Bugged by the Bugaboo parents
Why are so many commentators throwing their toys out of their prams over the right-on mums and dads who live in Park Slope, Brooklyn?
Parents in Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighbourhood where I live, are reeling from the latest in a series of articles vilifying them and their children. They have been described as a ‘tribe’ and ‘The Stroller Mafia’; their children as ‘narcissistic, whiny’ kids who ‘infest’ the streets of the neighbourhood, ‘overrun’ the coffee houses and ride around in their thousand-dollar chariots like ‘little Cleopatras’ (1).
Bashing Brooklyn’s ‘breeders’, as they are sometimes referred to, is nothing new. There is a small but vocal subculture of blogs that regularly indulge in rants about Park Slope parents and their progeny. Gawker.com, a local media and gossip blog, actually markets a t-shirt sporting the slogan: ‘I Hate Your Kids’. (2) Last year, New York Magazine ran an article sending up a spat about the language used to describe a lost child’s hat on the local list serv and this month’s Time Out New York Kids has a piece entitled ‘Why Does Everyone Hate Park Slope?’. Now, with the publication of Tom Leonard’s column ‘Day of the Dad’ in the UK’s Telegraph, it seems bashing ‘The Slope’ has gone global (3).
It’s not the snide tone of the reporting that confounds local parents so much as the notion that anyone outside the neighbourhood would take an interest at all. And that’s what makes it feel like there is something more subtle at work than lazy journalism or a crass critique of local parenting culture. It feels angry. It feels personal, and in much the same way that neighbours fight and family members drive each other crazy, it is.
Park Slope, for those who don’t know it, is a leafy, almost suburban enclave in New York City’s second-most famous borough. Over the years it has been home to working-class Italians, Irish, Latin Americans and Arabs among other groups. It began to gentrify in the 1980s and today it is positively trendy with a cohort of celebrity residents, from famous authors to film stars, and real estate values that make London house prices look cheap.
It has also become ground zero for any discussion of the evils of parenting in the United States. Children who run wild, parents who obsess about food or sleep; parents who are cliquish, insecure and judgmental. It’s not that people here are more extreme than anywhere else in the country, but they do tend to be middle-class, highly educated, articulate users of the internet who talk, blog and write books about parenting. This means that all the fears and insecurities of modern parenthood and the excesses that flow from them are played out publicly for all to see. Not surprisingly, the neighbourhood has become a reference point.
One way this often happens is through the Park Slope Parents’ Yahoo group. Over 6,000 parents are registered to participate in discussions with other local mums and dads. These can be simple queries about things like finding plumbers or tips for getting your child to start actually brushing his teeth (as opposed to simply eating the toothpaste) to more involved discussions about helping your six-year-old deal with her grandfather’s death. The list provides a sort of ‘reality check’ for parents who often feel they can’t reveal their concerns except through the semi-anonymity of their computers. An awkward moment at the playground; discussions of the pros and cons of particular vaccinations; miscellaneous concerns about the neighbourhood; all appear on the list, and are usually resolved through common sense.
Unfortunately, many of these exchanges also find their way into the press. The Telegraph piece, for instance, ridicules a woman for having the temerity to complain about a ‘delivery man she suspected had defecated or been sick – she wasn’t quite sure which – in her building’s hallway’. Several well-known blogs picked up on one father’s ill-conceived plan to charge his son’s nanny for the cost of two lost toy strollers. It’s hardly the stuff of scandal but good for a laugh at parents’ expense.
And yet, it must seem strange to anyone beyond a hundred-mile radius of New York City because the most striking thing about Park Slope Parents and their critics is that they have so much in common. They walk the same streets and share the same apartment houses, have the same tastes in clothing and music. They share the same liberal political outlook. In fact, many of the very same journalists who ridiculed parents in the neighbourhood before they had children can be found celebrating what they used to criticise.
And that’s what is so incongruous about these anti-parent polemics. They are filled with righteous ire, usually reserved for ‘red state’ voters, the religious right or Fox News. In fact, apart from slight variations in lifestyles, there are no significant differences between local parents and non-parents. Perhaps this is why it has been necessary to invent them.
