was, "I do."

Yet what's so shocking about this whole thing is not that the bride and groom came together under false pretenses--after all, real multi-millionaires and real gold-diggers probably do not need the help of Fox to find each other. The shocking thing is that so darned many people tuned in. Not me, of course; I just read about it. A lot. But from a ratings point of view, if not a romance point of view, the show was a through-the-roof success. And you know, this just encourages them. We get the TV we deserve. If we all watched PBS every night like we're supposed to, this great human tragedy might never have occurred.

Flush with that success, Fox was ready to re-run the original show, and undoubtedly had weeks' worth of vaguely well-off grooms lined up. With programming stars in their eyes, they must have envisioned giving Regis a run for his millions with two or three quickie weddings a week. One wonders what the phone-in contest for those shows would have been like: "Rate these cities in the order of failed marriages conducted there: A. Las Vegas; B. Reno; C. Hollywood; D. Pine Valley." Those dreams are now as cruelly dashed as Rick and Darva's; if your research department can't even turn up a restraining order, you're probably best not sending strangers off on honeymoons.

But I'd like to offer those family-planning Fox-ites another possibility to consider, one similarly rife with human drama, impersonal meddling, and life-altering circumstances, though admittedly short on swimsuits. If they wanted to do a service to society as well as their ratings (and yes, I know, it's television, what's the likelihood of that), perhaps they should be arranging adoptions instead of marriages. Pluck one child or sibling group out of foster care and let them choose from a bevy of prospective moms and dads. The parents would need to have a homestudy and approval from the state, which would be a load off of Fox researchers' minds. But other than that, all the red tape that keeps kids stuck in the system for years would be sliced. Just think of it--happy families created where there were none, parents and children forming a bond that will last forever, or at least until the trip to DisneyWorld is over. Put it on after "The Simpsons," and you're talking ratings gold.

Marrying a man or woman you barely know is still considered foolhardy in our society, but adopting a child you barely know, or going home with adoptive parents you barely know, is not unusual at all. Many folks adopting internationally don't get a whole lot more time together than the multi-millionaire twosome before they commit to a lifetime of responsibility. Foster children are certainly accustomed to having their fate decided by strangers, and going to live with whomever they're assigned to; they'd gain some empowerment in the process of picking the parents they'd like. And prospective adoptive parents are certainly accustomed to jumping through hoops, answering personal questions, and suffering disappointments; they'd gain a chance to plead their case to the most important judge, the children.

Come on, Fox, give it some thought. It can't possibly be more tacky than what you've already done.

Wednesday, February 23, 2000

Go to your room

Kids all want their own rooms, right? They want their own private space, they want their own personal decor, they want to sleep without someone snoring or playing music or getting up in the middle of the night or hitting them with a pillow. In some households, kids may need to share rooms due to space or bulk of children, and the best can be made of it. But any kid, given the choice, would want their own room, or so runs the conventional wisdom. For goodness sake, there have been whole episodes of "Arthur" about it, so it must be true.

Tell it to my daughter. She's repeatedly demanded that we go out and adopt some more kids so she doesn't have to sleep alone. She deeply envies her friend who shares a room with two sisters. It's true that she did spend her first 4.5 years with about 11 little roommates, in a Russian orphanage with tiny beds lined up in rows, but surely most children with this background would be overjoyed to have four walls to themselves. Not her--she spends as little time as possible in her room, and not even a stereo, a computer, and a cool couch-like bed can convince her to spend significant alone time there.

My son does play in his room, constantly. You can tell by the fact that every toy in the house eventually turns up on his bedroom floor, along with various boxes, keys, papers, garments, and playthings that make sense only to him. Sometimes he lines up cars on his road-map rug, sometimes he plays with his computer, sometimes he just lays in his bed and rocks. His room is his refuge.

Yet even he is neutral about sleeping alone. And when his sister camped out on his floor one night due to houseguests commandeering her room, they discovered the magic of sleepovers. Now every night becomes a whine-a-thon. Can he sleep in her room? Can she sleep in his? Who gets to use their sleeping bag? Who has to clear space on their floor? (Well, this is mostly an issue for my son. His sister just has to shove some shoes to one side. He has to hire a dumpster.)

