It’s the latest sortie in the modern left-wing Kulturkampf: a six-dollar shirt from Target for boys that says “Strong Like Mom.” You don’t need me to tell you how various groups of people have reacted to it. The HuffPo says that “Parents Everywhere Are Loving” this shirt. That would be the “everywhere” that doesn’t include Islamic states, China, Japan, India, South America and all the places that haven’t abandoned the idea of so-called gender roles. And the “everywhere” doesn’t include much of the United States, either. In fact, it’s safe to say that “Everywhere” means “Coastal California And Gentrified Areas Of NYC.” Those are the only places that matter, you know. It’s no coincidence that another shirt in the same clothing line says “Brooklyn” on it. That’s the modern-day Brooklyn-as-playground-for-white-people, mind you, not the Brooklyn where my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather lived, where you didn’t bother to buy a radio in your new car and you didn’t let your wife leave the house after dark.
On the other side of America’s cultural divide, a lot of people are writing about the “feminization” of boys, the “War On Boys”, and similar topics. It seems obvious on the face of it that this is a shirt for you-go-girl types, the mothers who were on “Slut Walk” in 2008 and in the maternity ward come the spring of 2009. It’s virtue signaling, both for the moms and for the feckless, terrified fathers who acquiesce to this shit so they can be excused from the table to play video games until Mom has finished reading her favorite part of Fifty Shades Darker and diddled herself to sleep.
But I don’t want to talk about any of that. I don’t even want to talk about the hugely unpleasant message that you send when you dress your First World child in a six-dollar-retail shirt that almost certainly exploits the labor of children, indigenous people, and other disadvantaged groups. I mean, if American Apparel can’t keep its head above water charging $39 for shirts that were mostly sewn by “undocumented” immigrants in the old Los Angeles warehouse district, I doubt that Target has managed to ensure the availability of clean drinking water and safe working conditions for the six-dollar shirt factory. In fact, I’ll betcha that it’s one of those “pad check” places where women have to submit bloody sanitary napkins every month to prove that they haven’t gotten pregnant. (Yes, that’s a real thing.)
What I want to discuss is a simple series of related questions: Do parents have a right to use their children as billboards? Do parents have a right to dress their children in a way that reflects the beliefs of the parents and not the beliefs of the children? Where are the lines between identification, exploitation, and brainwashing? Last but not least, what am I, your humble author, doing to my son by including him in what I write?
Until the second half of the twentieth century, none of those questions had any traction anywhere or with anyone. Children were property. They were cheap labor, particularly on the farms that employed the vast majority of people well into the so-called Industrial Age. They could be beaten, killed, enslaved, traded, bought, sold, given away. Like the old joke says: “My daughter said she wanted to be treated like a princess. So I married her to a crazy old pervert in the next village over, to ensure peace between our tribes.”
The Greeks, and many other ancient societies, held that children were the absolute property of their parents until they were of age to become voting citizens. It was perfectly acceptable to kill your own son or daughter if they displeased you or if they failed in some task; hardly any worse than slaughtering your chickens at the end of the season. You might be horrified by that but to my mind it’s a much more logically and morally consistent system than we have in the United States right now regarding abortion, infanticide, and child abuse. As the father of a premature child, I’ve given a lot of thought to this.
If I’d rushed in the delivery room the moment that John was cut out of his mother, then dashed his brains out against a table, I’d be a murderer. If we’d paid a doctor to do the same thing a few minutes before the C-section, it would have been a “procedure” on some “tissue” and it would have been covered under most health-insurance plans. I don’t care if you’re pro-choice or pro-life… you have to admit that it’s kind of a crazy distinction to make. It’s effectively legal transubstantiation: the tissue becomes legal flesh and blood the minute it’s touched by external oxygen, unless it’s a partial-birth abortion in which case the oxygen doesn’t “work” the same way. The rules under which the Host was handled in my altar-boy days had the rationality of a civil-engineering textbook by contrast.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that you can “abort” a child until he or she can vote? Or that you can’t do it at all? I’m being deliberately disingenuous here. The purpose of abortion laws as they are written nowadays is not to be logical or sensible. Their purpose is to ensure the maximum convenience for the would-be mother, not get out in the yucky weeds regarding the humanity of an unborn child. As a society, we’ve placed the pleasure of sex above the safety or security of children. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The nice people at Salon made a push for a while to “normalize” pedophilia. Eventually they backed off under strong pressure, but you can consider it a test balloon. We worship youth, beauty, and sexuality in this society. These urges are too strong, and the potential supply of teenaged and tween-aged sex objects too tempting, to be forever denied to the adults in power. Come back to the website in the year 2057, when I’m long dead, and see if I was right. The “age of consent” is going to be dropped to where it was in medieval times, which is to say it will be dropped to puberty.
