I am a foreigner of sorts — a Brazilian national by birth — and, since I’ve been thoroughly Americanized by upbringing, I enjoy a somewhat unique vantage on the question of children in adult-oriented places. From where I stand I see the perspective of Brazilians, a traditionally family-oriented people; the perspective of Americans, who prefer to compartmentalize their lives; and the perspective of immigrants, who often cling to each other for survival in the storm. I have no children as of yet — and, god-willing, won’t have that blessing for some years to come — but I believe I’ll one day practice a certain moderation in this respect.
Life in Brazil is more oriented around the family than it is here. I know we tend to think of ourselves as a “family-values” nation but, frankly, some of our “family-values” seem Machiavellian to Brazilians. Few and far between are the Brazilian families who would even consider remanding their grandmothers and grandfathers to nursing homes. Much more common are homes filled with extended families. (My own uncles and their families have apartments across the hall from each other. There is a family soccer team too.) Even fewer are Brazilian households without at least one stay-at-home parent. Schools in Brazil close just after 1 PM and the national lunch break — siesta we say here and snicker about foreign laziness — is timed to coincide; since the break is about two hours long, even working parents get home regularly for a family lunch.
To translate: in Brazilian families, mine certainly, there is education and culture outside the classroom. My parents made it a point to take my siblings and I into adult-oriented places. We ate at fine restaurants and learned to appreciate all manner of exquisite and eccentric fare. We attended the cream of Broadway musicals and plays. We visited museums frequently, toured the east coast’s array of landmarks. We watched R-rated movies when they were socially or artistically important. We were encouraged to pour through the New York Times. Even at our own dinner table my parents served fine cheese, let us sip at fine wine, sushi, escargot, fondue, haggis on one occasion I still can’t forget. When the adults sat around the table to talk through the family’s troubles and future, we sat alongside and were made to listen and learn. (Take the cotton out of your ears and stuff it in your mouth.)
I am taking a liberal hand with the definition of adult oriented places here. My parents believed an adult oriented place was anywhere a child could stand to gain some education and culture, including the dinner table.
There was, from a child’s position, one disadvantage: we were sometimes exposed to emotional situations beyond our ability to safely process. I witnessed fights that I can’t strike from my memory. I’ve wished my father was less vocal about women he saw on the streets. I was exposed to prejudices, racial and otherwise, and learned a strict code of Omerta. I did sit at bars with my dad when I was as young as 7 and — if you’ve read my other posts you’ll know — that can’t have factored well in my later life. For better or for worse, the ivory tower my parents — my dad especially — painted themselves in, on close inspection proved to be pitted and crumbling. I came to that realization a bit too early I suppose.
At the other extreme, I grew up socially near to a family whose patriarch was my father’s best friend at one point. I often felt terrible for their two kids. Their parents were in the practice of eating at fine restaurants while they left the kids with hot dogs. On one memorable occasion both our families drove upstate to a brewery reputed to have the most excellent wings in many a mile. I remember my siblings and I were excited until we discovered that we four were to be left out in the park with the other family’s two while the adults enjoyed themselves inside. The story, as the other family’s patriarch told it, was that the place was much too expensive to feed us all. (He was a small, cheap man.) I remember the loss on my brother’s face was only matched by the disgust on my dad’s. My dad — for all his failures — couldn’t take it. He was inside less than twenty minutes before he came out with a tray of wings. In that other family, in every situation, there was a “kid’s table”, a place where children were marginalized out of the real world. I don’t believe that was effective parenting nor a loving thing to do.
I’m highlighting an extreme here because I feel that the boundaries are best illustrative of the mechanics of reality. There were other excesses of that family which my father never countenanced, but most indicative is the way those two kids are now that they’ve grown up. Yes, they have accolades, jobs, hobbies. Both made it through college just fine. But offer them some Pecorino Romano, ask what they think of Herman Melville, ruminate on the Egyptian tombs housed at the Met, even just tell them that Madame Butterfly bored you out of your wits and all they can return is a blank, bovine stare. (My brother can perform Les Miserables in its entirety from memory.)
There is, in my estimation, something to be gained from the American standpoint, though. I don’t believe the advent of children should be the end of one’s personal or romantic life. I am using the word romantic here to describe more than just amorous conduct but also the pursuit of one’s dreams. I believe that parents should feel sufficiently unfettered to have adult pursuits balanced against their family life, and I understand that might include sometimes being at the bar at 1 AM. No matter how many children I have I will always have the need to pound at a keyboard for at least a few hours a week; I write or I die and I don’t believe rampaging children will provide a conducive environment for writing. Nor will a father driven mad by a surfeit of unshaped creative energy provide them with a good home environment.
What I do believe is that in parenting there is a place for a personal and romantic life as well as a need to educate and acculturate our children so that they can become excellent adults. When asked whether children should be kept out of or encouraged to attend adult-oriented places, my answer is, “Yes.” Cryptic and uncomfortable though it seems, I believe parents have to thread the difficult, middle way and provide for both the needs of their children and their own. Difficult, sure, but then, in this life, nothing worth having is easy to get.
My conclusion comes from an immigrant’s perspective. My parents never saw us as just children, they always looked beyond and saw also the adults we were meant to become. Yes, there were problems with that view and I still resent parts of the image my father expected me to grow into. But also my parents knew that an effective adult would need qualities he or she could learn nowhere but in adult oriented settings. My parents cleaved to us in despite of all hardship (try having a child with a serious addiction and you’ll know what that hardship is) because my family was never intended to work as anything less than a whole. We were never meant to be apart in significant ways and now that my father is older — 63 this week! — I try to carry his weight with the same pride he once carried mine.