Saturday, June 23, 2012

Your Moral Outrage Over Kids These Days is Wrong

"The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for 
authority, they show disrespect to their elders.... They no longer 
rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, 
chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their 
legs, and are tyrants over their teachers." 

-Unverifiable quote by Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Hesiod, "an old monk", as Assyrian cuneiform table, ancient Egyptian papyrus, or possibly just "some guy"
The disgusting treatment of Karen Huff Klein (I'll take this opportunity to bravely state my opinion on school kids torturing elderly bus aids with cruel, filthy taunts and shocking threats of violence.  I'm against it.) has ignited the latest round of handwringing about how today's awful parents are raising a generation of entitled, violent, predatory supervillains who are incapable of compassion, empathy, respect or even common decency.  Maybe if this didn't trigger my stab reflex so much, I could see the existential beauty in an unbreakable chain of bitter old curmudgeons shaking their heads and repeating this sanctimonious, asinine line from generation to generation.  A lesser line would have lost its relevance long ago, yet this one perseveres, virtually unchanged.  But perhaps it hasn't lost its relevance because it was never relevant in the first place.  
I can't be the only person on earth who read and reread my "Little House on the Prairie" books until they fell apart. Remember the way Laura's students treated her? As a matter of fact, Laura wasn't exactly falling all over herself with respect for her own teacher and future sister-in-law--ooops!  In "Farmer Boy" a bunch of boys at Almanzo's school beat a teacher to death and not only faced no legal consequences, but kept on attending school.  That certainly would not fly now.  Almanzo, the son of upper middle class farmers, attended a school that could rival any impoverished, inner-city American learning institution at present. I understand that these books are somewhat fictionalized, but she wrote those things because they were conceivable to her. 
Mitt Romney's little "prank" would have gotten him expelled and quite possibly arrested if he'd pulled it 30 years later in my high school. He wouldn't have had the luxury of forgetting, because the consequences would have rendered the incident unforgettable.  
Being violent and cruel to our fellow human beings isn't new. While some behavior is tolerated that wouldn't have been in the past, I would argue that the things we let slide in our modern world are comparatively very trivial and perhaps even necessary for creating a better world, which is what we are doing.  There are also things we come down harder on than ever before. It's not "kids these days". We aren't a culture of unprecedented jerks--if anything, we're some of the nicest people there have ever been.  
No, but the past!  In the past, kids weren't allowed to sass their elders!  You may be right--sass appears to have been quite the offense in the good old days.  Sass could get you smacked eight ways to Sunday.  Why can't I live in a Utopia like that instead of this post-apocalyptic hell, with its horrific modern sewer system.  What have we done do to deserve the unspeakable horrors we middle to upper class citizens of the first world are asked to endure on a daily basis?  The civil rights, the coddling of cancer patients with that pansy "chemotherapy", the effective birth control.  It's a nightmare.  But no, I totally love all that stuff!  It's the treating children sort of like human beings that I can't stand.  Let's keep all that other stuff but just go back to knuckle rapping and dunce caps.  Because sure, it's all fun and games now, but mark my words--when these little monsters grow up, we are doomed!  
So sass wouldn't have gone over well 50, 100, 200 years ago.  But riddle me this--while a white child on a plantation in Mississippi in 1850 may have been subject to quite the beating if they were rude to Father, was the standard penalty for being rude to the enslaved adults living in a shack on their property the same?  In 14th century France, did the adults come down hard on gangs of kids tormenting the local hunchback? Welcome to 1943 - can  I offer you some Jim Crow and an iron lung? No, no, don't try to politely refuse. I insist.

Do we have any trouble imagining that rich kids from powerful families acting shamefully toward the lower-class adults in their lives was and is common worldwide, and always has been? If anything, it is less acceptable now than ever. 
There was less tolerance for disrespect toward "people" in the past only because there was a narrower definition of what constituted a person. When you say that children don't respect adults anymore, you're saying "Children don't respect important adults, like me."
People from the past burned witches and watched their neighbors tortured to death in public. They enslaved other human beings and made life much worse for women and gay people than we do now (we have a long way to go, I won't deny that, but we're getting better).  Of course there have been exceptions.  Both individuals and entire cultures have bucked the human tradition of being horrible.  But while I know how much you admire them, there's no easy way to say this.  So I'll put it bluntly.  As a unit, these people sucked.  Yet knowing all that, we still continue to romanticize the past, seeming to assume that 500 years ago we would have been royalty rather than serfs. 
Lest I be too hard on them, people in dire situations have to be harder on their children, both for their children's safety and their own sanity.  There's not a lot of margin for error when there's a real possibility of your child being eaten by a lion, crucified, or lynched if they don't toe the line.  In cultures where there isn't a general expectation that children will live past the age of five, parents have to brace themselves and not get too attached.  
It's not lost on me that life is still brutal for billions of people worldwide.  We have a lot of work to do.  One could also argue that we have simply directed our viciousness at the earth instead of each other.  You have a point, but I suspect that human beings from the past would have been even less able to handle having the technology to destroy an entire planet than we are.  
Perhaps people form the idea that children and parents are out of control "these days" because they are comparing their own memories of their childhoods as they experienced them as a child to what they observe now, through the eyes of an adult.  I am speaking from a very culturally biased place--I know that.  But this way of thinking seems especially absurd now, when many of the adults doing the complaining are from a generation that took place after the cultural shift that made all intelligent and decent people accept that women, racial minorities, gay people and yes, children also merit the illustrious title of "person".  Kids these days know that their teachers will be in trouble if they hit them or severely belittle them.  Guess what?  I knew that, too.  But children are different!  How dare you compare any of those other groups to children?  Yes, they are.  That is why there hasn't been any serious movement to treat children exactly the same way we treat adults.  But they still deserve better treatment than they were given in the past.  
Go ahead.  Make my day.  Tell me that my fellow parents and I are raising an army of coddled sociopaths with our unique blend of being too nice to our kids and treating the rest of the world with utter disregard.  I dare you.  "Kids these days" has been repeated by everyone over the age 15 since the dawn of recorded history. They grow up so fast.  The generation of kids you're railing against now will be saying the same thing before you know it.   Then, and only then, will I want to smack them.  But I won't, because I was raised to believe that smacking other people is not my right.  


  1. Just read an article about how parenting styles from previous generations don't work on our kids because our society is different. The move away from autocratic parenting follows the move away from the autocratic model in general, in the workplace, in the home, etc. It was quite the a-ha moment.

  2. I think that's exactly it. Not being overly harsh with children is one element of an entire value system which I think most people more or less prefer over less egalitarian models from the past. We are raising the bar as far as how we treat people in general, and kids are part and parcel with that.