Advice Squad

It happens, occasionally, in the middle of the night. I wake up screaming in fear that someone might one day mistake this space for some kind of advice column.

This has yet to occur, thank God. But it could. If anyone can mistake Alan Thicke for an entertainer or John Tower for a prize bedmate, there's no telling the potential for gross public error.

It should be obvious to faithful readers (Hello? Hell-ooooo???) that I am groping my way through parenthood with the gracelessness of any first-timer. If my kid somehow makes the segue into happy, well-adjusted adulthood, I'll be thrilled--but I won't be lining up for any handshakes as I dispense the secrets of my success.

We all know seemingly perfect individuals who were raised by lunatics, and we all know lunatics who were brought up by saints. Remember when John Hinckley's folks were forced into the national limelight? A sweeter, nicer, more understanding set of procreators I have never seen. Yet the apple of their eyes was a walking, gun-fanning, star-struck box of Froot Loops. So who gets the credit for that piece of work? As tough as the world has been on Mr. and Mrs. Hinckley, it would have been tougher if, at any time in their lives, they set themselves up to friends and neighbors as child-rearing experts. People tend to remember those kinds of claims, and they can't wait to throw them back at you as you're rerouting your child's mail to Sing Sing.

Therefore, I have no advice to offer new, expectant or experienced parents.

I do, however, have some suggestions. And I recently proffered one to a friend who's facing a dilemma all us moms and dads may have to deal with one dark and stormy day. Her son is in his early thirties, barely employed and always one money-order away from homelessness. Whenever the landlord comes a-knockin', or his car breaks down, or he gets a speeding ticket, or he needs new clothes to interview for a job he's hilariously unqualified to land, he grovels toward Mommy and Daddy for cash and/or another rent-free lease agreement on his old room.

He promises to repay every cent, of course. And, of course, since he enjoys being barely employed, he never coughs up a cent. Still, Mom keeps playing Instant Teller, pumping out crisp, unmarked bills with a forced smile, trying and failing to keep from feeling used by someone she loves.

Why does this woman allow such customers in her bank? "He's my baby! What am I going to do? Let him starve/go to jail/live in a cardboard box/lose his car/dress shabbily for job interviews that never pan out?" My response: "You betchum, Red Ryder."

Look. Nowhere in the release papers you sign at the maternity ward does it say your kid's problems are your problems for life. In fact, it is believed by most rational lawmakers that when a human being turns 18 or 21, he or she is an adult first, and somebody's baby second.

This doesn't mean 18- to 21-year-olds are ready for adulthood. It means the time is ripe for them to start learning how the real world operates--a process that isn't speeded up by loving, well-meaning parents who operate 24-hour Banking, Rescue, and Support Services. I mean, c'mon! Where does it stop? With "Your Honor, this is my baby! Strap me into the electric chair"?

My son is only three, so perhaps my song will change in fifteen or twenty years. But here are the lyrics, sung to the tune of "I'm Gonna Wash That Kid Right Outta My Hair": The moment a human being extinguishes the eighteenth candle on his birthday cake, he should be thrown out on the street to catch up with reality, cold-turkey style. If within the next ten years you catch him skulking toward your house with an open palm, fire two warning shots. If he fails to retreat, shoot him in the leg.

Once it dawns on him that Mom and Dad mean business, I've got five bucks that says Sonny Boy will find a job, he will make his rent, he will keep his car, he will learn how to save money and make withdrawals from his own damned bank account.

After a while, he might even work his way through college. And he probably won't waste time or tuition on the kind of degree that makes prospective employers giggle and wish you the very best of luck.

Now, your man-child might limp as he does all this. But he'll do it. And when he appears to have matured into an independent, self-sufficient grown-up, welcome him back into your home with open arms. Should he interrupt your hug with a request for cash or his old room, shoot him in the other leg, then bar him from the neighborhood for another couple of years. Now, you've got yourself a family member you can proudly call "Son" instead of "Moochie."

Remember, these are merely suggestions . . . except for the part involving bullets. Now that I think about it, that is advice.

Where does it stop? With "Your Honor, this is my baby! Strap me into the electric chair"?