We've generally held this experiment in communal living to the weekends, when sleeping on the floor will affect no one's school performance. And so long as it's remained a novelty, it's been a nice sort of bonding experience for them. But this week, with school closed for Winter Break, I've been persuaded to allow it every night, and now it seems more and more as though they want to sleep in the same room so they can start squabbling immediately upon waking, and not have to wait for the other to get up and meet them by the TV. This morning, he was playing his tape player too loud, and she was sleeping on one of his cars, and the sounds of sibling outrage woke me with the morning light.

Maybe this will eventually help my daughter appreciate her sibling-free room. It's certainly made me appreciate it. Forget their personal space--if kids having their own rooms extends my own personal zone of quiet, that's good enough for me.

Monday, February 21, 2000

The truth will out

Well, my first major test as an adoptive parent has come and gone, and I think I flunked. At best, a C-. Unpreparedness is, of course, no excuse. Parents, like Boy Scouts, must be prepared always.

I've talked to my kids about being adopted, I've read them stories, I've given them words with which to validate their situations, I've lent an understanding ear. Of course, since both my kids are almost exclusively concrete thinkers, and adoption is a pretty abstract concept, the stuff mostly goes over their heads. My 9-year-old daughter will listen intently as I talk and read and emote, but when I ask her if she has any questions, she tends to say, "What's for dinner?"

And so, I thought there was time before the harder questions would come. And so, I was taken by surprise when one of my six-year-old's classmates looked me in the eye and told me that my son wasn't my real son.

Now, I'd always planned that when a kid said something like this to me, I'd feign surprise and say, "What? He's not real? He looks real to me!" And the kid would laugh, and I'd say some platitude or other and get out of there.

But of course, this took me aback, and so I just said, "Yes, he is." And the kid said, "He is?" And I said, "He's my real son and I'm his real mom." And then the teacher chimed in and said, "I didn't say that, I said he was adopted." And I muttered some platitudes about adoption just being another neat way to form a family, and the teacher said, "I just said that he didn't grow in his mommy's tummy," and looking at the kid's face, I could tell that he was thinking about my boy hatching from an egg or being found under a rock. Unclear on the concept, but knows something's different alright.

There are adoptive parents of my acquaintance who would skin the teacher alive for having revealed such a personal piece of their child's history. This is an obsessive topic for them--who to tell, how much to tell, when to tell, where to tell, why to tell, whether to tell at all. I tend to be more of a blabbermouth. I've been entirely forthright with my children's teachers, administrators, and just about anybody who sees them on a regular basis. I've asked that when the "family life" unit is taught, adoption be mentioned if at all possible. So I don't suppose my son's teacher thought I'd mind if she shared this bit of his background with the class.

And I don't, exactly. Full disclosure seems the best policy, and I do firmly believe that adoption is as legitimate a way to form a family as any, and thus no cause for secrecy. Yet I would have liked to have known, and to have suggested some appropriate words or appropriate stories. It's clear that his classmates aren't clear about what adoption means, though they know how to be mean about it. Perhaps this will be the reward of our forthcomingness, to frame the subject in such a way that first and second graders will find it to be unremarkable.

I told my son's classmate that your real mom is the one that loves you and feeds you and helps you with your homework and kisses you goodnight and reads you stories and takes care of you. That's what I want my children to know, and their friends as well. If they're real friends, it will be enough--and if not, better my two should start developing snappy comebacks in elementary school than be confronted by the issue for the first time in their teens.

Honesty remains the best policy. But I liked it better when I didn't have to think about it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2000

The wheel deal

The latest hip, hot, happening, gotta-have-it accessory at my children's elementary school doesn't involve clothing, shoes, or tattoos. It's not pierced ears or pierced anything else, thankfully. It has nothing to do with Pokémon, the Backstreet Boys, or Leonardo DiCaprio. It's a backpack on wheels. And I don't get it.

I watch the kids filing into school, and they look like a bunch of stewardess-wannabes, pulling their little suitcases behind them. When I first saw a couple of kids wheeling their stuff early in the school year, I assumed they had physical handicaps that prevented them from toting their gear more conventionally; or perhaps they were leaving for a trip right after school. But now I'd say at least a third of the schoolkids are doing wheelies, and since I haven't heard of an epidemic of broken collar bones, I've got to assume it's just fashion. And since my daughter's lobbying hard for one, I have to deal with it.

