Parents left in the lurch

Posted Nov. 28, 2010, at 6:29 p.m.

Spoiler alert: This column is not intended for children. Some names, slogans and jingles have been removed or changed to protect the innocence (yes, innocence).

In the late 1990s, Sears came out with a new ad campaign. Meant to lure female shoppers looking for something other than power tools, the commercials sang, “Come see the softer side of Sears.” I was only 20, but even then, I recognized this as genius marketing.

For the first time in my life, I considered Sears as a place to go for things besides my dad’s Father’s Day present. Sure, it still wasn’t high on my list of shopping destinations, but it had entered the realm of possibilities.

In 1997, I met one of the people involved with developing the Softer Side ad campaign. He was part of a group, which included Bob Vila, that had come to visit USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier in Norfolk, Va., when my dad was the commanding officer of that ship. Never mind Vila; I was star-struck to meet my advertising idol, the man who had been part of the team who reframed Sears as softer, less power-tools-ish.

“Sears is genius,” I told him. “The ‘softer side’ is the most clever marketing idea ever. I hum the tune all the time!”

The man and his team blushed with pride. After all, as their likely target demographic, I was proof that their campaign had succeeded.

I take it all back now.

Remove from the record every positive thing I have ever said about Sears. Last week, the company broke my heart.

But they weren’t alone.

It started when my son saw an advertisement in the newspaper that highlighted a certain type of gift. Something that is a stuffer, if you will.

“Why would anyone reading the newspaper need to buy those?” asked Ford, who was then just days away from turning 10 years old.

I ignored Ford’s prodding, pretending not to listen, while secretly cursing every retailer who advertises with these key phrases that ruin parents’ years of deliberate planning and plotting.

On the way home from Target a few days later, Ford asked the question. Yes, that one. My ears turned hot with panic. I made myself busy adjusting the heat and changing the radio station.

But finally, because Owen, then 7 and nowhere near the point of questioning, was in the back seat, I said, “Yes, yes, yes, of course.”

Ford said, “Yeah, you and Dad wouldn’t have enough money for that anyway.”

I’d like to think I’m prepared for all the tough parenting questions — this one, plus “How do babies get in a mom’s stomach?” and “Why did you flush my fish down the toilet?” — but the problem is that my kids bring these up at the most inopportune times. For instance, the middle of the grocery store is not the place to have “the (other) talk,” so recently, when Ford asked how babies are born, I reluctantly told him, as I examined a can of pumpkin, “It just happens, I don’t know.”

Good question; bad timing.

There are some questions, however, that I intended never to answer. Ahem, you know, that one. Like my own mother had done for me, I planned to smile playfully and carry on.

On the eve of Ford’s 10th birthday, I had been at my friend Susan’s house for a visit. When I came home, Dustin pulled me into the kitchen.

“I think I just confirmed something by not denying it,” he said.

I set my jaw and narrowed my eyes. “Confirmed what?” I asked coolly.

“It’s Sears’ fault,” Dustin said. “They’ve got this new ad campaign, and well, he saw it. And then he asked. And I think I might have smiled or something. We were watching football; what was I supposed to do?”

“You were supposed to lie,” I said, tears already filling up my eyes. And then: “What ad campaign? It’s not the ‘softer side’ anymore?”

“Not during football, at least.”

I was so mad at Dustin, I would have liked to send him on a voluntary deployment. But then, when the fury passed, I realized he was caught off guard in the same way that I was in the grocery store. So I redirected my anger at Sears and put them on my naughty list.

That night, I had the talk with Ford. The fact that this happened the day before his 10th birthday made it even more bittersweet. We were sitting alone together in his room. When I was finished undoing years worth of fibbing and theatrics, I was tempted to add, “Got anything else you need answers for? Because I’d rather you ask now, and not the next time we are in line at the movie theater or something.” But the look on my son’s face told me that he had enough to contemplate for one night.

When Dustin and I were going to bed, I cried about the public robbing my children of their innocence at an alarmingly faster rate each year. Can’t anything be left for parents anymore? Shouldn’t we be allowed to deflect questions (“Where do babies come from?”) and provide meaningless answers (“a stork”) for as long as we wish, or until we find that perfect, secluded moment to have a serious talk?

Or do I need to raise my children in a bubble, completely untainted by outside influences? Because, you know, it could be done. If history is any indication, I could easily convince my children of virtually anything.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her book, “I’m Just Saying …”, is in stores now. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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