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The Great Divide: Swimming Against the Tide in Suburbia

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On one of those rain-forest July days, my daughter wanted to ride her scooter. We drove to Nyack Memorial Park on the Hudson riverfront. "Crap," I said when I spotted the red-and-yellow tent. I had forgotten the Amazing Grace Circus was still going on.

Children holding cotton candy were milling outside the enclosure, lining up to see acrobats and clowns and Millie the Elephant. We parked anyway so my daughter could zip around. "I don't understand why people think it is okay to abuse animals," I said, shaking my head. "I know," my husband replied. "If they only knew how these animals are treated."

My daughter waltzed past the tent. She didn't ask to go in, even though she has never been to the circus. She knows her family has different rules, and for now, she is in our fold.

In time she may end up on the psychiatrist's couch lamenting her parents' strident ideologies but at seven she accepts that chaining an elephant and asking her to do tricks for the sake of human amusement is a grotesque imposition.

Every summer we visit the Catskill Animal Sanctuary in Saugerties. This is a karmic haven for 1,500 farm animals that have been rescued from unspeakable circumstances. You can sit in the turkey enclosure or kiss a 1,000-pound pig or pull down leaves off the willow trees and feed goats. Many of the animals roam free. It is not a petting zoo. It is not a zoo. We don't visit zoos. It is a place where every animal has a story.

Decisions like shunning the circus are not easy. As a child I was taken to the circus but somewhere along the way I developed deep empathy for animals. I don't blame my parents for not knowing better. But I do. I can't in good conscience teach my child that using circus animals is an acceptable form of entertainment.

Not playing by the rules is dicey in suburbia where children are raised in a culture of uniformity. I don't let my daughter go to birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese or eat cafeteria school food or watch television during the week. This makes her different. This makes us different.

Nothing says "suburban childhood" more than the birthday party at a play space in the shopping strip. You bring your daughter to the party of a child she barely knows. Shoes and socks off, she is ejected into a room filled with things she can bounce, roll, jump and climb on. Deafening music roars over squeals. I get a lump in my throat every time I stand on the sidelines and wait for the party to wind down with cold pizza, white-frosted birthday cake and a goodie bag. I remember birthday parties in my basement. My mother, sister and I spent days preparing for it: stringing the colorful Happy Birthday sign across the room, laying out the long narrow table with paper plates and pointy party hats, preparing the games. Today's children's parties remind me of zoos where habituated animals move in rote patterns day after day because that's what they've learned to do.

Fall for us is not the beginning of soccer practice or T-ball or gymnastics. We hike the Gunks or visit the Met or we do whatever we feel like doing that day. This is different. We are not scheduled. This is not how it is in suburbia. When left to her devices my daughter creates whimsical art with paper or she builds Lego that would make Frank Lloyd Wright wink.

I became a parent at 40. I had watched others and decided I wanted to give my child freedom to be who she might be. No flashcards. No force-feeding her to read by age three or four. No choosing her friends. I did not want to raise a monkey grinder, though of course I realize I've inculcated her with my strong notions about what I think is right and wrong.

The other day we were on the beach. Lots of tow-headed kids were digging for clams and putting them in watery buckets. My daughter could not understand how they could be so cruel as to snatch these creatures from the sea and cart them away to be eaten. Neither could I.

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