Maybe I could see it if these were high-school kids, with big thick textbooks to haul around, but in first or second grade? What can they possibly have that's too heavy to carry? Are we raising a generation of children who are too weak to raise a notebook, a folder, and a couple of puny readers on their fragile shoulders? It's not like they're doing book reports on War and Peace.

Frankly, I'm still not used to first and second graders carrying backpacks at all, much less overnight bags. In my day--and hear I am probably dating myself back to the Stone Age, and you will be shocked that my elderly fingers can still pound the keys--we actually carried our books in the crook of our arms. Yes! It's true! I don't believe I used a backpack until college, and then only because I rode my bike everywhere. (Hey, remember when bikes had baskets to hold your books? So quaint.)

How well I remember, with my few remaining brain cells. You'd walk along with your notebook and textbooks piled high in your arms, purse over one shoulder, lunch sack clutched in your hand. Maybe a cute boy would come along and offer to help. Maybe you'd drop some books, and a cute boy would pick them up. Or maybe your papers would blow away and somebody would step on your homework and the cute boy would steal your lunch. It was a crap shoot, but at least there was a chance for interaction. What are the cute boys to do now--offer to wheel your luggage? Can a cute boy wheeling two hefty bags behind him walk close enough to you to brush against your arm and give you weeks worth of diary material? Can he even walk close enough to have a conversation? A major mating ritual of childhood seems endangered here.

What will these kids use when they get older and the books get bigger? Baggage carts? Wheelbarrows? Personal valets? Truth be told, in this electronic age, it will probably go the other way--toward e-books and Palm Pilots. They'll keep all their schoolwork in their pocket, and wonder at the old days when they actually had to carry stuff. Instant messages will take the place of passed notes. Somebody will come up with a way to send electronic spitwads. Cliff Notes software will automatically highlight the passages you need for the test.

Ah, it's a brave new world. And our kids are rolling into it, on two wheels.

Monday, February 14, 2000

Do you speak Mom?

It has come to my attention that my children and I do not speak the same language.

I'm not talking here about their native Russian--they've been Americans for five years now, and had precious little language when they came home to begin with. No, this sudden lack of a common language is a recent thing. It's as if, to take a cue from "Star Trek," the universal translator that had been allowing us to understand one another is on the fritz. Sometimes they understand me just fine, and sometimes I might as well be speaking Klingon.

Apparently my daughter's translator works better than my son's, because she often takes it upon herself to interpret for me. That's the only explanation I can find for the fact that she repeats everything I say to him. "Buckle your seatbelt," I say. "Buckle your seatbelt," says she. Her bossy tone is almost exactly the same as mine. I try to convince her that there can only be one Mama, and that would be me. She nods, but in her eyes I can see that she has knowledge in this matter that I do not possess. Perhaps it is just that it is the job of big sisters to be bossy, and she is powerless to resist. Or maybe she knows that without her to pass my message on in a language he can understand, her brother wouldn't listen to me at all.

Which he quite often doesn't. There are the times when I ask him to do something, and he doesn't. There are the times when I ask him not to do something, and he does. Then there are the times when he asks me a question, I answer it, and he asks me exactly the same question again. Clearly, though it sounds to me as though I am speaking English, it's Greek to him. Or else there's some sort of insidious plan afoot to slowly drive me insane.

The Tower of Babel effect explains so many things that have been puzzling me about my children. The other day, I sat down with my daughter and reviewed some material for a test. She didn't know the answers, and so I told her quite clearly what they were. Fifteen minutes later, I asked her the questions again, and she looked at me like she had never heard any of this stuff before. I was worried that perhaps her brain had turned into Swiss cheese, but no--I was just babbling along in my incomprehensible parent language, and though she didn't want to make me feel bad by pointing it out, she can hardly be expected to have understood a thing. Guess the universal translator was glitching out again.

As do all people who don't quite understand each other, we will find ways to communicate, my children and I. Certain gestures, certain looks, certain tones of voice--they know when Mama means business, and are getting better at guessing what on earth I could be wanting. And I am trying to be patient, and speak slowly, and clearly, and loudly, more so with each repetition I have to make. I know that one day they will heed my words once again. Sure hope it happens soon--before they become teenagers, and then their language becomes incomprehensible to me.

