Parenting tips from Mad Men

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of the many joys of watching “Mad Men” is seeing how worried — not — the parents were about their kids, at least in this fictional portrayal of the early ’60s.

The kids are told to run off and play in another room so mom can have coffee with a friend. They’re put in a playpen…so mom can have coffee with a friend. Maybe I just like the show because I love having coffee with a friend (and think the kids can pretty much take care of themselves while I do).  Anyway, in the best scene, a girl of about 6 or 7 twirls into the room announcing she’s a fairy, or space monster, or something, dressed head to toe in a costume that consists of a dry cleaning bag.

The mother is horrified! “If I find those clean clothes on the floor, young lady, you are in big trouble.”

Visions of crumpled clothes, not imminent death, dance in her head.

So I looked up the stats on plastic bags. Are they really so bad or are we just paranoid? Must we really keep them away from our kids?

Yes and no.

Yes, about 25 children do die each year, suffocated by bags. Horrible. But according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, most of these have been children under the age of 1.  They rolled into a bag and couldn’t roll out, or a plastic bag of clothes fell on them and they couldn’t get out from underneath and suffocated.

These are terrible stories. But they have nothing to do with a 6-year-old twirling around in a dry cleaning bag she can yank off whenever she wants. They are really stories of babies suffocated by baby-hood — by not being able to crawl away yet, or even lift a head.

We have a tendency these days to lump all children together as totally incompetent and vulnerable. At the risk of, well, risk, we don’t give them any credit for figuring out how to handle themselves, even as they start growing up. We even forget that that’s the way a child does grow up: by handling situations that are a little tough.

It’s not that I’m not advocating plastic bag face masks. I’m just wondering about how, in trying to prevent any childhood trauma, we have forgotten that children and babies are not the same thing. It’s something moms in the ‘60s — at least the ones on TV — understood, even as they sipped their Chase & Sandborn coffee. — Lenore


42 Responses to Parenting tips from Mad Men

  1. Anna August 7, 2008 at 2:33 am #

    And what’s the magic about age three and choking on small objects?

  2. Ones Self August 7, 2008 at 3:16 am #

    This puts plastic bags in a much needed perspective. I always felt that they were being singled out for some reason, but I could never really say anything about it since I didn’t want to come off as “that crazy dangerous dad”.

    Some people are so paranoid about this issue, that on one occasion another parent got angry with me for placing a bag over my own head (as a joke). Since their kids were around and they didn’t want them to “get any ideas.” As if a child of any age needs an adult to give them dangerous ideas. They can come up with plenty on their own, thank you very much.

  3. Janni August 7, 2008 at 3:43 am #

    I think we sometimes think children and teens are the same, too, which in some ways is even worse!

  4. Tara@From Dawn Till Rusk August 7, 2008 at 3:52 am #

    I do think we are really suffocating (forgive the term) our children. I’ve turned out OK and my mum didn’t run screaming if ever a plastic bag came within 2 yards of me.

  5. Chandelle August 7, 2008 at 5:49 am #

    Wow, I am so tremendously relieved to re-discover this site! 🙂

    My little boy loved to whip plastic bags up and down at about a year old. He loved the loud sound it made. A parent expressed her complete horror that I was letting my kid play with a plastic bag. I just said, “I’m RIGHT HERE. He’s not going to suffocate while I’m RIGHT HERE.” Of course I wouldn’t leave him alone with one. But really, the fear. That’s what’s suffocating.

    Thanks for the little dose of sanity.

  6. Carey August 7, 2008 at 5:53 am #

    Age three is apparently when children will stop putting everything they touch into their mouths. There’s no magic age for not choking on pretzels, though.

  7. Marie August 7, 2008 at 5:57 am #

    I particularly loved the part where she crashes into the neighbors yard, and checks on the kids in the back who have fallen onto the car floor, laughing.

    I’m not even that old, and I remember not wearing a seatbelt and being in the car was so much more fun back then. Esp on long road trips.

  8. Stuart August 7, 2008 at 8:11 am #

    In my experience, the greatest choking hazard to children (after myself, of course) is other children. Perhaps we should put a warning label on them?

