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Life with Liz: The children are watching

Published June 22. 2018 10:24PM

You couldn’t live through the ’80s without hearing Whitney Houston tell you that she “believe(s) the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

Granted, we now know that Whitney probably was more of a “do as I sing, not as I do” kind of parent, but the sentiment still stands.

When we would head to family gatherings, I’d always find my dad checking his wallet before we left. It was a well-known fact among the cousins that a hearty handshake, eye-contact, and an update on how your education was progressing could net you anywhere from $20-$50 from Uncle George. With the offspring of nine nieces and nephews eagerly lining up to great him, this could turn into quite a payout for him.

After we left one such gathering, I cynically remarked that he was buying their affection. Of course, there was more to it than that.

Those bills always came with a reminder that that money was “their” money (he could hardly say “don’t tell your parents” because apparently, he had been just as generous with their generation) and that someday, they’d be paying into his Social Security, so they’d better not let him down.

He said that it had to be a significant enough amount that mistakes made with it would make an impression. It was also enough to put a significant contribution to whatever a child might be saving their pennies to buy. Easy come could become easy go, or it could be enjoyed in the moment, or it could be invested for the future.

He hoped that whatever lessons they learned with those few extra dollars would help prepare them to make good decisions as they got older and started to have real financial obligations.

“It’s cheaper to give them that money now than to pay their bail when they get older,” was the general sentiment he’d offer.

Parents my age are starting to realize that there is truth to the saying that your kids will pick your nursing home. While I haven’t started slipping them a Benjamin in the hopes of spending my golden years at the Ritz, I may be guilty of reminding them what a deserving parent I am on the occasion that I do something nice for them.

With my children getting older, I’m starting to see glimpses of the adults that they will become, and while most of what I see encourages me, there is still plenty that makes me nervous for both my future and theirs.

This summer, I’ve been pawning more and more chores off onto the kids, partly because I spend half of my life juggling all their activities and if we want clean underwear, someone’s got to do it, and partly because it’s the right thing to do. It’s led to days of despair when I realize that my kids are never going to make it through life if they keep folding their towels like that and days of great joy when I realize that my children will always be able to feed themselves (and hopefully, their aging mother) macaroni and cheese. The good homemade kind, not just the blue box and orange powder.

We’ve gone through a lot of trial and error, and as their confidence grows, I try to shrink the safety net a little bit. It’s not an easy process, but I’m hopeful that the result is going to be worth it, both for them, and for me. My kids are lucky. They have a stable home life and two parents who are invested in their future. On the surface, they have everything going for them, and yet I’m still reminded daily of how the best intentions and the best plans can go haywire and end badly.

So, what happens when there is no safety net. What happens when we rip even the smallest net away? I’m not trying to talk about the politics of the current immigrant situation that has been in the headlines; I’m not trying to decipher who’s to blame for the current situation.

I don’t know even where to turn to truly understand the ins and the outs and all the technicalities related to the situation. What I do know though is that my own children are seeing pictures and reading headlines and hearing news stories that are about children who are powerless. Children who are trapped in a hopeless situation beyond their control. Children that are their age. Children who look like their classmates. Children that are wearing clothes or carrying items that they have. Children just like them.

There is no good answer to my 7-year-old’s question of why those kids are in those pens. She’s seen the pictures of the detention centers on the news. Is it sad that I’m grateful that she is referring to them as pens, rather than the cages that they look like to me? Even trying to discuss it with the 12-year-old, who has read multiple news reports and is starting to be able to discern the difference between sensationalism and “real” news, is difficult.

While G is a child who is black and white, A dwells in the gray areas, frequently using them to argue his way out of a situation. He is probably more familiar with all the gray areas on this issue than I am, and he still struggles to understand things like asylum and why families may still try to come to this country, knowing what waits for them here. “How bad could it be, Mom?” I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to have to wrap my head around the possibilities of awfulness. But I can’t look at those pictures and not do just that.

What I do know is that my children are watching how other children are treated, and they are learning. And some day, those children will be our caretakers. I’m not feeling too good about the return on our investment right now.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.

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