Laura Tropp's blog

Children as Mini-Adults


While much of my household succumbed to a variety of viruses this month, I ended up spending much time watching children’s television with my kids. Something that struck me was the amount of shows where the children are left to fend for themselves while their parents are lost, missing, or just preoccupied. I don’t claim that this type of television is a new phenomenon. I remember watching Party of Five in the 1990s about a group of children left to raise themselves when their parents die in a car accident. Incidentally, while I found the program enjoyable when I was in my twenties, it’s horrifying to watch now that I have children of my own. 

Today, though, shows where children are alone seem plentiful. Nickelodeon just finished airing Hunter Street, which is about five children whose foster parents suddenly disappear. They are forced to hide the fact that they are by themselves and find their parents in this comedic/suspense program.

The kids also been engrossed with Netflix’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the children novels first published in 1999, where orphaned children are forced to fend for themselves against evil or well-meaning but useless caretakers. My children love Just Add Magic on Amazon, about three pre-teen girls who inherit a magic cookbook and are thrust into a world of magic while hiding their newfound skills from their parents. In the first season, the girls have to save one of their grandmas from a magic spell. The Loud House, on Nickelodeon, is an animated series where the children in a large family (11 kids) are mostly on their own. While their parents are around, they are clearly secondary characters. We don’t even see the full face of the parents until the second season.

I’m wondering why there is this fascination with children left on their own, unable to rely on the adults in their world. I see it, in part, as a reaction to the perception of overparenting/helicopter parenting in our culture. As more parents became involved in every aspect of their children’s upbringing, negotiating everything from play dates to college applications, these worlds imagine children that are coping without parental intervention. Even the newly released animated movie Boss Baby, which I admit to not having seen, seems to envision a future world where overparenting is brought to its unpleasant extreme, and the babies and small children of the world are now running it.

In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman recognized a world where the boundaries between adults and children have been blurred. Do children become miniature adults when Postman’s vision is fully realized? And, what does that make adults?


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The Year of the Leggings


This might be called the year of the leggings. It wouldn’t be the first time, of course. Created in the 1960s, it was a popular fashion trend in the 1980s, and reached a second wave of fame in the last decade, as this article illustrates. Leggings have also always had its critics. Some decry them as deplorable fashion. Others see them as the cause of health problems. More recently, leggings have become a feminist cause. Some middle schools have banned them, leading to concern that only girls are being targeted to avoid certain clothing. Leggings became a public concern yet again this weekend when a United Airlines attendant asked some girls to change out of their leggings or cover them up and a passenger who overhead this started a twitter legging war. Later, United Airlines stood by their decision, indicating that the clothes violated company policy because the family was traveling as part of a “pass traveler,” traveling for free as family of an employee and thus bound to employee dress regulations. 

Because I always love an opportunity to talk about feminism, the idea of leggings being a conversation about girl empowerment is an intriguing one. Yet, I’m not sure I’m on the side of the leggings (I’m always on the side of female empowerment). One Washington Post writer argues that wearing leggings on a plane is simply not polite because they show off too much. For me, it’s less a problem with how leggings look than what they represent: a completely casual attitude about where you are and what you are representing.  Leggings and other casual clothing are leading to a blur in life between fancy occasions and casual ones.

The other day I attended a special ceremony, complete with local politicians in attendance, at my daughter’s school and almost every fifth grade girl was wearing black leggings while walking across the front of the room to receive a certificate. Now, I’m not saying they needed to all be wearing dresses but it did seem rather casual (note: my own daughter was also wearing black leggings despite my best attempts to get her to dress it up). It’s not just this event, though. Whether it’s school, church, synagogues or weddings, graduations, or holiday, everyone is just so informal. Even the first day of school, once a ritual where you dressed to impress now just seems like a regular clothing day.  The only thing that distinguishes the first day of school pictures on facebook with any other pictures are the bitter expressions on the faces of the children and the school bus in the background. When I go to graduation at the end of the year, both the men and the women often are dressed in casual clothes. Not me- even under my (extremely hot) gown, I wear a dress and shoes, not because it’s comfortable but it’s a sign of my recognition of the formality and importance of the occasion.  I’ve even seen people dressed in sneakers for a job interview.