In other words, we are back to using children for adult purposes. It was a nice little holiday for kids there, and a short one too. Let’s mark it down as 1950-2000, in certain parts of the Western World only, and unevenly distributed within those borders. But the holiday is over. Time to get to work. If you’re lucky, it will be the maquiladora. If you’re unlucky, it will be after school in your teacher’s office. (Yes, that happens all the time, too.)
Obviously, putting a shirt that says “Strong Like Mom” on your son is much less abusive than any of the things discussed above. But I would suggest that it is still abusive. You are forcing your child to wear a billboard that expresses your views, whether they are shared by the child or not. It’s an unpleasant, shitty thing to do to your kid. The people who are dragging their children to Trump-related marches and making them hold signs are just as loathsome, regardless of which side they’ve chosen. Seven-year-olds don’t have an opinion on gender relationships or pussyhats or Donald Trump or the fight for $15. They are children, not billboards.
Ah, but. When I was at Sebring last weekend, I bought my son a Sebring shirt. I didn’t ask him if he wanted a Sebring shirt. I just bought it and gave it to him. Maybe he doesn’t want to represent or promote Sebring, you know? Maybe he doesn’t have the slightest interest in racing, or BMX, or any of the things that I drag him around to. Maybe he wants to wear a pussyhat and fight for $15. Maybe he wants to major in modern dance and wear a leotard and live with a young Basque farm hand in a London flat.
You might say that a Sebring shirt isn’t political, but it is. It promotes a particular lifestyle, one that many people feel is climate-ignorant and toxic-masculine and resource-intensive and unnecessarily dangerous. By wearing a shirt with Sebring on the back, my son is unknowingly endorsing a activity where I spend the average annual wage of a Pakistani family to burn a hundred gallons of CO2 and consume more resources every hour than an indigenous tribesman in Papua New Guinea would consume in a lifetime. If he winds up being a climate scientist or a Greenpeace volunteer, he’ll look back on that shirt with distaste. I made him wear something that didn’t match his beliefs.
For that matter, who am I to put him in a two-stroke go-kart? Who am I to have him do anything at all? And who am I to write about him, to quote him in stories, to post his photo in articles? It’s worth noting that some countries are permitting children to sue their parents for using their images in social media without consent. I think there’s some logical basis to that. When I was younger, I did not care one bit for having my mother discuss me with her friends. I didn’t like the photos of me she had up in the house. Thank G-d there was no Facebook at that time, is all I can say.
Now, it’s possible that my son will grow up to completely approve of everything I’ve written and done. But that’s a long shot. The best I can hope for is amused tolerance on his part. At worst, I’ll be Lewis Hamilton’s dad, sacrificing my life to advance my son to superstardom then catching a cold shoulder the moment my services are no longer required. But I think there’s a reasonable possibility that John won’t like what I’ve written about him at all. He will want to be free to craft his own image, his own identity, without having to compete against the son I’ve created in my writing.
This is what I can console myself with: many writers have done far more, and far worse, to their kids. Look at what Robert Pirsig did to his son in Zen, for example. He abused Chris in real life then humiliated him in the text. And when Chris was killed fifteen years later right in front of the San Francisco Zen Center, Pirsig had the nerve to treat it as a reasonable closure to a storyline instead of as an eminently preventable death. I hope that posterity will have a more favorable opinion of my actions.
As fate would have it, my son has about three shirts he likes to wear, and he wears them all the time. They’re all junk from Wal-Mart that his mother bought. Completely generic stuff. If I had my choice I’d cut them up and use them for shop rags. But I don’t have that choice. I’m not going to dress John like a mini-me by force. Any time I bring a shirt home, John will wear it once or twice to make the old man happy, then he’ll consign it to the bottom drawer and put his generic Wal-Mart football shirts back on. I’m mostly okay with this. He should wear what he wants.
Which brings me back to the subject of the “Cat and Jack” shirts at Target. I took a look at them. They were supposedly designed with the input of kids, and I believe it. They’re very similar to the things that my son picks out naturally at stores. Dinosaur heads, crocodiles, generic line drawings of cars. The stuff that interests children. I’m all in favor of that. Children should have the choice to wear whatever they want. Even if it’s a shirt that says “Strong Like Mom”. But to put the shirt in front of him and suggest that he wear it… well, that’s like moving the Ouija lens on purpose, isn’t it? Hey, strong moms, leave them kids alone!