08 February 2009

Ask Uncle Bill

Would you like to parent wholesome, well-adjusted children
like the ones you see here?

Over the past few years, my friends have reproduced at a rate usually seen only among characters in science-fiction films. This is alarming, but it affords me the opportunity to study at close range the state of parenthood today. Most young American parents believe themselves to be cut off by distance and divorce from the traditional structures that used to assist families: now there’s no more useful Aunt Fanny next-door to recall how she and her seventeen babies coped with the Great Colic Crisis of Aught-Nine. (That would be the previous Aught-Nine, not the present one.) Yet even when Aunt Fanny is nearby, contemporary life raises prospects she never had to consider: whether little Johnny should play computer games for sixteen straight hours, or listen to popular music, or download Internet porn, or know anything about Dick Cheney, ever.

With so little guidance, most parents I know are now nervous wrecks, utterly convinced that they’re in constant danger of doing everything wrong. (The exception is those parents who really are doing everything wrong: they’re utterly convinced they do everything right. But that’s another story.)

Typically for my generation, some of my friends are turning to drugs— for their kids, not for themselves— while blaming everything on their parents, or at least on their genetic makeup. But short of such extreme responses, almost all my friends have tried to recreate the traditional systems of elders and extended family that used to make child-rearing a close-knit community affair.

They do this mainly by reading books.

Uncle Bill can help!

As godfather to a dozen moppets, I’m expected to read the books, too, and I’m now in a position to help others. Because I’ve learned that, once you get past the window-dressing and the advanced degrees in kidolatry, all the advice books say almost exactly the same things — namely, just what parents want to hear.

Here are a few examples.

Dear Uncle Bill:
My little Lucretia refuses to eat her rhubarb. Is this normal?
Fretful in Fargo

Dear Fretful:
In many cultures it is not considered unusual to avoid rhubarb until a very advanced age. In South America, some children reach retirement age before eating a single bite. Some Eskimo tribes forbid their children even to look at rhubarb, much less eat any. In his great novel The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway never mentions rhubarb. Forcing your child to eat foods she doesn’t like could make her anxious, ill-tempered, and Presbyterian in later life. Your child is perfectly normal and perhaps exceptional.
Uncle Bill

Dear Uncle Bill:
I work outside the home and worry that I’m not spending enough time with my children: Bobby (age 6 or so), Cindy (maybe 3), and the other one.
Jason Fliess,
Latchkey, NE

Dear Mr. Fliess:
If you didn’t work, you couldn’t earn money to feed your children or to buy expensive books on parenting. Surely you don’t want your children to grow up without food and advice! It’s a well-known fact that Admiral Dewey’s parents never bought a single advice book, and look what happened to him. In some societies, parents are encouraged to spend as much time as possible outside the home, so that children will develop such useful traits as independence, self-reliance, and autonomy. Your children are normal and perhaps exceptional.
Uncle Bill

Dear Uncle Bill:
My little Murgatroyd is five years old but has not yet mastered the essentials of calculus or quantum physics; he speaks only five languages, not six like his friends in play group, and his handwriting in Cyrillic is so bad I’m embarrassed to post it on his website. Is Murgatroyd just “acting out” to get my attention? What can I do?
Humiliated in Serpent’s Tooth, AZ

Dear Humiliated:
It’s not unusual at all for some children to take a little more time in development. Everyone knows that Albert Einstein flunked math, that “Amadeus” Mozart didn’t write his first symphony until he was already five, and that Condoleezza Rice was well in her teens when she was named to the National Security Council, yet all these late bloomers compensated for their slow starts and are now widely perceived as geniuses. There’s no need to worry. Your child is perfectly normal, perhaps even exceptional.
Uncle Bill

Dear Uncle Bill:
What is the right age for my little Ebola to stop sucking her thumb? I worry that the habit will make her teeth crooked and lead to unhealthy fixations as she grows older.
Audrey Didget,
Sheepstonsil, ID

Dear Ms. Didget:
You have nothing to worry about. It’s a well-known fact that, at the age of 65, Giuseppe Verdi composed his classic Aida without once taking his thumb out of his mouth. Children need to develop at their own pace. In many cultures, children don’t ever stop sucking their thumbs, and go on to lead healthy, productive lives. Among the cannibals of Borneo, children often suck other people’s thumbs, usually as a between-meal snack. Don’t pressure your child to conform to other people’s expectations. Your child is perfectly normal, and perhaps even exceptional.
Uncle Bill

Dear Uncle Bill:
My little Roland, 19, is a sophomore at Dartmouth, yet he’s still wearing diapers. Is this normal? What is the right age for potty-training?
Foggy Bottom, DC

Dear Mr. Bottom:
There is no “right age” for potty-training. Children need to develop at their own pace. Florence Nightingale was 45 before she could tie her own shoes. Alfred, Lord Tennyson could not feed himself until he was 25. Anton van Leuwenhoek lived with his parents until he was 67 and they had been dead for 12 years. In some cultures, potty-training is considered immoral and indecent, and people who attempt it are flogged. In other cultures, only the very poor relieve themselves at all; the rich hire others to do it for them. Don’t let others decide what is “right” for your child. Your child is normal and perhaps even exceptional.
Uncle Bill

Dear Uncle Bill:
My little Adolph is a typical, noisy, active child. Yet his teachers complain that he seems hostile and likes to beat up his classmates. Yesterday, I caught him setting fire to the cat. Should I do something to stop him?
Signed, Mrs. Arthur Hitler (Gwendoline),
Vienna, VA.

Dear Mrs. Hitler:
Don’t suppress your child’s impulses! You don’t want to inhibit little Adolph’s sense of self-validity and free expression. Besides, the release of aggression and hostility is healthy and often productive. Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War, and yet he is remembered as our greatest president. Gustave Flaubert murdered 36 people before he reached his twenty-first birthday, yet went on to run a successful garment business. At 6, Elizabeth I disemboweled her Latin tutor. And in many American communities today, school-children begin each day by shooting each other. Your child is normal and perhaps even exceptional.
Uncle Bill


Girl From Texas said...

great pictures - those kids all look just a tad demonic

Late Blooming Mom said...

Clearly I should have read Uncle Bill's Advice Book before wasting money on all the others!

Anonymous said...

I always thought that the late Dr. Eugen Weber could have been the late Harvey Korman's twin -- I'm glad that you posted their pictures on your site to support this notion. Thanks!
Rick D.
Lincoln Park
West Lawn, PA