Mar 032009
Authors: Ryan Nowell

Experts (i.e. me wearing my high school mortarboard) estimate that most instances of young college students making snap judgments about a total stranger’s parenting skills occur while standing in line. So let’s start there, shall we?

I was picking up a few odds and ends at one of those cavernous all-in-one grocery/department stores, the giant hangar kind where commerce parks all the lower-middle class schwag.

Waiting at one of the two open checkout counters, pondering what the other 20 empty registers are for, I overheard a young boy partaking in the time-honored tradition of begging for a toy. The parent refused, but not for the reasons you’d think (money, neglected chores, because I said so, etc.). They wouldn’t buy it because the toy the kid had picked out was a bad guy. Parent’s words.

Now, this being an action figure, bad guy is meant in the overt, mustache-twirling, Bond villain sense. How it usually works is that you have your multicultural cast of wholesome and generic good guys, fighting to uphold a set of values so ill-defined that no one could ever take issue with them (freedom, anyone?), and then you have your scowling, deplorable bad guys who sit around hatching nonsensical schemes to prove how evil they are (Subtlety 101 not having been offered at Cobra Community College).

So has this become a thing? Are parents really demanding moral resoluteness from their children’s adolescent play worlds?

It’s certainly debatable whether this kind of dumb action fare is good for them at all — fostering early didactic thinking and all that — but refusing your kid a toy because of the villainous back-story the fellas in marketing cooked up seems more symptomatic of black and white thinking than preventative of it.

Telling your kid that they aren’t allowed to have this toy or that one because it’s a plastic depiction of a bad guy not only validates this crude way of thinking in utterly good and entirely bad terms but also begs the larger question of whether you’re doing them any favors by “protecting” them from such low-risk bad influences.

Kids learn from everything — cartoon villains included — but the only dangerous thing about good guy/bad guy tropes is that they’re misleading. Day one in pre-school should teach them that. By limiting what they’re allowed to learn from, though, you’re limiting what they’re able to learn.

Refusing them one toy in a supermarket once is hardly going to cause their brain to atrophy, but given the broad moralizing justification used, I’m going to assume this isn’t the first experience this kid won’t be having on account of parental concern. If they’re shielding their kid from something as harmless as a toy, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination that other, more formative rites of passage are being undermined as well.

If helping your kids grow up and keeping them absolutely safe were the same thing, then parenting would be as simple as steering them around any and all unpleasantness. But they aren’t the same. Sure, you have to do your best to protect them from the major kinds of physical and psychological traumas — certainly — but you also have to let them make mistakes.

Kids learn from everything. And the only reason to not allow them their mistakes is because you don’t trust the decisions they’d reach on their own. Helicopter parenting is not simply paranoia over society’s influence. It is, ultimately, a mistrust of the child’s competence and a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.

Whitewashing someone’s reality seems like a lot of work. For the sake of both the child and mother at the supermarket, I hope the toy had a choking hazard, and the mom just didn’t have the heart to tell her kid he’s a little slow.

Ryan Nowell is a senior English major. His column appears Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.