  9. Kim August 7, 2008 at 9:19 am #

    My son will be 7 in December and is about to start 1st grade. He has a large plastic bag full of crayons in his room. One day, the overprotective mother of one of his friends say that and I thought she was going to pass out. How could I let my son have a plastic bag full of crayons in his room? Hehehe. It got even more amusing a few minutes later when he wandered into the kitchen, took out some bread and peanut butter and a knife and made himself a sandwich. She was amazed I let him use a knife! Sigh.

    On the other end of the spectrum, though, we have certain young kids in my neighborhood who are totally unsupervised. The ride their bikes without helmets or shoes, nobody has taught them to look before crossing the street and they enter peoples homes without being invited. Drives me NUTS! I wish more people would enter that happy medium between overprotective and totally not paying any attention to their kids.

    Btw, great site. I’ve been reading it for a while now. My only complaint is you don’t update as often as I want you to. 😉

  10. Tracee Sioux August 7, 2008 at 10:17 am #

    Everytime I read any type of book from generations past I think – man those kids sure had some freedom. I want that for my kids.

  11. Amy K August 7, 2008 at 12:30 pm #

    I think about this every time I watch Mad Men (which is frequently lately as I try to get caught up). The show seems to revel in this time gone by, for better or for worse. It’s sad that kids are no longer free to explore, staying out, who knows where, until the street lights come on, but on the other hand, I like not having a random man at a party smack my kid for spilling a drink.

  12. Candy August 7, 2008 at 6:22 pm #

    Oh, the joys of being free from mass hysteria. I particularly relate to Kim who posted about allowing a child to use a knife to make a peanut butter sandwich. I mean, seriously, usually only a non-sharp butter knife is used to spread stuff on a sandwich – But, I’m sure that wouldn’t stop some folks from gasping as if he were weilding a chef’s blade.

    My 4 & 6 yr old are great help when it comes to bringing in groceries. It’s actually their job to collect all the plastic bags as I put things away. This has been their job on grocery day for a couple of years, now.

  13. Marcy August 7, 2008 at 8:26 pm #

    Hmm. My 8 year old still puts stuff in his mouth. He was supposed to grow out of it? Oh dear.

    I recently read “The Great Brain” to my sons. Talk about freedom. The kids have chores to do, but their time is their own otherwise. They play and fight and learn to be kids.

    A kids should be able to make himself a sandwich early on. Hey, my 10 month old pulls table knives out of the dishwasher to play with. She isn’t going to get hurt. They really are not that sharp. Maybe the mom who was horrified by a seven year old using knives needs a demonstration?

  14. Karen August 7, 2008 at 10:56 pm #

    What about the kid sucking the bag down his throat if he is inclined to make a balloon with it and forgets which way to inflate. Someone I was with once actually mentioned that to me with their brow knitted in deep concern. Or chewing on it, which made me laugh (until I asked a chewing kid, an older one, what in the world he had in his mouth and he pulled out a lunch bag.) (Can anyone say Darwin…)

  15. reeky August 8, 2008 at 3:05 am #

    Never choked on a plastic bag but I got a marble stuck up my nose. I was born in ’62 and was raised free range. My parents were very engaged but not over-protected. Life was like madmen, but in my family the drinking wasn’t that excessive (not even close).

    In my early days, I ate a battery, set caps off in my mouth (flames out the mouth, smoke out the nose), walked .8 mile every day to kindergarten with my two best friends, had a tree fort in the woods, got stuck in a sewer drain, crashed my bike more times that can be counted, etc. Guess what, I’m still here.

    I have a 4 and a 9 yr. old. They aren’t free range but they aren’t smothered. This blog may inspire me to be more free range with them.

    Thanks for the great read.

  16. Jackie August 8, 2008 at 5:33 pm #

    Hi, I just saw you talking about your blog on Penn & Teller’s BS! I like the concept behind your website, although I am one of those kids who were raised by what some might call “Helicopter Parents”. I also happen to have Asperger’s Syndrome, and in that regard perhaps because I don’t really get social things as well as other, I think it was better I was watched over.

    Even though I don’t think it’s that I don’t understand social behaviour, is that alot of people who supposedly are good at social behaviour, actually don’t communicate things in a straight foward fashion. Of course this gets into the whole aspect of is it that people with Asperger’s Syndrome are disabled, or that the majority of people being NT want to insist that anyone who does not behave according to their norms, is disabled or having a syndrome. If you want more on this search Asperger’s rights blogs.