I’m not particularly interested in fashion trends but the idea of dressing in a more formal way to indicate respect for a time or an institution seems less like a fashion issue and more of a societal concern about ritual and formality. I understand I may  just be a product of an older generation. Millennials, apparently don’t like dress codes.  Apparently, dressing casual may also be a sign of freedom for some, as detailed in this interesting piece on the history of casual clothes in the United States.  Yet, if casual dress represents freedom from rules and rituals, what is the freedom for? Why do we need to wear leggings to signal our freedom? And, what will take the place of our dress in demonstrating our adherence to rituals, respect, and institutions?

I don’t really care what people wear on a plane and I’m certainly not interested in defending United Airlines (big companies don’t need my help) but I can understand a desire to have a dress code. A strong desire for people and institutions to demand dress codes may be a reaction to the freedom and tendency to go ever more casual. I’m not interested in dictating a specificity to what we wear but acknowledging that how we dress on certain occasions may matter. Perhaps discussing gender bias in dress codes may be something I can get behind in fighting, but first, can we at least decide as a society that there are occasions which demand dressing up in the first place?


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How to Work From Home


I know I should be more sympathetic, but that interview this past week with the male professor participating in a televised BBC interview about South Korea when his two toddlers barge in made me laugh out loud. As a working mother, I totally get what he went through, and I have to say that, while my children have interrupted many different phone interviews, phone conferences, a class or two, and a couple of speaking engagements at conferences, I have never had it happen on live television.  I will leave others to debate why people assumed that the woman who removed the children was the nanny and not, in fact, his wife. Always eager to discuss and promote quality work-life balance, I would like to offer some advice for him in the future in case he’s tempted to try to work from home again:

  1. First, you need to begin with some preventative measures. Television works best -- preferably two 22-minute shows. In particular, a show that under normal circumstances you might not let your child watch works best for very important interviews. I’m convinced that’s why Sponge Bob was invented. Check out these statistics about the rise in working women from 1970 (40%) to 2000 (61%). Now, note that the Sponge Bob premiered in 1999. Coincidence? I think not!
  2. Second, you should find a place to hide to conduct the interview. Only a rookie would take a call in his actual home office. In fact, that’s a great decoy spot to lure the kids while you are at your real location. I always like to pick places that the little ones would never think to find me. I find these spots to be ideal: under the dining room table, outside on the porch (especially if it’s below 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside), or on top of the washing machine. If you’ve got the right kind of house or apartment, the roof may also be an option.
  3. Third, you must lock the door. This is a simple procedure but absolutely necessary. In fact, I’ve found it ideal if you could be locked behind two separate doors. For example, if it’s not a video interview, then the locked bathroom inside my bedroom works quite well. Plus, if nature calls, just hit that mute bottom, and you are all set.
  4. Sometimes doors don’t lock, or the lock can be broken. In that case, it’s probably best to have a simple barricade behind the door. I have found that leaning my office chair against the door works well so I can keep nudging the door closed if necessary. You can even skip the gym later that day if this is what happens.
  5. Sometimes, they still get in. That’s why I always have a bag of lollipops in my office. Again, if your child isn’t used to candy, they will suck on those treats for a good 20 minutes. That should buy you enough time to finish, but seriously, do not take more than 20 minutes to wrap it up, because you definitely do not want to still be on the call when they have the guaranteed sugar crash.
  6. Finally, if your child does manage to penetrate my practically full-proof system, my advice is to not look annoyed or shove your child. Instead, act like you are the advanced one, accepting that children are a part of life and that their being there is no big deal.


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White Privilege in Black History Month


This is the time of year that black heroes become a bit more visible. For example, the television network Nickelodeon is working with the initiative Because of Them, We Can to broadcast a series of PSAs designed to feature children emulating African-American heroes. Other networks air documentaries that are not as visible during other months of the year. Companies and organizations, from the Girl Scouts to Coca Cola, use this time to tout their inclusivity. And, in schools throughout the nation, children engage in projects designed to expose them to African-American heroes. 

