December 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Find the candy

By |2018-03-21T18:37:22+01:00June 3rd, 2009|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Topsey, hand-painted paper doll from 1863.

n American couple came through Rome recently to re-connect with us after many years. Along with good humor and lively company, they brought with them hair-raising grandkid stories, which fertilized my growing concern about the nuttiness, craziness, and general insanity evident in child-rearing.

Relatives weren’t always angels, it’s true. There were the times my strange Uncle Sid, with a devilish gleam in his eyes behind coke-bottle lenses, enticed us kids to “find the candy” in his trouser pockets. Uh, oh, and what else?

He offered pennies, too, which, in my naïve little brain must have meant that Uncle Sid’s pockets might be a good place to start on the road to becoming a future CFO of some mega-company. My cousins and I made fun of him when he wasn’t looking, but it all seemed so innocent.

And at least we interacted with our crazy uncle — unlike the kids who sit in trances in front of a TV, silent, drugged and unable to speak when an adult enters the room saying “Hi, Henry” or “Hello, Agatha” or “Buon giorno, figlio mio.” Silence prevails instead.

As a lawyer might put it, these kids are non-responsive. Who has allowed them to become social zombies, unable to put “hello,” “please,” or “thank you” into a sentence?

Meanwhile, their yes-to-all-wishes parents seem oblivious to their lack of manners: These are usually the “worshipped and adored” (read: intimidated) kids of midlife parents; kids who, when offered a trip to the mall and a choice between two nice gifts, tell their grandmother, my visiting friend, “My mommie lets me have four!”

My straight-shooting, no-nonsense friend replied to her little eight-year-old terror, “Well, I’m not your mommie, I’m your grandmother, and I say you can have two.”

The child finally did wangle a third choice from her generous and battered grandma, but carefully studied all the dolls to make her last pick as grandma watched, fascinated. The child walked up and down the rows of dolls, surveying the scene with a practiced eye for opportunity. She then picked out her last goodie — little twin dolls. This kid is definitely going places, but I’m not so sure I want to be there. (She later stomped on one of the other gifts.)

I see children all around me pampered, doted upon, petted, wiped, groomed, and indulged by parents who say yes to everything when their children desperately need to be learning how to take care of themselves, and fast. The streets are full of kids who literally hang over the sides of their outgrown strollers because they are too big to fit in the seats! Where are their legs? Why aren’t they walking? Why aren’t they pushing their overworked mammas or papas in the stroller themselves?

Then there are the scorekeeper children — “He got more than me (already we’re in trouble with the kid’s grammar) or “Her present is bigger than mine” and so on. These poor kids will grow up into adults who’ll never be happy with what’s on their plates, literally and figuratively, and heaven help their husbands, wives or partners.

What has happened to kids who eat what’s put in front of them, say thank you upon receiving a gift, and can be part of a dialogue that is not always about their wishes and wants?

I love my well-mannered grandkids (their parents insist on their behavior), even if they are “steps.” Maybe that’s better. Maybe someone outside, someone with no family ties can offer a different view of the world. Maybe I’m a kind of island, safe and objective, for when they need another opinion.

I’m great with kids, old and young — I just didn’t want to have any of my own. This naturally leaves me wide open to reverse prejudice, particularly among smug mothers who say, “Well, you don’t have kids, so you can’t possibly understand what we have to go through to get them to eat their food, clean their rooms (be civil, thoughtful, kind to others, generous of spirit, and so on)…”

I do know this. In an age where kids want (expect) a “yes” in response to all their worldly wishes, I know down to my toes that loving, capable, self-sufficient children can be educated and made into better adults with the right use of a single caring and powerful word, “No.”

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.