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I was a much better parent before I had kids. I took my future kids on travel adventures and got them into art, music and math. They grew up on old-world Russian fairy tales read aloud to them while they sipped tea, wrapped in a wool blanket. We never bought into any of those cartoon franchises, let alone visited a theme park.
Then I had kids and I took them to Disneyland.
Disney snuck up on us like the creepy baby doll in Toy Story. One minute we were innocently catching a Cars matinee, the next we were buying Lightning McQueen toothbrushes. Then Disney took over Star Wars, and we were trapped for good.
Disney’s fairy dust was everywhere – I could almost feel it clinging to my teeth like those stubborn shards of popcorn. Adding insult to injury was the fact that my parents’ new house was a 10-minute drive from Disneyland. So it was only a matter of convenience that our annual family trip to California included a visit to Mickey’s kingdom.
Our son practically imploded from excitement the night before his first Disneyland trip. His younger brother caught the same bug. We realized we were raising Disney junkies, simply because Disney owned every fix.
My plans to fill our kids’ imagination with the mystical worlds of Russian folklore died, and the amazing future parent in me was silenced.
Could I have stopped this vulgarity? “Kids: Disneyland is a rip-off. It’s just a big trap to loop you into buying more of their stuff. We’re not going.” There were moments when those words almost made their way out.
Then, one evening after my husband had taken the boys to Disneyland (I hadn’t joined them, citing moral conflict and financial responsibility), I thumbed through the pictures he had taken during their visit. There they were fighting Darth Vader in a mass lightsaber-wielding workshop, waiting for Mark Twain’s riverboat in the merciless southern California sun, and even – gasp! – holding hands with Mickey himself.
The boys had spent nine hours in the park – about 8.5 hours more than they would have if I had come along. I looked close to find at least one accidental shot of boredom or fatigue. But in every single picture they were indescribably, obscenely happy. Lineups and crowds notwithstanding, they had had the most wonderful time.
It was obvious that something about Disneyland had been out of my emotional reach. All I had seen in that place was a mass of pale and overfed people and their sugared-up, pie-eyed broods. They dressed in ridiculous outfits and dropped their life savings on bad pizza and merchandized junk. They waited forever to get on rickety rides.
But something about that experience was invaluable to them: they loved it deeply, with absolute abandon. “It’s the happiest place on Earth,” a friend reminded me when I brought it up. Then he added, with a completely straight face, how much he looked forward to taking his young daughter to Disneyland.
That got me wondering. Naturally, all good parents want their children to be happy. But how do our own ideas of happiness measure against those of our children? Is there an unwritten rule somewhere that requires our kids to love what we love and not love what we don’t – because we know better?
As a good parent, am I responsible for instilling in my children only the cultural ideals I consider valuable, or do they get to make their own choices? Surely, a five-year-old lacks the judgment of a university-educated, well-rounded, cultured adult.
How do you explain to the boy holding his pee in a lineup at Disneyland that Mickey is an undercover corporate agent? That Disney’s entire agenda is to turn him into a lifelong brand slave?
Here’s where my high horse started to limp.
Why are grownups free to choose things that make them happy without having them vetted by their kids? We shell out on team jerseys and concert T-shirts (the latter being a personal weakness of this parent). We listen to the music of the eighties and watch Jersey Shore (being ironic is not a good enough defence). Meanwhile, we work overtime to steer our kids toward what we consider good taste and good culture.
To hell with that.
My kids will be going back to Disneyland. They won’t be wearing $49 Mickey ears or having lunch at the Rainforest Café. But they will line up for Jedi training. And they will go on Splash Mountain 23 times.
When they come home we will read Lewis Carroll and play piano and do math. And if they’re well behaved, we’ll watch two – no, three – episodes of The Simpsons.
Because I love The Simpsons, so they’d better love The Simpsons, too.