Friday, February 11, 2000

Eat less, weigh more

News flash: In a startling discovery, medical researchers have determined that the large portions people are eating these days are contributing to the rise in obesity. That's right: Too much food can make you fat. Who knew? It's groundbreaking findings like these that remind us time and again that medical researchers have way more money than they know what to do with.

Not resting with merely revealing the amazing connection between overeating and weight gain, researchers have further discovered that if parents serve bigger portions to their children, the children will eat more. Just imagine! Lest you think that this study lacked some sort of scientific rigor, it should be pointed out that, to test their conclusions, the researchers tried serving the children smaller portions. And, sure enough--they ate less!

Normally, I would file information such as this in the "Duh!" file along with recent health headlines like "Study Finds Heavy Drinking and Standing Don't Mix" and "Antisocial Behavior by Boys Often Rewarded by Peers." But then I look at my family, and I wonder if the researchers might have missed a step somewhere. The part about big portions making big eaters is certainly true, but somewhere along the lines of the weight gain we screw up somehow. At our house, regardless of who eats the calories, the weight gets gained by Mama.

Here in our little nutritional Bermuda Triangle, my son, who eats approximately his own weight in food every day (not counting the part he drops on the floor, wipes on his clothes, or gets in his hair), seems constitutionally unable to get fat. He gobbles down his large portions and yells for more, but obesity doesn't look to be in his future. The kid can't hardly keep his pants up--he's built like a pipe cleaner.

My daughter gets a more moderate portion of food at dinnertime, though she'd say it's a large portion and her papa would call it a small one. The researchers reported that kids under 5 were more likely to ignore the amount of food in front of them and just eat what they wanted, while kids over 5 felt pressure to clean the plate--but this 9-year-old would happily make a dinner of three bites of meat, a few spoonfuls of rice, and a vegetable molecule, all washed down by several gallons of juice.

She eats a full meal, all right, but only because Papa won't let her up from the table until she eats what he wants. The researchers "suggest that parents allow children to determine how much they eat and not command them to eat everything on their plate." The researchers are clearly not Italian. In my husband's family, leaving something on the plate does not mean that you are being nutritionally responsible and trying to fend off future obesity; it means that you didn't like the food and are disrespecting the cook.

So my daughter fusses, but she eats. And she stays slender. My husband eats, but he stays slim. My son eats, but he stays skinny. I eat, and I gain 10 pounds.

I take small portions, I stop when I'm full, I leave food on the plate. And yet it seems clear that I am destined to be the Designated Weight-Gainer for this family. Sometimes that involves a deliberate act--say, eating all the kids' Halloween candy so they won't ingest all those big bad calories--and sometimes it just seems to happen in some sort of cosmic fat-transfer. Hey, I can take it. But next time those researchers have some money to burn, perhaps they'd like to stop by.

Wednesday, February 09, 2000

The trouble with e-mail

When it comes time to examine the decline of civility here at the dawn of the new millennium, e-mail will have a lot to answer for.

Oh, sure, people behave badly in their cars, they behave badly at work, they allow their children to behave badly. They yell at each other on TV talk shows and sue at the drop of a hat. Movies encourage a kick-ass attitude toward one's fellow man, sit-coms specialize in rude rebuttals. There's certainly enough excuses for abuses to go around.

Yet I never cease to be amazed at the things people will say to each other in e-mail--which, after all, is hardly anonymous, and often even archived for posterity. The jerk who cuts you off on the highway rarely tosses a business card through your window so you'll know where to reach him, but the person who flames you on an e-mail list is likely to include full name, e-mail address, workplace, perhaps city and state of residence, perhaps something about the family. Hey, you moron, come visit my Web site!

Often, I suspect, the moron part is unintentional. I've done a lot of thinking about the way disputes develop in e-mail discussion groups--the way one person will overreact, then the other person will overreact bigger, and then other overreactors will pile on in a frenzy of righteous indignation--and I'm convinced that there is a fundamental difference in the way one feels about sending e-mail and the way one feels about reading it.

