A couple weeks ago, a friend shared a link with me that has been going around the internet. You may have seen it. There are several images set in a garden scene with a bench, and there are toddlers in various states of despair, screaming and wailing as a person dressed as the Grinch, Dr. Seuss’ beloved Christmas villain, sneaks up on them while hamming it up for the camera.
“Legendary,” read the caption, followed by the laugh emoji ― the one where the eyes are squinted and streaming and the face is tilted too. Ha.
In the daily volley of content lobbed back and forth, I didn’t even bother to respond, but the photos sat uneasily with me. Over the following days, several more friends shared the post and expressed amusement at the prank.
Parents and others who responded along the lines of “I’m pretty appalled by this” were told to get a sense of humor, to lighten up. “Holidays must suck for you. It’s been happening long before your time!” wrote one person who trotted out photo after photo of terrified children sitting with gawkish Easter Bunnies and befuddled Santas.
This situation felt different. When children are taken to see Santa or the Easter Bunny at the mall, the intention isn’t to terrorize them ― it’s an unprovoked, unwanted and unfortunate byproduct of the experience. But with this sinister Grinch, the entire point seems to be to scare these kids.
I know having a laugh at the expense of our children is nothing new. I’m probably guilty of having shared some of those links myself, before I had my own kids. But I had never seen my kids make a face like those toddlers did when they encountered the Grinch.
Trying to understand why I was so bothered by these photos, I was reminded of a moment a month or so ago. My son Oscar, a busy and inquisitive 3-year-old, has recently fallen into a superhero phase. For a while, everything was The Flash ― he ran around in his Flash mask and nothing else ― and then it was Spider-Man, with him expecting to be swung everywhere. I happily obliged.
I’ve tried not to be the kind of dad that imposes my cultural touchstones on my kids but reveling in Oscar’s excitement, I loaded up a scene on YouTube without fully thinking through what I was doing. The exact clip, from “Superman 3,” starts with a kid knocked out, his head bleeding as a combine harvester barrels down on him. In my excitement I had just remembered the rescue of this child and not the lead up. Immediately upon seeing Oscar’s horror ― his realization that a child could be in such danger ― I forwarded the scene to show Superman flying off with the rescued kid.
But the damage was done. I had made a mistake.
I had exposed Oscar to a fear I felt he was not ready for. Of course at some point he will come to a realization about the possibility of death, but hopefully it will be delivered less callously than through a clumsy attempt to show him the silly fantasy of a flying man in red underwear.
No one really teaches you to be a parent. No matter how intentional you are, parenting is in some sense a series of mistakes and how you deal with them.
In this case, as with the unwelcome Grinch, I believe the issue is one of consent. The children have been exposed to a fear ― a stranger dressed in green ― that they clearly do not want to interact with, and instead of recognizing or respecting that fear, the parents used it in a hilarious photo shoot to plaster all over Facebook. When I saw I had taken Oscar to a place he wasn’t ready for with the Superman clip, I tried to correct course, but in so doing, I didn’t talk to him about it, I didn’t lead him through the moment. I forced him through it.
Parenting is always about consent to one degree or another. Indeed, our parents are our first encounter with consent, and becoming parents is where we are forced to test those boundaries. Whether it’s wrestling a baby into a diaper at 4 a.m. or trying to convince the 3-year-old he can’t eat dinner with no pants on, parenting is the negotiation of a child’s consent, a gradual transfer of autonomy.
And sometimes we make mistakes or have trouble respecting those boundaries as they get older. I know I’ve been guilty of tickling Oscar for a little too long while enjoying his giggling protests. No matter how much I claim now that I’ll respect his autonomy, I’m sure I’ll face challenges in his choice of fashion, music or politics as he grows older. Oscar, as well as my daughter Molly, will see, understand and live in a world that I will likely gradually find more mystifying.
Part of the transfer of autonomy from parent to child also requires a transfer of trust that they will be good shepherds. Ensuring the dignity of and a confidence in their own bodies will be the best defense I can give them for that world. Part of that, at least to me, is about recognizing instances where consent is at play ― or should be ― and doing whatever I can to assure that they are giving it, or not being put into situations where things are happening to them without their agreement.
2020 has been a year! A year “from hell,” a year “like no other.” As a consequence of the global pandemic, we’ve been forced to confront our own empathy (or at least I hope people have been), and we’ve often found that we’ve come up wanting. Whether in the debate over wearing masks or countries’ scramble to secure vaccines for themselves without concern for other nations, this year has seen a depressing lack of regard for the other. And, as is so often the case, those with the most risk ― including the old, the infirm, but also the migrant, the detained and displaced, often those whom we laugh at or demonize ― are those who have been hit the hardest. For me, the true test of the last 12 months has been: Do we care about those with the least voice? And if not, why not? And what can we do to do better by them?
But “it’s fun to laugh at parents traumatizing their children!” write the dissenters. “Kid gloves are for the weak!” “Those kids are fine!” “Stop being so touchy!” Some of you reading this right now might even be thinking the same thing. You might even think I’m the Grinch here.
I get it.
It’s hard to be a wet blanket. It’s not fun to question the supposed hilarity of frightening toddlers with an obvious prank, but stepping in and protecting those without a voice means putting oneself aside and conceding to another’s reality that might bump up against our own. And aren’t there other ways to get a laugh? Can’t we parents be a bit more creative and lot less traumatizing? Are we really this desperate for release, and if so, what does it say about us if we can only get it by potentially giving our kids nightmares?
I don’t have all the answers. No parent does. And I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, but after 2020, I think I might be changing my tune. As this year from hell finally comes to an end, I think a recommitment to the other ― a resolve to help those with the least voice, whether it’s our kids or anyone else who might be vulnerable or needy or just unprepared to face a scary person in a furry green suit ― will be our best way forward into this new year.
Arran Skinner is a multimedia specialist and a father of two living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @arranskinner.