Things were different when I was kid. Solicitous adults did not gently inquire of children "Are you happy?" after giving them something nice (an ice cream cone, a college education, a car). Instead, when I was a kid, surly adults demanded to know "Are you happy now?" after something terrible happened (your ice cream cone fell into the gutter, you failed sophomore math, you moved into the trunk of your car).
I always thought the difference between those two superficially similar statements embodied the difference between the generations.
But I've just learned that young children are now being given a new product to use for their own amusement and as an exercise in creativity. Does it have to do with electronic devices? Is it a new kind of video breakthrough? Perhaps it's a fabulously challenging version of cycling or rock-climbing because our youngsters are now physically strong as well as intellectually enriched?
Not so much.
Here's what I've discovered: Kids are now being given duct tape to play with.
Look, I grew up poor, but nobody ever handed me a roll of industrial grade adhesive and said "Kid, knock yourself out."
We weren't fancy, but we were better than that.
Even on a bad day, somebody had chalk. Somebody had a "Spaldeen" ball. Somewhere lurked a kid who could be teased into sharing her Spirograph.
Yet duct tape is now all the rage. I learned about the new trend when I asked a friend, who'd stopped by with her family for lunch on the way to an annual summer vacation, where she was hiding her eldest daughter. The younger two children were already running around our backyard, playing.
Imagine my surprise when the mom smiled, shrugged and replied, "Oh, she's probably still in the minivan fiddling with her duct tape bracelets."
I almost passed out. My husband and I exchanged desperate looks. Should we call the authorities? Why was my friend's notoriously genial husband going along with this? I blurted "Did you have to use restraints to get her into the car? She's not even an adolescent yet!" Because when I heard "duct tape bracelets" I imagined the phrase was euphemistic, like "cement shoes."
I thought they were doing the "Are you happy now?" version of the family trip where they gave their offspring all kinds of chances to settle down before resorting to extreme measures.
But apparently arts and crafts have replaced Sturm und Drang when it comes to family interaction in modern-day America.
Their lovely, cheerful, delightful daughter emerged happily from the vehicle a few minutes later and showed us with great pride what can only be called — at least in a column she might one day read — an objet d'art.
That's exactly what it was, all right. She'd constructed it from her imagination, a video on a craft site, and approximately 3,748 inches of what turned out to be breathtakingly expensive colored tape.
(That she could have purchase an objet d'art from a "store d'art" for what it cost to make the thing was clearly not a remark that was called for.)
There was no doubt that it took her quite a lot of time and energy to make this impressive flower/pen/wallet/bow and/or bracelet. That, presumably, was the reason for its existence. Either that, or the fact that it could be used as a kind of shillelagh for the Barbie Doll set. Weighing in at some 17 pounds, it might be tough to hide in one's pocket, especially when, for example, on the way to a formal dinner or at an airport's TSA scan, but otherwise it was a jolly enough diminutive bludgeon. Every girl should have one.
I learned much this week: that duct tape is no longer limited to the scary aluminum color I associate with Home Depot, jauntily repaired fenders of older-model cars driven by some of my less dainty acquaintances, and slasher films; that it is now called "Duck Tape"; and that parents need to start putting away a third of their weekly paychecks to help their children express themselves through their (nonironic) making of wallets.
I just hope those young parents and their kids are happy now.
© 2012 Hartford Courant