The sending of e-mail has a certain impersonal feeling to it. It's not a letter that you have to type and sign and read and address and stamp; it's not a medium that requires any thought at all. Often you're corresponding with people you've never met and are never likely to meet. You may have a warm feeling of familiarity toward them from reading their writing in previous posts, but they really don't exist in the way that somebody you see in physical form on a regular basis does. You may actually like them better than people you see in physical form on a regular basis, but the stakes are lower. You're likely to express your opinion a little more liberally, your sense of humor a little more sharply. You spout, you send; it's fast, it's fun, it's freeing. It's only e-mail. Nothing personal.

But reading e-mail is very personal. You're sitting in your nice safe home, basking in the warm glow of the computer. Maybe you're in your pajamas, maybe your kids are playing nearby. The message comes right to you; maybe it goes out to 2,000 other people, too, but it feels like person to person. It mentions you by name. It misinterprets your words. It accuses you of not knowing what you're talking about. It's hard not to see it as a personal attack. What someone may have meant as a quick shot from the lip becomes a shot to the heart. Your blood pressure goes up. Maybe you yell at the screen. Maybe you yell at your kids. Your mood turns sour.

And then you write back, shooting fast, sending without thinking, to that anonymous but offending party out there in cyberspace. And that party, reading your response in her peaceful home in her pajamas, may wonder what in the heck you're talking about and why you're so blooming sensitive. And will write back as though the hurtful words were yours. And so on and so on and so on.

E-mail is a medium without much capacity for nuance. Dry humor or simple bluntness can sound like hostility, and people who have never met can't easily judge one another's intentions. Emoticons help--they're like little handshakes, showing that there are no concealed weapons. Time would help more, but an e-mail program that automatically held up messages for 24 hours and then asked if you really want to send that would probably not be around for long.

Monday, February 07, 2000

Be prepared

Not long ago, I left my purse at McDonald's. (Parental forgetfulness in the face of overstimulated children is a subject for another column, to be sure; the last time I lost a purse, it was at Chuck E. Cheese.) I called to see if it had been found, and the manager checked inside the purse they had for identifying marks. "Does it have...flash cards?" he asked. Yep, that would be mine.

Before I became a parent, I must have had personal items in my purse. Maybe a lipstick, maybe phone numbers of friends to meet for lunch, maybe a paperback, maybe a prescription. It's been said that the contents of a woman's pocketbook could be a portrait of her personality, and I must have had one of those--a personality--at one time.

But now my purse contains flashcards. And Matchbox cars. And the kind of candy that will keep my son from having a meltdown. And wrappers for those candies. And tissues for collecting those candies when they've fallen out of his mouth. And bandaids for imaginary boo-boos. And favorite fidget toys. And pen and paper to draw with. And crayons. And maybe a few coins--not to spend, but to spin or stack or slide.

My purse has become an Emergency Play Kit, full of things that can be pulled out at a moment's notice to occupy antsy children. Driver's license, credit cards, cash --they're all nice, but superfluous, though in a pinch I have let my son line up all those pretty credit cards on the floor. Mom's bag better always have another trick in it, because unrelieved boredom is not a pretty sight. Order taking too long at the restaurant? Hey, I've got flashcards!

When the kids were much younger and my son was still in diapers, his diaper bag used to be the toy bag. After a year or two of accumulating books and cars and stuffed animals and every fast-food toy ever distributed, it weighed approximately two tons. I couldn't bear to lug it around, so I started carrying diapers and wipes in my purse. The purse was large, and the purse was soon heavy.

These days, I have a tiny purse, just a little wallet-sized slip of a thing on a strap, but you'd better believe it's big enough to hold plenty of options for amusements. I've left the house without money, without my driver's license, without my keys, but I never go out without toys. Got some hidden in my jacket pockets, just in case.

Friday, February 04, 2000

Get ’em while they're young

There's a certain school of adoption thought that says the younger you get 'em, the better. Mindful of the damage that years in a foreign orphanage or domestic foster care can cause, cautious adoptive parents figure to cut their risks of serious problems by choosing children who've had as little exposure to those institutions as possible--which is to say, newborns, infants, babies, clean little slates that have yet to be sullied by uncaring handlers.