    I hope that maybe if parents raise their kids to have more real life experience, those kids will learn that the world isn’t their personal playground. Alot of kids who have parents around them all the time, insist that their kids behave and are perfect, even while they’re shreiking their lungs out in a resturant. Maybe if the children learn that in reality, that’s not appropriate behaviour. That it’s not proper for their parents to jump to their defense, and throw a temper tantrum, whenever they’re inconvenienced by someone not wanting to hear a screaming child. That they’re being robbed of learning how to behave around others, when their parents act like bratty children themselves, when confronted with other people reminding them that the world isn’t their home.

    Other child-free adults have a right to go out without having to be bothered by other people’s children, without having “Well YOU’RE not a parent!” or “MY child doesn’t behave badly!” snottily said in their face, when they request parents take their little bundles to somewhere else in a resturant away from adults without children, who want to eat in peace.

    If anything, maybe if children have more real life experience, they could teach their parents how to behave more like adults. It seems alot of parents don’t realize that making faces at adults in public who don’t want to be around their children like a brat, or throwing temper tantrums at people who’d perfer not to be around children, only makes their children feel that they’re having to parent their parents.

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  18. Susan K August 9, 2008 at 3:22 am #

    One Easter when ds #3 was about 5 months old, his favorite thing was to shake a huge piece of cellophane from his sister’s basket. Loved the noise and gave belly laughs every time.
    No he was not left alone, it was too much fun to watch!

    Another child, #4(?), had a huge bunch of helium balloons tied to an ankle at about 4 months. With every kick he had a big grin.

  19. Domermom August 9, 2008 at 6:34 am #

    Just saw this website on the Penn & Teller show. Wow, it’s so refreshing to know “I”m not the only one!” I have to endure crazy nervous nellie moms everyday. They make me crazy! I’ll share a story from earlier this summer.

    Both my girls are swimmers. They swim 3 times a week in our local high school pool. One evening, there was a bad storm and I was sitting with a group of moms (it’s time for me to have adult conversation while they swim and my 3 year old explores the bleachers … I know where he is all the time). Well, this particular night, we were having heavy storms and the lights suddenly went out. The screams! Not from the kids, FROM THE MOMS!!! They took off running to “rescue” their children. I was the only mom left sitting in the stands … I couldn’t believe it. First, I love storms, so when the lights went off, I yelled “yahooo!!” Then after all the moms went running to the pooldeck, I calmly walked over to the railing, saw my 2 girls and said “just hang out until the lights go back on” and went back to my seat … my girls got their towels and sat on the pooldeck trying to stay out of the way of all the hysterical moms protecting their children. It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever experienced. We were indoors for god’s sake.
    Anyway … I’m so glad I found this site!

  20. Jenny August 9, 2008 at 11:09 am #

    I grew up in the ’60s, I was the epitome of what could have been considered a “free range kid”, however my mother and those of my friends warned us about strangers. We were told about not accepting candy, not entering their cars. Also, not to play with dry cleaning and other plastic bags. We didn’t grow up paranoid or afraid of the world.

    That said, when I was carrying my first child, the news was filed with the reports of young Adam Walsh’s kidnapping. Since that time there have been many other similar instances. Add to that child molestation, and many other tragedies that have become an all too constant reality in our nation. I raised my daughter with the same warnings my mother raised me with, but also I was much firmer about having her come directly home after school, to call me if she wanted to go to a friend’s house, that sort of thing. Like many other parents, I taught her about things my mother never thought of teaching me, about what is inappropriate behavior when it comes to being touched by others.

    I did so in a calm, rational manner, and it never turned my daughter into a terrified mouse or lead to her becoming insecure. I spent the time it took to keep open communication with her, I listened as well as spoke with her. She’s now an independent young woman who has traveled, is pursuing her master’s degree and isn’t afraid of the world.

