Bong Baby: Why America Is So Fascinated With Bad Parenting

Jeanne Sager

bong babyThe stories of babies with bongs, smoking babies, bikini-clad gyrating 7-year-olds, and mini drugged up dental patients are the Internet's version of screaming, "Justin Bieber's here!" to a crowd of tween girls.

Instant panic mode.

Parents offering to call child protective services.

Parents offering their own take on what they would do. And why they would never, ever, ever do that to their blessed angel.

But is all this terrible roaring and gnashing of teeth really about those blessed babies? Or is it about the ultra-American drive to not just keep up with the Joneses but show them how much better you're doing -- usually through the prowess of your baby genius?

"American culture focuses heavily on the right and wrong way to parent -- I think a lot of it is driven by the confusion of cultures and individuality in our society," explains Tina Tessina, a California psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex, and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage.

"I think our Puritan-originated culture has given us a general feeling of entitlement to express our opinion about other people's parenting," Tessina adds. 

With the speed that these stories go viral, parents don't wait for facts before lashing out. Take the "drinking baby" at the Phillies game. Could he have been holding an empty bottle? Could his parents have snatched it from his hands just when they realized what was going on? Could it have been handed to him by another drunken fan?

There was no questioning before the hordes of baby savers moved in.

"This is the usual way with gossip, which is what the backlash really is -- a lot of talk and opinions based on very little fact," says Tessina. "And reaction with very little thought has been exacerbated recently by the 'instant feedback' aspect of the Internet."

Ada Calhoun saw it on a daily basis as the founding editor-in-chief of, an Internet parenting site (where I once worked and Calhoun was once my boss).

The author of Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids, Calhoun wrote on Broadsheet this week about the trumped up reaction to the little girls in skimpy clothes dancing to "Single Ladies," successfully eviscerating the sanctimommy attitude.

Calhoun told The Stir she sees a broad disconnect between the American idealized parenting and the reality.

"Our ideal: Babies are pristine, angelic creatures and pregnant mothers are holy vessels, and nothing but nectar and ambrosia must touch their lips," Calhoun says. "Reality: You only wanted to eat grilled cheese sandwiches the first month of your pregnancy and you let your baby suck on probably-lead-containing keys to buy you five minutes of quiet at the bank."

Now the problem -- the lofty ideas of what "should be" doesn't disappear as reality sets in. If anything it becomes fanatical as parents push the dream version on to situations beyond their own.

"Smoking or drinking babies is the total extreme-nightmare repudiation of the Ambrosia and Nectar Fallacy," Calhoun notes. "I would never argue that people shouldn't be freaked out by smoking, drinking babies. Babies should not smoke and drink, okay? 

"But I think we should all realize that there is a vast spectrum of okay food and drink for babies and pregnant mothers. Cigarettes may not be on that spectrum, but plenty of other stuff we get judgey about is."

So is this only an American problem?

Not exactly.

"Child-rearing practices vary widely around the world, but the impulse to judge others is a universal human trait," says Dr. Adrian McIntyre, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Our own cultural assumptions and habits are often invisible to us, like water to a fish. This negative backlash is not particularly American, although this is a country where everyone loves a spectacle, and people vie for front-row seats at a train wreck. The comments section of online news, video, and blog sites provides a virtual soapbox for people to express their disparaging views of how others raise their children.

"But it's important not to conflate the online opinions of these ‘instant pundits’ with objective data about what they actually do at home," he reiterates. "The relatively anonymous nature of the Internet does not prevent hypocrisy, it enables it."


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