I can't really quarrel with that. My own two kids, adopted from a Russian orphanage at ages four-and-a-half and two, are certainly living proof that institutions are not great places to grow up. I often wonder how much farther they would be in their development if they had been with us from birth, getting love and stimulation and therapy and hugs from day one instead of day 1,642 or day 730. They would be different kids--and that gives me pause, too, because I kind of like them the way they are. Their personalities were formed during those early years just as surely as their disabilities, and their personalities are pretty neat.

I've always thought that adopting an older child with identified special needs was the way to go--you get a fully formed little person with a personality, interests, abilities, and, if you're lucky, toilet-training skills, and a road map of where to start looking for problems and getting help for them. Adopting an infant seems to me like ordering one of those mystery-grab-bag packages from a catalog, a box with a big question mark on it. Who knows what it may hold? I prefer my gifts unwrapped, with lots of descriptive information attached. There are surprises enough even with that.

But if people want to go with the infant behind Curtain Number Three, well, again, I can't quarrel. We all have to decide what's right for us and our families. Some couples take it a step further and start a relationship with the birthmother before the birth, assuring she gets adequate prenatal care and gives the baby as much of a chance as possible to start life flaw-free. And I suppose that's prudent, and so I won't quarrel with them either.

But a recent item in Newsweek makes me worry a little for the way this obsession with youth may end up. It seems that, far from settling for a baby, you can now adopt an embryo. A couple in Florida has six embryos left over from infertility treatments, and wants to offer them for adoption to "good Christian people." Now, folks, I know it's tempting--bypassing the birthparent (geneparent?) altogether, getting a child fresh from the test tube, starting almost but not quite from scratch--so tempting that it might become the next big adoption front. But think about it: Can you imagine the awkwardness of those yearly reunions of six siblings born to different parents? The measuring up of which child is doing best, the judgments made on the parenting skills of those who are falling behind?

One good thing about adopting kids out of institutions--there's always somebody else to blame.

Wednesday, February 02, 2000

Too many hang-ups

Perhaps it's some sort of cosmic payback for all the times we've hung up on telemarketers: Now, they're starting to hang up on us. No sales pitch, no asking after our well-being, no offer of incredible savings--you say hello, and all you get is "click." Man, that must be making somebody feel good.

Apparently now, we have to race to the phone for the privilege of talking to a telemarketer instead of a dial tone. The culprit is something called predictive dialing, by which a computer dials up far more numbers than a single human can possibly speak to; whoever answers first has the honor of getting pitched to, while the rest are unceremoniously dumped. Now, perhaps you've gotten these hangups and thought a burglar was casing your house, or your spouse was fooling around, or your teenager had a secret admirer, or someone's fax machine was trying to reach you. But no, it was just telemarketers, finding new and exciting ways of being annoying.

The Direct Marketing Association (motto: "Hey, we're not really trying to find new ways to be annoying. They just seem to come to us.") is asking its members to stop this practice of overdialing at once! No, just kidding, they don't want to stop it, they just want marketers to be responsible in setting the number of hangups that are allowed. The Association recommends dialing only five percent more numbers than you can possibly handle. That way, you only tick off five percent of your customer base at a time by not speaking with them. Of course, the other 95 percent you tick off by speaking with them, but that's another story.

But many telemarketers feel that alienating five percent of their customers with no effort at all is too modest a goal. They set the dial-and-hang-up rate at 40 percent--that's almost half of all numbers called, hung up instantly. Customers interrupted during dinner for nothing, no chance to hear an amazing offer, no chance to accept another terrific credit card or magazine subscription, no chance to donate to a good cause, no chance to chew out the salesperson or ask to be taken off the phone list or blow a police whistle. Oh, the humanity! If we're going to be disturbed, we should at least have the pleasure of doing the hanging up.

It's certainly human nature to want the last word. Which is why you can't tell me that those telemarketers who are turning that dial up to 40 percent aren't doing it with a certain amount of glee. Hang up on them? They'll hang up on us first, and our loss! Next thing you know, they'll start sending us empty envelopes instead of solicitations, preemptively throwing the contents away before we can get a chance to do it ourselves. Soon, they must think, we'll all be clamoring to get in on these incredible deals that are being heartlessly snatched away.

Don't hold your breath, boys.