In this edition of MAGAZINE SUNDAY, Martin Kleinman reviews parenting techniques from his Bronx childhood and compares them to child-rearing practices of today.
Bronx Parenting Techniques
by Martin Kleinman
“May you live in interesting times.”
This is an ancient Chinese expression. At least, that’s the popular wisdom. But I find no evidence to support that assertion, other than in fortune cookies at Hom & Hom, the Cantonese restaurant of my Bronx childhood.
Interesting times, huh? The times in which we live today have become far too interesting for this writer. I believe this expression to be more of a curse, than a blessing. I’ll take peace and tranquility, a quiet day watching an event in Van Cortlandt Park, while eating some Lloyd’s Carrot Cake, over the agita of life as we know it.
My parents lived in “interesting times” too. They were part of the so-called “Greatest Generation”, a term coined by veteran journalist Tom Brokaw. They made it through the Great Depression and World War II, eras when the social safety net was as robust as a spider’s web, men fought the war in an epic battle between good and evil, and kids shut up and did what they were told.
The dads that made it home from the war breathed a collective sigh of relief strong enough to power an Abilene wind farm. This generation took off their uniforms, got to work, and ate and drank like DeNiro as Jake LaMotta, when the champeen boxer went to seed in Raging Bull.
And then the “Greatest Generation” had kids. Lots of kids. But having kids is not raising kids and, in this endeavor, I am convinced that the Greatest Generation was, basically, not all that great.
I am aware that this is what generations do. That is, belittle their forebears. I am painfully aware, too, that today’s blood sport of choice for GenX’ers and Millennials is to dump on the Baby Boomers. Soon, Gen Y will dump on the Millennials. Karma, baby.
So forgive me if I take a moment to revisit the “Greatest Generation’s” parenting “style.”
Baby boomers in the Bronx were raised as free-range kids, as the writer Lenore Skenazy would say. Back in the post-war Bronx, parenting meant nothing more than letting the kids play in the street. Parent-child “quality time?” LMAO. Kids were to be quiet and let their dads sleep on the weekends.
Here was the deal, the parent/kid charter, as clear as a Colorado sky, if unspoken: don’t get left back, don’t get picked up by the cops, don’t break any windows, don’t ask for money, and speak only if spoken to. In exchange, you won’t get hit.
Bronx Boomer kids walked to school. Did household chores. Some got an allowance, a pittance, maybe enough for a new Spaldeen.
Education was on the kid. Boomer kids did homework while watching Popeye cartoons and Three Stooges shorts. Sometimes parents went to open school-week sessions, if they could. If they remembered. When Bronx kids reached their teens and went to high school, parents generally had no idea what subjects were taking, whether or not the young men registered for the draft, where (or if) the students applied to college. This was all up to the kids.
My friends’ parents would have laughed at today’s notion of a child raising “strategy.” Child abuse? Ha! That was sub rosa policy. To wit:
Behavioral infractions? “Just wait till your father gets home. You’re gonna get the belt.”
Use of “language”? “Tonight you get your mouth washed out with soap.”
Leave the lights on? “Turn off the damn lights.” (Slap!) “You think electricity is free?”
Boredom? “You’re bored? Go bang your head against the wall.”
You cried? “Keep it up – I’ll give you something to cry about.”You laughed? “Wipe that smile off your face or I’ll wipe it off for you.”
Argue with your sib? “I’ll knock your heads together, the both of you.”
Every single one of their residual fears from the Great Depression and WWII was poured over the psyche of the Bronx Baby Boomers like Elmer’s Glue. No wonder Boomer Kids took solace in the mind-numbing Sesame Street-on-acid that was “Andy’s Gang.”
And here’s the thing: the little kids watched this “comedy” not laughing but, rather, with mouths agape. Same with Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and more. This stuff was not funny to the little kid Boomers. This was serious stuff that taught survival skills, to be filed away for future reference. Boomers may have been raised free-range, but they adroitly executed duck-and-cover drills, and knew how to “get small” and hide under slender wooden desks that every six-year old knew would not offer protection in a thermonuclear war.
Fast forward thirty years, and these atomic war-warped Boomers begat Millennials, who were cosseted. As well, the Millennials were taught all the Boomers knew about realizing one’s potential and breaking with traditional values. Remember, that so-called Greatest Generation gave the world Viet Nam. Race wars. McCarthyism. Stagflation. Acid rain. Gas lines. Twinkies. Nixon.
Maybe, in the near future, there will be a rebound of methodology, back to free-range parenting. Or, perhaps a hybrid approach will blossom.
Of course, first the Millennials must move out of their parents’ homes. But that’s another story for another day. Or, as a recent Chinese takeout fortune cookie read: “Be the change you want to see.”
Martin Kleinman is a Bronx-based storyteller. He has captivated audiences with his tales of real New Yorkers (therealnewyorkers.com) in New York City venues from KGB Bar, to Brooklyn’s Union Hall, to the Bronx’s An Beal Bocht. Kleinman lives in the Bronx and is a regular contributor to thisisthe Bronx – MAGAZINE SUNDAY.
To submit writing for publication, send it to info@thisistheBronX.info. Fiction, non-fiction, commentary, news, news analysis, and poetry are welcome. Bronx slant always preferred.