As a white woman raising children whom I want to be able to respect and appreciate all people, I have always relished this additional programming, even the advertising, as an opportunity for them to learn more about the achievements of people of color. This year, however, I’m starting to feel that there is a giant elephant in the room. Maybe it’s the recent election and what I see as Trump’s assault on anyone outside his zone of privilege. It may be the movement of Black Lives Matter, which is striving to motivate discussion about race and privilege as a part of our everyday language. It could even be the way those associated with the best picture Moonlight, even if by accident, were muted yet again.

This year, when my daughter was assigned a project writing about Serena Williams, I couldn’t help but realize that, while my child was learning all about her accomplishments, the project did not help to bring her closer to understanding white privilege. This seems to me just as important for her and her classmates, who are in a school that is predominantly white, to understand.

I acknowledge that my own privilege as a white, middle-class woman and professor, which allows me to have the choice to teach my child about privilege, is a privilege in and of itself. Still, I have seen how little the books and articles written for children, and even the assignment itself, are not focused to teach my daughter about institutional racism. It was only through additional research of articles written for adults, such as this New York Times Magazine article, that we were able to find out about the incident at Indian Wells, where racial epithets were shouted at Williams after she won a tournament, and about her father’s writing about how he hired kids to surround Serena and her sister Venus and shout curses at them to prepare them for the racial insults they would hear during competition. We also discussed how people have described her body as “masculine.” It was harder to try to tackle the more hidden aspects of racism, like the way she might have been ignored by sponsors. It’s difficult to discuss with children that which isn’t even acknowledged by adults.

This exercise has made me re-think how I might add in more discussion of privilege all year long for my own children and in my classes. I’m finding that many topics can be re-thought through this perspective. In what ways do you work to make the invisible visible to your own children and the students you teach?

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Melania as Feminist Rorschach Test


I’ve been reading with great interest several articles that are discussing shifts in feminism. Just this weekend, the New York Times Magazine featured a cover story examining Feminism and the Left.

Equally interesting to me is watching how people have been discussing the role of Melania Trump. Since many people know very little about the newest First Lady, they are able to project what they want to believe onto her. The views are filled with contradictions. With some, Melania is a woman trapped in a terrible marriage. Protesters have held signs in front of Trump Tower that encourage her to flash a light if she needs help. Others have looked to her expressions in public in search of signs of any “negative body language,” which may indicate she is distraught or depressed. Melania Memes abound across the Internet, with people offering to save her from her golden prison. The hashtag #FreeMelania  began trending, with people offering, “Blink twice if you need help.”

Others object, from a feminist perspective, to this view of Melania. Just because a woman chooses to be with a man many of us loathe, should we assume she has lost her own power? Some argue it is anti-feminist to position Melania as powerless person solely because we may not agree with her choices or lifestyle. Some disagree with any attempt to “save her,” saying she has made her choices and deserves the criticism that come with them. Others are angry at her choice to not assume the traditional First Lady role, worrying that even the annual Easter egg hunt may not be ready in time. One article points out the irony that it is Melania, who many critique as powerless and lacking a feminist perspective, who may be the one to reject the domestic responsibilities of the position of the First Lady. 

This raises the question about how the Trump election has forced us all to rethink our assumptions about feminism. For some, it means rejecting the Pop Feminism or Marketplace Feminism that is all about showing off our beliefs without acting on them in significant ways. For others, it’s a chance to participate in a march, maybe even with parents or grandparents who were a part of earlier feminist movements. Melania has become someone onto whom we can project our own feminist fantasies, alternatively being a woman who can be saved by feminists or unexpectedly supports feminism by rejecting the traditional First Lady role. Does her reason for her rejection even matter if it changes our expectations of future First Ladies (or First Gentlemen)?

Yet another perspective may be Sara Ruddick’s concept of “maternal thinking.” Perhaps Melania is in the position to potentially influence her husband’s policies regarding women and children. Of course, no one knows whether she is or can perform this role, but this possibility suggests a reason for her to stick around.

I don’t have answers to what, if anything, Melania will do in her new role, and I’m not sure if she will ever have enough influence to matter. However, if her (non-) presence allows us to bring feminist discussions outside of academia and activists and to the dinner table, I’m interested.