    I’m sorry, but I don’t feel the need to regret helping my daughter to be self aware, responsible, alert, and careful of her surroundings. Unlike many of her friends, she never did drugs, never ended up being abused or became pregnant. She works, attends school, and has a life. There are parents, I’m sure who take things to extremes, but there are also parents who can’t be bothered whatsoever. Unfortunately our world is less safe now, than it was in the idealistic past some of us grew up in.

    I can appreciate the concern regarding parents who might go overboard, but honestly, the woman who runs this blog, who I saw on Penn & Teller’s program seems to be going overboard in the opposite direction. If she were less manic in her approach and didn’t seek to demonize legitimate concerns parents have, she’d be much more effective in advocating sensible practices.

  21. Shama-Lama Mama August 9, 2008 at 2:25 pm #

    Yeah, there is a lot of stuff in Mad Men that horrifies me (the neighbor who smacks someone else’s child for spilling the drink. And just when you think the dad is going to step in, the dad says, “Now go have your mother clean up this mess!” while they stand there over the broken glass and chat!)

    But there is a lot of stuff that is refreshing, too. In the scene where Betty is grocery shopping, I asked someone, “Where are her kids? Why does she get to have such a peaceful shopping trip?” and the reply was, “waiting out in the car, duh!”

    I remember being bored out of my mind in the car, in the parking lot of the supermarket many a time. My mom was a smart cookie.

  22. Jackie August 9, 2008 at 4:46 pm #

    Shama-Lama Mama I sure hope your mom didn’t leave you out in a parked car in the middle of summer. There have been a lot of deaths due to parents leaving their children in hot cars, to cook and die.

  23. John Reed August 9, 2008 at 9:01 pm #

    Thanks! Really funny. I wish i could spend my time on writing articles…just have no time for it.

  24. Miss Poppy Dixon August 10, 2008 at 5:34 am #

    When we decided to adopt a child we had to get a safety inspection from the State of California. There are two safety age ranges – 0-2 and 2-18. We asked for a child between the ages of 6 and 9, but our house had to be safe for a 2-year-old nonetheless.

    We have a little fish pond on the patio and had to fence it off, which cost us $600, because a toddler could drown in it (anybody could, really), even though we weren’t going to adopt a toddler. After we got our certification we took the fence down. A total waste of money.

    I was just happy they didn’t find the old abandoned well at the top of our property.

  25. mamabeeotch August 11, 2008 at 5:41 am #

    We don’t give our kids enough credit. They can handle themselves, I did. We rely too much on 24 hour news … the sensationalism. I am not politically correct, and I totally subscribe to ‘the slacker mom’.

    Love your blog, added to my RSS feeds.

  26. a Dad August 11, 2008 at 11:48 pm #

    Interesting article about Amber Alerts, the effectiveness (or lack) thereof, and the culture of fear they help create. The most interesting quote, to my mind, is:

    “There’s no expense to operating an Amber Alert system if you’re doing it the right way.”
    . . .
    Critics, however, measure the price of the program not in money but in broader social costs, in anxiety, panic, and misdirected public energy.”

    Which is what we’re discussing here.

  27. Jenne August 12, 2008 at 6:43 am #

    When I was a pre-teen, there was a murder story in our small town, of another pre-teen.

    Turned out that two kids were playing together and ended up doing some sort of noose thing with a plastic bag, and one was killed– the other ran away and was afraid to own up.

    Two morals of the story: scary stories often turn out to be not quite so scary when the truth comes out, but kids do need to be told not to do stupid-unsafe things, *without panic*.

    I think it’s pretty important to teach kids basic safety– don’t put plastic bags on your head, don’t tie things tightly around your neck, don’t jump off things taller than you onto a hard surface, don’t touch hot cooking pots barehanded. Simple safety tips– but NOT worth getting completely worked up about. (In the old days, we got worked up about other things, like, oh, showering during a thunderstorm, getting body parts cut off in amusement park rides…)

  28. journeytocrunchville August 12, 2008 at 11:17 am #

    I am so happy to have found your blog. I am only 27 and I can not believe the level of overbearing parents that exist out there. I grew up free range because I was a latch key kid (both my parents worked) but life was great and we had tremendous freedom. I was also expected to do things that seemed completely fine but that people these days can’t imagine. At age 8 I did my own laundry, made my own lunch, filled up my own free time and basically took care of myself. It seems like most 8 year olds these days can’t even tie their own shoes or wipe their own noses. Where we lived when I was in 3rd grade the bus stop was a mile from our home and we all (all the kids in the neighborhood) walked to and from the bus stop every morning and every afternoon. It wasn’t a big deal. I am so grateful to my parents for allowing me to grow up with freedom and they didn’t neglect me as so many people want to call it these days. My parents were very competent, loving people who were always a phone call away and of course we spent the weekends together. I am a stay-at-home-mom but I hope to give my children a semblance of the freedom I had. My 3 year old all ready seems more responsible than many of the 5 and 6 year olds we meet.

