BY WILLIAM EATON
About the Author
The Riddle of the Miners
The Anvil and the
The Beauty of the
John Ruskin and His
Kleptomania and Its
Smile and the Whole
World Smiles with You
Tiens, voilą une baffe
There is an object called
The Prophet Jonah
Sick, I went with my two-year-old son to the drugstore in the village where we had a weekend house. It so happened that this particular drug store was part of one of the several drugstore chains that around this time were being accused of aggressively lobbying their customers to switch from cheaper versions of drugs that their doctors had prescribed to more expensive ones that were not necessarily as effective. As I recall, for these lobbying efforts the drug stores were being paid by drug companies, and in some cases, I believe, customers’ prescriptions were being changed without the customers’ or their doctors’ prior approval. But let us proceed as if such matters were beside the point.
At this store, as in most stores to which young children are taken, certain products — little games, candies, brightly colored packages of stickers, cards featuring pictures of animals — were displayed at the eye and hand levels of young children. As I was waiting for my prescription to be filled, Jonah, as many a child will, began pulling some of these products off the shelves. The chance of his making a mess was good, as was the possibility of his damaging some of the packaging. And as the store was hoping he would, Jonah asked if we might buy some of these seemingly so attractive things.
American parents have stock phrases for rejecting such requests — “You don’t really want that”; “Put that back where you found it”. We also have principles and cautionary sayings: A child should not make a mess of things that do not belong to him; “You break it, you bought it”. We also give in to our children’s demands. Not always, perhaps just on those days when the child is particularly charming or cranky or sick, or when we are sick or in a hurry or ebullient or otherwise distracted. We buy the bauble or candy. “I’ll buy you this one, but that’s it.” The store has its sale — at times more than one.
The combination of American mores with stores’ relentless solicitation of children often makes going shopping with young children annoying. (And other shoppers are annoyed and delayed by the parents and children’s squabbling.) There is the energy consumed in trying to control one’s child, the reminder that one’s income is not as disposable as it might be. When one relents and buys something one did not want to buy, there is first the additional expense, and then the additional annoyance when one sees that one’s child is at best temporarily mollified. As a rule the item is so unengaging, or the candy so unnourishing, that above all the child is stimulated to want to buy more.
It occurred to me that day in the drug store that I had no obligation to a store that was trying to use my child to badger me into spending money I did not want to spend on products I did not want to buy — forcing my child and me into conflict. Rather than consuming my energy trying to restrain my son from making a mess of the store and such of its products as he could reach, I could hope — against hope — that his behavior might encourage this store and others to stop trying to seduce little children. Would this were a reasonable response to contemporary commercial savagery.
But of course social obligations have rather less to do with reason and more to do with feeling part of a community and maintaining or obtaining a status within it. Socially appropriate behaviors — even those backed by moral commandments — are simply ways that a community rightly or wrongly believes people should behave, and those who are perceived as not behaving accordingly may be considered (and may consider themselves) inferior or even “bad” people — unfit to be embraced by the community.