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The President I Wish I Had


In the frightening and depressing American politics of the current administration, where I find Muslim friends and colleagues feeling threatened, where people close to me are worrying about losing their health care, where the rights of women to make decisions about their bodies are being challenged, I have found inspiration for the proper running of government: the television show The West Wing.

I must confess to having always loved this show (and in general, anything written by Aaron Sorkin), but now it’s providing me with a hypothetical reality and escapism, much as I imagine that classic Hollywood movies did for people during the Great Depression. I also know I’m not alone. Fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda are familiar with the fact that he is a huge big (I can never write the word “huge” again because of the negative associations it brings up now) fan of The West Wing. Miranda even has played with the idea of a fantasy musical version (for which, by the way, I would be the first to buy tickets). Other fans have used the show to suggest ways to solve real political conflicts, such as the opposition President Obama faced when he nominated a Justice to the Supreme Court.

The West Wing spends little time on characters’ personal lives; when it does, it is usually to remind viewers that they don’t have time to have them. The show never explored what we refer to today as work-life balance, because when push came to shove, work always came before anything else. Public service and The Office of the President was considered the most important work ever -- more important than Josh and Amy having a relationship, more important than any promises Bartlet made to his wife, and more important than CJ dedicating time to pursue romance. Public service required sacrifice, and these public servants gave it their all for the good of their country.

In The West Wing, the President surrounded himself with people who were willing to disagree with him. In one episode, the administration tested a potential speechwriter’s willingness to speak to power by placing a bad note from the President in his writing. The value exalted in the show was morality over loyalty; if a character witnessed a policy as morally wrong, they were expected to speak up. When watching our new administration that completely refuses to ever admit they are wrong, and surrounds the President with only those who agree with him, and are loyal even when violating the Constitution, I have decided to watch again the episodes showing Toby telling the President he’s not going to achieve greatness without resolving his father issues.

Sure, the show may have jumped the shark (SPOILER ALERT) when Zoe was kidnapped, but in real life we jumped the shark the moment Trump was elected President (maybe even earlier). At least in my fantasy world, some type of solution that respects the Constitution is offered. Most importantly, as much as I love The West Wing, I can still distinguish that it’s fiction, not fact, which is more than I can say for the current administration.


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The New and Old Face of Gaming


Over the winter break during a family visit, I watched my children and their cousin play Monopoly on a video gaming system. It recalled nothing of the experience of Monopoly during my youth. Rather, it seemed to me like all the learning opportunities were taken away from the children. I immediately went out and bought a new copy of the board game (a “vintage” version, according to the box) so they could learn the “real” game.

After watching them play for a few hours, I was reminded of what they had been missing. With the video version, the computer applies the rules of the game. The computer was the banker, and though players could toggle specific rules on or off before the game started, there was no negotiation afterwards.

Part of the board game experience is the social interaction from negotiating your own set of rules. I can remember my sisters and I fighting over whether to put money in Free Parking, whether one could ask for extra privileges when bartering property, or even how to decide unexpected situations, such as when the dice fall on the floor, or someone “forgets” to give the money to get out of jail. New family rules emerge that aren’t the printed rules of the game; the computer is not so forgiving, precluding the opportunity to learn how to negotiate social rules. 

My daughter complained that, with the board game, we ran out of money, but the computer had endless money. This prompted questions about the nature and function of currency. While the computer performed calculations with ease, the children had to change money and figure out percentages themselves, just like they would in real life (that is, if they lost their phone with the calculator app). 

I’m not saying there is something wrong with playing video games. Some games require players to negotiate complicated rules and positions for play. However, board games encourage players to be accountable to the people they play with because they will see them again in a few hours, negotiating the last dessert at the dinner table. As we are replacing so many of our interpersonal interactions with digital ones within an increasingly partisan society, I relish the lessons of the traditional game.

I recently read Steven Johnson’s Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. He discusses how people’s desire throughout history for novel forms of play helped to shape the world in which we live. I found his ideas worth considering, and I wondered where there is space in our modern world for play and reflection to converge. What struck me most about watching the children play Monopoly was how long the game took to complete, and how much boredom was interspersed throughout the game. Players sometimes took their time during their turn, and constant disagreements would have to be negotiated. All of that gave my mind time to think. I would argue that in our digital world, reflective thinking is simply not encouraged as much, since multiple screens and endless choices distract our minds. I wonder if bringing back the traditional board game might bring more reflective time for families.