  29. Darla August 14, 2008 at 4:57 am #

    Jackie said: Other child-free adults have a right to go out without … having “Well YOU’RE not a parent!” or “MY child doesn’t behave badly!” snottily said in their face, when they request parents take their little bundles somewhere else in a restaurant away from adults without children, who want to eat in peace.

    I say: It’s those child-free people who don’t want to be bothered who need to get up and find a new table. More power to them if they don’t want to be seated next to children, but they can be the ones to get up and find a new spot if they’re the unhappy ones.

  30. Chrissy August 15, 2008 at 12:55 pm #

    I grew up much the same as journeytocrunchville.
    I learned how to make my own peanut butter jam sandwiches when I was 5. I’ve had chores since I was 7 and dishes by 11.
    I was a slave for my parents… or so it seemed that way back then. It taught me a lot of responsibility because I know how to do this stuff… my poor husband didn’t have to lift a finger growing up so he loves it that he doesn’t have to lift a finger when he has a wife that works full time and raises his kids why should he have to do anything!
    OK so i’m still bitter, but I’m working on it. I find I’m really stressed with all the things on my plate. I came across a great informative website that I have been faithfully going to called Love and Logic.
    It helped me because of its simple and practical techniques to help adults have more fun and less stress while raising responsible kids. Which is exactly what I want.
    So far so good, it’s working wonders!!

  31. tina August 25, 2008 at 4:39 pm #

    Please I am in between the generations and I have three boys–22,18,&14. I have noticed that I am much more cautious with the youger of the three. Not to say that he is restrained. He has chores like the others did & he can make his own PB&J with a butter knife. I think that you need to trust your children. Do not be niave, but, give them the time to be kids like our parents did. I am child of the 70’s, a latch key kid is what they called us. We came home to parents “both” working and doing the best that they could do. My husband is from the “LEAVE IT TO BEAVER” generation,I jokinglly call it. Which is basically the way that “Mad Men” show life. He came home to mom and dad worked . Times change, but, so do children. Know and trust your child.

  32. heidicindy August 25, 2008 at 10:46 pm #

    Once upon a time I was in charge of childcare at a large church. I had planned an art project involving paint and decided to use garbage bags with head and arm holes cut out of them because the cost of purchasing art smocks for 400+ kids was just too high. The art project went well, the garbage bag smocks kept every outfit protected! It was a success… until one of the mom’s threw a fit and was “horrified” that I would even hint that a garbage bag could be worn!
    What! Was! I! Thinking!
    She proceeded to tell me that her poor darling will now think that a garbage bag is a toy, and I have endangered her daughters life. Her daughter was 7. I was stunned.
    It seems as if we are raising a generation of children that have no ability to think for themselves, and have absolutely no need to figure things out on their own without the constant interference from adults. When did parents get out of the responsibility to raise people that can think and do for themselves?

  33. BMS2000 September 1, 2008 at 5:02 am #

    My friends are mildly shocked by the fact that my 7 year old, with supervision, makes his own omelettes. I hate them, he likes them – he can make them! They know to be careful around the stove, and they know because they have mildly singed a finger or two – and lived to tell about it.

    Another time, a friend left something at my house. I put it in a backpack, put it on the back of the 7 year old, and sent him and his 6 year old brother to bike over to return it, a whole 4 blocks away. Then, knowing my friend, I called to say DON’T PANIC – they are supposed to be doing this, and they will be fine. I spend a lot more time reassuring other grownups than I do my kids.

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  35. Jeff September 28, 2008 at 1:32 am #

    The thing about our society’s extreme risk aversion and fear and its “zero tolerance” strategy to handling risk is that zero tolerance *always* results in more risk.