There are many points of contention: parents who employ nannies are at once callous and self-centred because they ‘pay strangers to raise their children’, and recalcitrant exploiters because they don’t pay enough, do not pay on the books and do not usually offer benefits like healthcare. Newcomers to the area are portrayed as venal, entitled ‘yuppies’ more interested in increasing their property values than preserving the ‘character’ (read ethnic, cultural and racial mix) of the neighbourhood. This despite the fact that Park Slope has been gentrifying for over two decades.
But surely the most ridiculous example of the imaginary sins-of-the-parents is the obsession with the bugaboo stroller. Bugaboos, for the uninitiated, are ergonomically wonderful, extremely versatile strollers from the Netherlands. They are not overly expensive there but a fully loaded ‘bug’ goes for about $900 (£450 pounds) in the US, where they are considered status symbols.
For critics, pushing a Bugaboo is the moral equivalent of owning a Hummer. The phrase ‘with their Bugaboo strollers’ is tacked on to descriptions of local parents as an epitaph. Sometimes it’s ‘with their obscenely expensive bugaboo strollers’ just for good measure. It is eerily reminiscent of discussions of SUVs and their owners. SUV owners have been described as ‘insecure, vain, self-centred, and self-absorbed’, ‘…frequently nervous about their marriages’, and lacking ‘confidence in their driving skills’ (4).
Substitute the word ‘Bugaboo’ for ‘SUV’ and ‘parenting’ for ‘driving’ and you’ve neatly captured every prejudice about Parents With Bugaboos as well. You might think it’s just a stroller but for some people there is a greater principle at stake.
Clearly, some elements of the ‘Slope Wars’ are petty and trivial but they are interesting because of what they reveal about the nature of American life today. Lifestyle has become so central to the way Americans see themselves and relate to the rest of the world that every outward expression of a different lifestyle is seen as an affront to their own. There’s a constant tension between people with children and those without them, between parents who adopt a lifestyle based on a particular philosophy of parenting and those who don’t, between people who live in cities and those who live in the suburbs, between the religious and the non-religious.
Parents in Park Slope get it coming and going. Some critics slam them for being too much like their suburban counterparts, ‘adults walking around with tense, frozen smiles while their eyes plead for reassurance that they have succeeded in capturing the American Dream’ (5). For others, like David Brooks writing in the New York Times, it’s the very opposite: ‘Don’t they observe that… with their unearned sense of superiority and their abusively pretentious children’s names like Anouschka and Elijah, they are displaying a degree of conformity that makes your average suburban cul-de-sac look like Renaissance Florence?’ (6) In fact, the real problem for parents in Park Slope is that they are at the sharp end of several lifestyle clashes while simultaneously caught up in a destructive culture of parenting.
Sure, there are things about parents today that bear criticising: they are prone to panic about everything from school enrollments to plastic cups, liable to interpret mundane encounters or even gestures of sympathy from other adults as slights or disapproval. Most of all, the pressure to be closely involved in children’s lives risks robbing them of the opportunity to learn how to make their own way. All these are real concerns that deserve a hearing from parents and in society more broadly, but critiques that essentially criticise parents for being parents are worse than useless. They identify the wrong problems and contribute to creating the climate of paranoia that has led us to where we are in the first place.
As for attacks on Park Slope: perhaps the question is not what’s wrong with parents there but how have we got to the point where the minutiae of their personal lives can be elevated to the level of a moral crusade?
Nancy McDermott is a writer and a parent living in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Nancy McDermott reported from a conference on today’s ‘intensive parenting’ and said that panicked New York mums need pacifying. Julian Grenier said Sue Palmer has a toxic view of working-class parents. Rob Lyons said Jamie Oliver’s school dinner crusade came with a side order of parent-bashing bile. Neil Davenport said lone parents should be left alone. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.
(1) Why does Everyone Hate Park Slope?, Time Out New York Kids, June 2007
(2) I Hate Your Kids T-shirt, Gawker
(3) Day of the Dad, Daily Telegraph, 31 May 2007
(4) Quoted in Big and Bad: How the SUV Ran Over Automotive Safety, New Yorker, January 2004
(5) Why does Everyone Hate Park Slope?, Time Out New York Kids, June 2007
(6) Mosh Pit Meets Sandbox, New York Times 25 February 2007
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