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Family, Ideologies, and Television Viewing


Over the holiday break, the children and I binged watched Fuller House on Netflix. Since I had seen all the Full House episodes on television when I was a child, I was curious to dive into two seasons of this new, updated version. After watching the new series, I think it presents a nice opportunity to compare how television represented caregiving in the late 1980s to today.

Full House was set in a period when popular media was exploring the idea of men taking on more responsibilities at home. A few years before, the movie Mr. Mom played the idea of a father staying at home while his wife worked as a comedy. A few years later (the same year as the premiere of Full House), Three Men and a Baby featured three bachelors forced to suddenly care for an infant.

As women worked outside the home in greater numbers, popular media began asking who would raise the children by imagining worlds where woman didn’t exist.  Much of the humor of Full House rested on the incompetency of the men not knowing how to care for the children. The pilot episode showed Joey and Jesse completely unable to change a diaper. The show found laughs in the men having to deal with what had been, up to that point, exclusively women’s problems. One of my favorite early episodes is when Jesse and Joey have to make a big corporate presentation but need to watch baby Michelle at the same time. The show tackles head-on the real problem of who will watch the children when everyone is working.

Some fans have made the case that Full House successfully demonstrated a loving male-driven household, perhaps unconsciously paving the way for gay dads on future television programs. Full House even made it on a list of “TV’s 8 Most Unintentional Gay Dads.” At the same time, Becky joined the Full House cast in the second season and often provided the “girl talk” and womanly perspective that the show implied is needed for raising three young girls.

The new Fuller House finds its humor from a different place than its namesake. Now, two of the Fuller children, DJ and Stephanie, and their best friend Kimmie, are fully-grown women and have reclaimed the household. Rarely are jokes made about the incompetency of the women’s childcare skills. The show respects the ideology that women are naturally adept at caregiving. Even Stephanie, who has the least experience with children, is shown to be able to easily step into a caregiving role.

In fact, an early episode offers the audience a reason for why Stephanie doesn’t have a family of her own (SPOILER ALERT): she’s suffering from infertility. Since the plot of the episode had no reason for this to be explained to us, it seems like the show is reassuring the audience why a woman does not have children. In the older show, Joey’s not having his own family was not explained or justified, but Stephanie is presented as not choosing a child-free life but being saddled with it.

Many episodes of Fuller House show the women expressing their sexuality. A running joke is the wolf howl the three single women do, even bringing in Kimmie’s daughter after her first kiss. The humor here seems to be derived from juxtaposing motherhood with sexuality. Just like the “Becky” character, Kimmie’s fiancé Fernando is included to provide a male perspective, which is supplied by his extreme masculinity (he’s a race car driver, to start). Apparently, all-female households are just as risky as all-male ones.

While my children may enjoy watching a show about family antics (there IS a cute dog, by the way), I’m watching the typical ideologies of family caregiving. Men are bumbling, women are natural caregivers, sexuality and motherhood are either incompatible or funny to watch, and same-sex households must be balanced with the opposing gender. Neither show from either decade explores the true challenges and awkwardness of burgeoning sexuality, such as a first period or bodily changes. Neither show entertains the idea of choosing not to have children of one’s own.

If you have seen either or both of these shows, what do you think?

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Moving Your Kids: My House or the White House



President-elect Trump recently announced that while he would live in the White House, the first lady and his grade-school son, Barron, will stay in NYC to finish the school year. This decision may be the only thing I can relate to in connection to Trump. A year and a half ago, I had to make the decision whether to move the entire family halfway through the school year (and one of my children was midway through 5th grade, his last year at the elementary school) or wait until the following fall. I didn’t want to move them mid-way through. I thought the change would be too much for them, they might flounder with a potentially different curriculum, and how could they make friends suddenly as the new kids.  This is where my commonality with Trump ends because even though I’m framing it as if I had a decision, I didn’t really. Finances made the “choice” simple. I couldn’t afford to maintain the mortgage on a new house and rent on another, couldn’t live in my parents cramped place any longer, and thus had no choice but to move mid-year. For someone who built his campaign, at least in part, on his claim to understand the struggles of the lower or working class, I think he’s missing a key difference between the rich and the not rich: access to choices, especially with education.