    A little subject I learned in engineering school: feedback. Anything that is “controlled” or “regulated” is controlled by using feedback. You know what you want things to look like so you snatch a view at how things are, “subtract” the two to give you the “error” in reality that needs adjusting.

    The problem is that zero tolerance, by its very definition, seeks to make the error completely and perfectly zero. And what happens to the feedback/control loop then? Poof! You just destroyed. You no longer control anything at all. In fact it can be shown that because of errors and limits in measuring things you lose it long before it really gets to zero.

    So philosophically what does this mean? The hard truth is that you *must* have *some* babies suffocating on plastic bags or drowning in 2 inches of water in pails (yes there’s a statistic tracked for that) to ever even know that there is a problem to control and more to control it!

    The other half of feedback is the presumption that your “ideal” reference to which you compare reality is actually correct. In general “ideals” are distinct from reality for a reason – they don’t happen and should not be expected to (there’s a science joke: “In theory reality is the same as theory, but in reality it’s not”). The point is that we approximate reality with the simplest model possible (it’s cheapest and takes the least work) which is fine until it doesn’t work so it’s important to challenge your assumptions about why you think it should work/be right.

    The biggest “bad ideal” from the zero tolerance corner is an implicit assumption that the world is static or can be kept that way and thus pushed into that perfect and static place if only we eliminated X completely. Tied to this are “ideological models” from left, right, political, economic. In general, if the rule is simple enough to fit on a bumper sticker it’s virtually certain to be wrong and overly simple to the point of dangerous if believed.

    Error happens (or should anyway) and everyone needs to embrace it simply because the universe is not a static entity waiting for us to catch up – it’s dynamic – it changes over time. Wishful thinking that you can avoid error and still control things is no different that wishing away gravity so you can fly. It won’t turn out well.

    This is the point of “Free Range Kids” as far as I can tell (AFAICT).

    The only rational caveat to this is that you want to prioritize risks if you must embrace error. My own take on this to cut them along traditional lines plus one addition: cost/benefit value, probability and reversibility. The first two are the traditional Newtonian risk factors. Ranking risks of otherwise equal equivalent impact and likelihood have to be divided by things you can undo vs. things you can’t.

    Sadly humans, as a species are horrible at assess risk accurately – though that’s not an excuse to simply give up and resort to zero tolerance, which *is* worse. In a complex world risk assessment takes more effort but it’s necessary if you want to live in a complex world. The current economic problems may well solve this issue like cutting the Gordian Knot!

  36. critical thinking October 1, 2008 at 2:07 am #

    Awesome rational summary by the last poster. Pure logic – something lacking in many of todays parents (not to mention politicians, media and business moguls).

  37. critical thinking October 1, 2008 at 2:08 am #

    Here is an enjoyable harkening back to the good old days of reality….and I am not that old….

  38. DaDavid October 31, 2008 at 1:27 am #

    Question: at what age would you let your children watch MM? My daughter is 12 and is fascinated with the 50’s and 60’s, which one of her teachers describes as the modern Renaissance. Due to media and Internet, she is much more savvy in many ways than I was at her age, but as much as I love MM, it’s a distinctly adult, cynical take on the world. I’m inclined to let her watch the show with me and discuss how the world has changed in some ways but not in others.

  39. EdnaKay December 4, 2008 at 7:09 am #

    I watched a whole bunch of R-rated movies when I was a teen and pre-teen, nearly all of them with my parents. Most of these R-rated movies were of the semi-arthouse and/or foreign variety with very little violence but plenty of “adult content.” We talked a lot about the characters and the plots of the movies as well as the morality of choices people made, various situations to avoid, etc.

    I think it was actually quite a positive experience, especially compared to some of my friends whose parents were quite content to let them watch very violent PG-13 movies but had a blanket ban on all R movies.

    There are so many interesting questions that Mad Men brings up, especially for young women. I say go for it!

  40. Karin October 17, 2009 at 12:35 pm #

    Free range? yes. Mad Men? hell no.

  41. Edmond January 7, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

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  42. car review September 9, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

    I think we sometimes think children and teens are the same, too, which in some ways is even worse!