“What’s the matter with kids today,” again and again and again

Jack Caffery wrote a column about the behavior of today’s kids that was a very good concept which collapsed into conjecture and fuddy-duddyism with one idea: kids are misbehaving because mommy works. 

Uh…probably not.  Except for a relatively brief period between the late ’40’s and the early ’70’s when married women were strongly discouraged from working, many urban moms have worked outside the home.  My paternal grandmother was one; my maternal grandmother refused to work outside the home due to her chronic ill health, but was under constant pressure to do so anyway.

Besides, working outside the home isn’t the only way not to be home.  All this considered, I think we probably have to look for a new cause for our kids’ problems — one that does not automatically point antiquated and misinformed fingers. 

 My theory is that the trouble with kids is that kids are basically trouble.  It has never been any different.  I remember reports of kids displaying severe behavioral problems as far back as the early 1960’s, when most moms answered to the title of “housewife.”  Back then, my first-grade teacher actually retired rather than stay on to teach the next year because the next bunch of kids after our class had already gained a reputation in kindergarten for being insufferable brats.  So this problem is not something recently minted.

But if you want to stick to that tired old argument, consider this: in my job I see a lot of stay-at-home moms; I also see a fair number of stay-at-home dads.  Intact families are the rule, not the exception.  But it doesn’t seem to matter, because most of their kids are brats. 

About half of them discipline their kids.  The other half don’t, and you don’t dare say anything to their darlings, or even look at them funny.  Both camps seem to have trouble with their kids’ behavior. 

One parent told me that part of the problem is that she may sharply discipline her kid at home, but she doesn’t dare in a public place for fear that some busybody will call the police with a claim that she is abusing her child.  Certainly this preys on the minds of lots of parents these days.  And these kids are manipulative: they very quickly learn that there are “safe” places to do whatever the hell they want, and that’s just what they do.  Nowadays, the “safe” place to act out is in public.

Another problem is the opposite of the absentee parent: the “helicopter parent,” the one who hovers over his/her kids’ lives indefinitely, making sure nothing goes wrong for the poor little babies.  Think those people have normal kids?  Guess again — but don’t do it too loud, because mommy or daddy will go running to your boss with a complaint.

So what’s the problem here?  Busybodies, for one.  But busybodies can only thrive in environments where there is little or no agreement about what constitutes acceptable behavior.  And that’s what we’ve got today.

The sort of parents who believe their kids can do no wrong (and you have to agree, or else) need to gain some perspective on the word “community.”  Mostly what I find lacking in these parents is a sense of community.  They desperately want to believe that they are better than anyone else, and separate.  This aggressive fearfulness (which may be in small part caused by the presence of busybodies) and lack of real self-esteem is bullying behavior, not parenting.

Abdication of responsibility is another part of the problem.  I’ve seen parents actually team up with their kids to cause problems where I work.  That has gone on since I can remember, though, even when I was a kid.  There will always be parents who think they are their kids’ best friends, and no older than their kids’ current ages.  These parents arguably never should have had kids in the first place.  But there is nothing you can do with them, except not give them any reward for acting like children.

Part of the cure for under-perfoming parents is to throw out the TV set and the video games, and whatever else is distracting them and their children from the community they live in.  To have empathy for other people, kids have to have contact with actual other people, and not on a TV show where other people are shot, killed, sexually abused, etc., just for entertainment purposes. 

We also have to stop glorifying childhood.  These days it’s almost a career choice.  Back in the day, kids aspired to be adults.  It wasn’t a bad thing except when they were allowed to grow up too soon, which could and did produce tragic results.  Not growing up at all, on the other hand, produces dysfunctional adults — and parents — which is equally tragic.

So you see, fixing the trouble with kids isn’t as simple as Mommy staying home and baking brownies all day.  It’s going to take a whole readjustment of attitudes in our society, and a lack of tolerance for under-performing parents.  We have to realize that kids are not automatically wonderful, functional community members.  The one place where I totally agree with Cafferty is that kids aren’t automatically wonderful at all.  They may be born with “wonderful,” but after that, “wonderful” has to be developed to become apparent in their lives.

They have to have parents who are willing to help get them there, and we have to develop a lack of tolerance for parents who abdicate that responsibility.  Dictating a particular, narrow lifestyle to parents is not going to do it.  Demanding that both parents and kids be responsible not only to themselves, but to their communities…now you may be talking about something.

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