One of the main reasons we moved was to give my children access to excellent public schools. At our old neighborhood the elementary schools were strong, but the middle school was on more shaky ground. To be sure that my children would get a strong, or even safe education, we were told to either try out for a specialized middle school. Someone advised me to start teaching my son a string instrument when he was four. Unfortunately, he showed no aptitude for that so music wasn’t going to be our ticket. Then, we were told to try out for the gifted program. Getting your children into a NYC gifted program is a serious endeavor which often involves tutoring and coaching. Much has been written on the inequities of the system. We didn’t do any coaching because we figured if he couldn’t get it on his own, then he’d be doomed to a lifetime of coaching to remain competitive. He didn’t get in.  So, our last choice was to move to a place with more taxes but access to great schools. We were privileged to even have that opportunity.

As those criticize the Trump decision to leave his child behind, they do so sighting clogged NYC traffic, the cost of secret service protection, and making a decision that affects everyone at the expense of disappointing a 4th grader. I can advise Trump that moving midway during the year was actually the best thing that ever happened to us. The kids were all treated special by the schools and given a moving helper. They were fine with the curriculum and got attention when needed, and most important, they had a chance to be seen as the new kids in the middle of the year rather than blend with the newness of the fall when they wouldn’t have been given any special attention. The kids survived.

It’s not easy to be kid. It’s especially not easy to be a White House kid as tales of Amy Carter’s loneliness at her first day of school when she was not even allowed out for recess, the media satires Chelsea Clinton had to entire, and the lack of privacy for everyone abound. Yet, first children have access to major privilege and opportunities the rest of us lack.  Barron, Trump’s child, would survive, and probably thrive, given that the Trumps have access to any private school they want. I would hope that rather than spending time exploring this particular decision that Trump is making in terms of cost and one child, it’s time to tackle the larger issues of education, access, and the hard decisions every parent must make when it comes to doing right by their kids.

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Moving Your Kids: <br>My House or the White House

Turkey Stress


Thanksgiving is almost here, but so far, I haven’t had time to do much writing, start preparing my Thanksgiving feast, or even think about what I’m thankful for. I’m too busy preparing a fake, somewhat edible turkey so that my child will have the same turkey as everyone else at school (because, as the mom of an allergy kid, I always have to send in a duplicate of any food served to the class, and the class moms this year are bringing in turkeys made from popcorn stuffed in a clear plastic glove).  Here’s a pic: 


I sent a copy to my friends to brag about my crafty prowess. They sent me back pics of each of their turkeys:

I now have discovered that women at every level of profession throughout most industry, government, and educational institutions in the U.S. are getting absolutely no work done this week, because we are all making turkey crafts.

At first I wondered why we were doing this? It’s one thing for schools to make turkey projects with kids, but is it necessary for us parents at home to actively participate in he turkey-making experience? Why do I feel so compelled to drop everything and make this turkey? Is it just because I don’t want my child to feel left out of the turkey craft experience? Or, am I competing with the other moms, an attempt to prove myself so that I don’t lose my mom card?

As I glued the snood onto my turkey glove, I began thinking about how disingenuous this project was. Here we are, making these cute-looking stuffed turkeys filled with candy or popcorn or pretzels while, later in the week, we will be buying and cooking turkeys that have been killed for our consumption. A project that my children (and by extension, myself) have had to prepare in previous years is disguise a turkey so he won’t be caught for Thanksgiving. At least that’s more honest about dealing with the holiday.

I wonder whether, in some ways, these turkey projects are a way to distract from the other, less palatable, aspects of the holiday that involve explaining to children how settlers treated Native Americans then, and our country’s treatment of them still now. Every time we decorate a turkey, we aren’t having real discussions about the issues associated with this holiday. 

I find Thanksgiving a complicated time for academics who focus their work on questioning power, control, and ideologies. Sometimes, it’s just easier being a mom stuffing a latex glove with rainbow Goldfish, popcorn, and feathers. Happy Thanksgiving to the other Ph.D. moms and dads out there. Don’t worry about your work this week; there are turkeys that need crafting!

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