It is damned tough to be a kid growing up in today's America. According to the Monitoring the Future Study, an ongoing survey of eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders, kids do fewer recreational (read: illegal) drugs, drink less booze, and smoke fewer cigarettes than their counterparts did 30 years ago. (It was not for nothing that last year's remake of the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears substituted nonalcoholic beer for the real thing in the movie's final celebratory scene.) Fewer of them are having sex, too, says the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (and in a world with less drugs, booze, and smokes, what little sex they are having must be diminished too). They start school earlier and go longer than ever before.
Perhaps most chillingly, scholars at the University of Michigan Survey Research Center have documented a stunning decline in unstructured, unorganized "free time," with kids losing a dozen hours a week of unfettered hang time since the late '70s. As any pint-sized Pete Rose could tell you, time in organized sports has doubled during the same period and, as a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette account grimly notes, "the amount of homework increased dramatically between 1981 and 1997.…The amount given to 6- to 8-year-olds tripled during that time." Suffer the little children (and, in this case at least, their parents)!
Forget for the moment that today's kids will live longer and richer lives (the bastards). And that they face a future overstuffed with options when it comes to education, work arrangements, and lifestyle choices. Childhood has in some serious way been stripped of its wonderful aimlessness, of shapeless, formless, and seemingly endless days and nights spent whiling away the time doing nothing that will help you get a Rhodes Scholarship or first-round venture capital for a start-up. Between the Baby Einstein DVDs and the Reader Rabbit computer games, between the increasing amount of obligatory "volunteer work" and the fast-becoming-mandatory SAT prep classes, kids are now effectively on the career track by the time they step out of Pampers.
Into the open-air prison that is contemporary childhood come two recent books—just in time, God help us all, for the midterm elections later this year—designed to root out and crush the last few remaining vestiges of carefree youth. Why Mommy Is a Democrat and Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed! are misguided—and, one hopes, unread—attempts to politicize and indoctrinate tykes, to force future voters to choose between Red and Blue America.
Why Mommy Is a Democrat, available online at littledemocrats.net, advertises itself as "a different kind of children's book," and that it is—a really bad kind that manages to insult the intelligence even of late-term fetuses, much less toddlers. It pairs drawings of what appears to be a single-mother squirrel and her two offspring with mindless platitudes that ascribe all that is good and decent to the party of West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd.
"Democrats make sure we are nice to people who are different, just like Mommy does," explains one lesson. "Democrats make sure sick people are able to see a doctor, just like Mommy does," says another. "Democrats make sure we all share our toys," threatens a third. You don't need to be Phyllis Schlafly to wonder just where the hell the daddy squirrel has gone in this scenario, which reads like a Republican parody of Democratic devotion to a gratuitously feminized social welfare state. (Where have you gone, Otto von Bismarck?)
Indeed, Why Mommy Is a Democrat, though ostensibly written by "lifelong Democrat and political activist" Jeremy Zilber, has the feel of a GOP black-bag job. Karl Rove is supposed to be a political genius, isn't he? Despite (or perhaps because of) endorsements from such low-wattage pols as the mayor of Columbus, Ohio, and a Utah state senator, this book can't possibly be helping the Dems take back the night, much less the White House or Congress, from the Republicans.
Give Zilber this much credit: At least he put his actual name on his book. "Katharine DeBrecht is the pen name for a mother of three," we learn in the credits for Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed! The reason for the pseudonym will become immediately clear to children of all ages who struggle to finish this slim, illustrated allegory. Help! Mom! tells the tale of young brothers Tommy and Lou, who live "in a small house, on a small street, in a small neighborhood, in a small city, in the great USA."
After the boys' parents refuse to buy them a swing set ("Mom and Dad always told them that having everything given to them would not make them feel good about themselves"), they decide to start a lemonade stand to earn the money.
Before they do, they have a nightmare in which they become small business owners in "a very strange place called Liberaland." Once the boys' lemonade business is booming, "Mayor Leach" (get it?) comes around and squeezes them with a 50 percent tax. Next up is "Mr. Fussman" of the "Liberaland Civil Liberties Union" (haw haw haw!), who is offended by the picture of Jesus the brothers hang on their stand and demands they replace with it a picture of a big toe.
Before you know it, a Hillaryesque "Congresswoman Clunkton" is demanding the boys force broccoli on all customers. And so on, until at last the lemonade stand is seized by the state and run into the ground. Luckily, the boys wake up and their long, nationalized lemonade nightmare is revealed as simply a bad dream. (Alas, Help! Mom! offers no succor to those of us living under a conservative president and Congress which, as Bruce Bartlett points out in Impostor, has jacked regulation and spending to unprecedented levels.) Arguably the most terrifying moment is the book's parting admonition to "be on the lookout for future Help! Mom! adventures in stores soon."
Unlike "DeBrecht," Jeremy Zilber makes no mention of potential future entries in the Why Mommy franchise, but even if the seemingly inevitable Why Heather's Two Mommies Are Democrats fails to light up the remainder table at Borders, both these books are dismal enough to wilt the cowlicks of innumerable latter-day Alfalfas. While such unseemly and self-congratulatory attempts at partisan indoctrination may not qualify as child abuse in the same way that Palestinian parents dressing their kids up as suicide bombers does, there is something stomach-turning about it all. That's not simply because of the grandiose smugness displayed on every page of these books.
If kids really are increasingly under a form of social lockdown, there is something truly depressing about stealing from them the few minutes they have to themselves these days to sermonize on politics. In an America in which party affiliations are for self-evident reasons growing ever weaker—and in which life expectancy at birth is now close to 78 years and climbing—there will be plenty of time for kids to learn exactly why they hate the Tom DeLays, Nancy Pelosis, Bill Frists, and Harry Reids of the world. Why the rush to rob them of one of the great and continuing joys of adulthood?