From the June-July 1995 issue of TLD


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Chicken parents and timely poxes


Judging from what I've been reading lately in the mainstream press, I'm beginning to think the inmates are firmly in charge of the asylum we used to call the American family. I'd like to give you a little detail on several items that have come to my attention, and because I am anything but heavy-handed, O Best Beloved, I will let you draw your own conclusions with almost no prompting.

If you haven't been keeping up with the angst of the thirty- and fortysomething career-track women who are finding themselves caught between the glass ceiling and their steadily advancing biological clocks, you might not be aware that a horde of otherwise sensible mothers are being held hostage by their trophy children. Women who have fought in the courts and on the picket lines for the rights to fly bombers and dine in exclusive clubs and get their heads shaved in military rituals (but not, God forbid, their legs) are apparently unable to maintain authority over their toddlers. In recent interviews in the Wall Street Journal, educated and decisive women, who ought to have better sense, admitted to strangers that they can't say no to their children. They buy them toys they don't need and allow them to eat junk food on demand because if they tell them no, they will make scenes in public.

Now, in defense of those cowed mothers, we should remember that casual passers-by no longer ignore screaming small children who are in confrontation mode with their parents in public places. Any parent who watches the nightly news knows that, at the drop of a tantrum, his home can be invaded by welfare police searching for evidence of child abuse. Still, allowing one's kids to seize the upper hand before they're out of training pants is sheer madness, and once they get bigger (or smarter) than their keepers, it's all over.

At the same time that they are indulging their children's whims — healthy or otherwise — parents have been identified as sheep ripe for the fleecing by purveyors of upscale infant clothing. For the benefit of readers who have never been involved in buying clothes for children, let me offer two bits of background information. First, small children grow very quickly. The reason most of us wore hand-me-downs from an elder sibling or a cousin or some slightly older neighbor kid is that kids don't stay the same size for more than three or four months unless they're the protagonists of eerie science-fiction stories. This week's long trousers are next week's pedal pushers. Second, unless they are sealed in plastic bubbles on account of immune deficiency, kids are capable of finding the only mud hole in Death Valley within five minutes of being released from the bathtub. You've misplaced your treasured fountain pen? Put a white dress on your 4-year-old daughter and turn your back for 30 seconds, and voila! It's better than owning a bloodhound.

Given those unfortunate facts of life, imagine going into a children's clothier and dropping upward of $200 on a single outfit! The same parents who can't say no to a Happy Meal are laying out thousands of bucks so that their little darlings can spill special sauce on their very own Calvin Klein blazers. And the reason one doting mother gave to a reporter for this sartorial excess is that they look so adorable. Dear God.

Having set the stage for the real point I want to make, I want you to hold those two little vignettes in your mind for a moment: the parental reluctance to require their kids to eat healthful and regularly spaced meals, and the parental willingness to lay out, for tiny tennis outfits, the equivalent of the GNP of a small Third World country. Now let me tell you about the latest advance in medical science.

I remember very clearly my parents' real rejoicing when Dr. Jonas Salk perfected the polio vaccine. My early childhood summers were full of restrictions: any public gathering, from a swimming pool to an amusement park to a day camp, was off limits because the grisly specter of the iron lung haunted parental dreams. My mother remembered how her favorite brother nearly died of whooping cough. Several of her playmates were left with rheumatic heart disease after bouts of scarlet fever. I wear glasses today because of the measles. There used to be a lot of childhood diseases that brought serious and dangerous side effects with them.

One childhood ailment, however, was more of a nuisance than a serious threat. I'm referring, of course, to chickenpox. Chickenpox was an automatic 10-day reprieve from second grade: two glorious weeks of reading Zane Grey and Tarzan books and building extravagant frontier towns out of Lincoln Logs while the other kids had to struggle through the discussion questions about Baffin Island in the teachers' guide for My Weekly Reader. There wasn't even any nasty-tasting medicine associated with chicken pox. Instead you got slathered with calamine lotion, and when it rubbed off on your clothes and made a mess, you didn't get yelled at. An altogether satisfactory children's disease, chickenpox.

But no more. A vaccine has been developed for chickenpox, and at $39 a dose before the pediatrician adds his costs, today's doting parents are clamoring for shots for their little darlings.

Those of you who know the way my mind works are suspecting that there's more to this medical breakthrough than meets the eye, and bless your devious little hearts, you've caught me again. For you see, O Best Beloved, complications of childhood chickenpox are very, very rare, but the same cannot be said for chickenpox contracted after puberty. Teenagers and adults who catch chickenpox can get very sick indeed, suffering complications that can be life-threatening, including a particularly virulent pneumonia that frequently culminates in acute respiratory failure. Contracting chickenpox in the first trimester of pregnancy can cause significant birth defects. If a woman gives birth within five days of catching chickenpox, the newborn infant stands a very good chance of dying. And while chickenpox, the childhood disease, confers lifelong immunity, nobody knows how long the immunity conferred by the vaccine lasts. In other words, it could stop protecting you after 10 or 15 years, once you've become a vulnerable adult.

So why would parents who put crash helmets on children riding tricycles, cut the drawstrings off their kids' anorak hoods, and buy (and even worse, install) toilet bowl locks protect their infants against a disease that can't hurt them, using a substance that might expose them to serious dangers as adults? Because it has nothing to do, really, with their children's health. It has more to do with the fact that daycare centers won't accept children broken out in spots from a communicable disease, even a benign one. Children with chickenpox have to stay home until the spots go away, and that means that their parents have to stay home with them or hire somebody who will. And if you have multiple children who lack the consideration to break out simultaneously, you're looking at several sequential spotty weeks.

One final observation: the cost of immunizations through a private practitioner can be upward of $50 per child, but in these days of employer-subsidized family medical insurance plans, the cost to the parents is frequently much less. And the employers, according to the spokesEarthunit of one of the larger HMOs, gladly foot the bill because $50 is a lot cheaper than eight or 10 days of parental sick leave. And so, despite knowing that there are a lot of unanswered questions about the long-term effects of immunization against chickenpox, the physicians under contract to HMOs are recommending to parents that they take advantage of this new medical breakthrough. And parents are agreeing to a medical procedure that could potentially kill their adult children and their unborn grandchildren. If parents are doing this after being advised of the risks, the phrase criminal negligence comes to mind. And if their physicians aren't advising them of the risks, we've got the stuff that Robin Cook novels make money out of.

Disciplining one's children has to be done with extreme care and sensitivity, lest one slip over into the gray area of potential child abuse. Yet nobody raises an eyebrow at immunizing a child temporarily against a disease that won't hurt him unless the vaccine wears off after he's grown. I think that if I were thinking of starting a family today, I'd pass in favor of tropical fish.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, where some folks still don't answer the door when the Yankee Establishment comes hawking its latest model of "Progress."

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