Monday, August 23, 2010

Two Parent Traps and a Schmuck

Do you have kids? I don't, so I've been told that my opinions about parenthood have extremely limited value.

Yeah, well... I'm gonna plow on with today's essay anyway!

First, just to prove I know I'm not a know-it-all, a brief story on a related topic: At dinner last week, some friends of mine who are expecting their first child were talking about the mind-boggling battery of immunizations given to newborns in hospitals these days. Another dinner companion commented that some parents she knows have taken the growing debate over infant shots so seriously that some friendships broke up over it.

Of all the opinions I hold, I can honestly say that I don't have an opinion one way or the other regarding infant vaccinations. So I told my dinner companions that they could freely share with me their convictions on the subject, and I couldn't contradict anything they said! Can you imagine what a freeing conversation that could have been? As it turned out, they hadn't done all the research on it yet themselves, so they hadn't reached any firm conclusions either!

Oh well, so much for trying to carry on a conversation in which I was a blank slate.

Parents Who Care Too Little

While childhood immunizations per say is a topic of relative ambivalence for me, I do recognize that certain shots are required of everybody before they can attend classes in public school systems. Here in north Texas, school starts today, and for weeks, our local media has been reminding parents that school children need to have all of their shots updated before first period this morning. Yet last Saturday, officials estimated that in the Dallas public school district alone, approximately 5,000 students had yet to get their required immunizations.

Dallas County's health commissioner made the rounds of TV stations weeks ago with his blunt message of zero-tolerance for kids without their required shots. Officials have been reminding parents since before the end of the last school year, they've been sending out mailers, advertising on ethnic radio stations, and even providing free shots for low-income families. Children of illegal immigrants don't have to prove legal residency to get their shots. There's absolutely no excuse for any parent to not have gotten their kids vaccinated by the start of school today.

Yet thousands of kids will probably be turned away today. Parents will howl, protesting the school districts' unfairness, and complaining that they didn't have enough time or money. A few will be on TV tonight, with a goofy grin, admitting they just procrastinated, or seemingly simply caught off-guard by the first day of school. Doesn't it just boggle the mind?

California's Version of "The Donald"

Speaking of boggling the mind, over in sunny California, multi-billionaire developer Donald Bren has been in court, fighting a $100 million child support suit by his two adult kids with a former lover. Bren, who made his estimated $12 billion fortune as a real estate mogul during California's boom years, staunchly insists he's already paid out enough to his unwanted progeny and their mother, Jennifer Gold.

Bren's 22-year-old daughter Christie and 18-year-old son David beg to differ. They're seeking $400,000 a month in additional child support retroactive to their individual births, which amounts to approximately $100 million between the two of them.

Not only does Bren admit fathering Christie and David, he's groused in court that at the time, Gold had assured him she was using contraception, so their births he did not welcome. Bren figures the $3 million in child support he's paid out over the years to provide for kids he didn't want in the first place seems more than generous.

On the one hand, Gold's two children appear to be simple "gold-diggers" trying to mine their biological father's vast wealth for their own purposes. With his self-professed lack of paternal affection for his own offspring, Bren readily admits to not having been their traditional father figure, but if they're trying to penalize him for his lack of affection: tough cookies. According to well-documented legal agreements he made with their mother, he's not financially liable for anything more either. Bren has a point: many kids are raised on a lot less than $3 million, so maybe Christie and David have gotten too financially comfortable to ween themselves from the gravy train.

Bren's own parents divorced when he was a teenager, and both eventually remarried. His birth father was a Hollywood producer, and his step-mother an actress, so you can draw your own conclusions about how conventional his upbringing may have been. Still, plenty of child victims of divorce grow up to parent wholesome families, so his childhood can't be Bren's only excuse for his intransigence.

So what's left? Will a $100 million settlement leave him destitute? Although he has vigorously disputed estimates of his fortune as being exaggerated, Bren's stunning charitable portfolio alone sits at more than $1 billion. If $100 million represents all he's got left in the world after all that charity, he hasn't said, but it's odd that California schoolchildren - one of his favorite beneficiaries - have been given so much more than Bren is willing to concede his own flesh and blood.

What's the point in fighting your kids over this comparatively paltry sum of money, if not simple greed or blatant disdain? If Bren is one of Warren Buffett's billionaire benefactors, who's signed Bill & Melinda Gates' list of super-wealthy folk not leaving their fortune to their heirs, his name's not on the list yet.

Of course, at its core, this is little more than a family dispute for which too much supposition from the bleachers can be deleterious. So, what validates this particular case as an intriguing vignette of modern American life? Bren's obvious disconnect between the physical act of paternity and its nurturing responsibilities. How stunning is it that a man as driven and self-made as Bren could so hopelessly insulate himself from affection for his own offspring?

Parents Who Smother

Bren's dismissive attitude flies in the face of yet another parental type which has surfaced this new school year. But we're not talking about schoolchildren - we're talking about parents taking their kids to college for the first time.

During the past couple of decades, these parents have been dubbed "helicopter parents" or "Velcro parents". They've developed a parental subculture in the United States bent on creating high-achieving progeny.

And experts have seen it coming for years: the push by parents for their children to be over-involved in activities. Too many sports, too many music lessons, too many dance recitals, too many teen church trips, too much of everything that in moderation can help produce a well-rounded post-modern American child.

Only this time, it's not fights among overzealous parents at their child's soccer practice, but parents who hover at college after their freshman child gets situated in their new dorm. Apparently, colleges all over the country, from Princeton to small liberal arts schools in the Midwest, are finding the affects of Velcro parenting becoming harder to break without built-in programs to ween parents off of their kids.

Now, the first day of kindergarten is one thing. But on the first day of college, parents shouldn't be attending classes with their freshman student. Yet that's what's been reported to have happened at several campuses, and many more parents linger on-campus or very closely nearby, unable - or unwilling - to let their teenager step onto the first rungs of adulthood.

While this phenomenon hasn't reached epidemic proportions, it's become problematic enough that many colleges have now instituted a parental break-away as part of the freshman orientation and move-in weekends. And while in kindergarten, kids probably prefer having their parents stick around, college students rarely want mom and dad in the picture as they seek to establish themselves away from home for the first time.

I'm not saying that homesickness isn't a problem. But when it's the parents who are the ones having the difficulty cutting the apron strings, then colleges have found it's up to them to stand by with the scissors. How odd is that?

Of course, not having kids, I can't say parent traps aren't easy to fall into.

But something tells me daddy Bren wasn't attending first day college classes with his kids. Doesn't sound like he and Jennifer talked much about infant inoculations, either... except maybe if he could be inoculated against progeny.

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