Kids! What’s The Matter With Kids Today?
There’s a trope about parents always thinking whatever generation of kids they happen to be raising is the literal worst. Zoomers, Millennials, Xers, Boomers, the Silent Generation they were singing about in Bye Bye Birdie (Silent is a terrible name for them given that they were the ones shrieking about Elvis Presley). This goes back at least as far as those wacky college kids of the Twenties in their raccoon coats, the brazen young women of that generation wearing colorful flapper shoes instead of the sensible, dowdy ones their predecessors had worn.
Wait, maybe it goes even further back. After all, the famed Gibson Girls of the 1890’s were designed as a backlash against crazy suffragettes and women’s rights activists gaining too much influence over the hearts and minds of young men. And even Ma and Pa Ingalls complained about “those kids”, worrying about Laura cutting her hair into bangs. Believe it or not, young women trimming the hair across the top of their forehead is the origin of the term lunatic fringe; Teddy Roosevelt later co-opted it to mean weirdos living at the edge of society, but originally it was used to criticize a popular teenager hairstyle that is today totally commonplace. The evidence indicates people have been bitching about the insanity of their children dating all the way back to the mid 1800’s, and probably far beyond.
Youthful rebellion is nothing new.
For a long time now, we’ve celebrated the notion of rebellion against the status quo. The idea of people, especially young people, tossing off the shackles of the oppressive old fuddy duddies and embracing whatever ethos is cool and hip -- not because what is cool and hip is popular, but because it is a moral imperative to express yourself, because being repressed KILLS PEOPLE, MAN -- is one of the commonest themes in Hollywood.
A few of the many examples that pop in my head over the course of a few minutes:
The young people have to be allowed to do what they want, man, and live their lives, and do art and sing songs and ride motorcycles and play sports and have adventures and think for themselves and stuff, and the adults/authority figures want to stop them, because they just don’t understand or they’re religious fanatics or they’re old fogeys or they’re living vicariously through their children or they’re Actual Bad Guys like Nurse Rached, but mostly they’re probably just jealous, and people DIE when they can’t express themselves, man, they die on the inside anyways.
Expressing yourself is the highest value in our whole wide world according to many, many movies/books/TV shows of the last half century, and those who stand in the way of that are terrible, awful people even when they’re your parents and you know, ostensibly love you and stuff. Home is the place you have to get away from as quickly as possible because it’s full of OPPRESSORS!! The old ways are bad, man, they’re evil and wrong, and the young people have got to go against the wishes of their families, because it’s the only way they can LIVE!
Then these guys came along and everybody flipped their collective pancakes.
And they weren’t alone. Let’s not forget this guy, who was dumb enough to film himself and get arrested, but reports are that other young people have coughed on produce and other groceries as a prank.
BTW, if you don’t know, young people licking products was a thing even before the coronavirus.
Or worse. Google “Foot Lettuce” if you don’t believe me.
Kinda makes you long for the days of raccoon coats, doesn’t it?
What, oh what, could possibly be wrong with these terrible, terrible youths?? People cried. What could have possibly gone wrong with our precious children? How can it be that in a world full of such marvelous pleasures that our whole world is basically Xanadu even for poor folk like me, kids would be willing to actually risk killing people to have yet another marvelous pleasure like Spring Break, when they’ve already had so many? Youthful rebellion is all well and good when the stuff they’re rebelling against is stuff you don’t like either, like religious fanatics and shotgun-wielding rednecks and beauty pageants and evil nurses, but it’s not so cute when it involves potentially murdering the elderly.
People want to make this about the Zoomers being somehow mortally flawed somehow, probably due to mothers or social media (a generation earlier it would have been mothers and rap lyrics, and a generation before that mothers and Dungeons and Dragons), but I’m willing to admit something -- if this had happened when Gen X was young, there would have been some Xers doing similar stuff, I’m 100% certain of it. I recall my fellow Gen Xers putting chalk in a teacher’s coffee. I remember them hawking loogies into the drinking fountains rendering them impossible to be used, daily, for years, because only losers drank water and they deserved what they got. I remember the time some douche stole my freshman yearbook and wiped his boogers on several of the pages. I remember a mid-90’s episode of the Tom Leykis Show where he had food service workers call in and tell the horrible tales of all the gross things they put in people’s food while working at restaurants.
But at the risk of sounding like Paul Lynde here, while I admit some in my age cohort might have coughed during a pandemic, it’s not something I would have done, that’s for sure (although I must admit I did nothing about the chalk in the teacher’s coffee other than assure myself it couldn’t possibly be toxic since they had it in schools). Those people were outliers while the rest of us, even the relatively edgy ones like me, clucked their tongues in dismay at their behavior. Actually delighting in making people sick, is pretty sick, and yet it would appear that a pretty substantial swath of Zoomers is willing to put fun before social responsibility. We’re talking about a generation who made the hashtag #BoomerRemover trend, a whole lot of whom seemed to take a kind of glee in the thought of old folks dying while they reveled upon the palmiest of beaches. We’re talking about people so convinced that their antics were going to entertain their fellows they filmed themselves licking consumer goods, PUT IT ONLINE rather than hiding it, and were probably shocked silly when they ended up arrested. I mean, everyone knows YOLO, right?? Are those handcuffs, brah?
Thus, while I admit that my generation is by no means innocent, I can’t help but wonder what the eff is going on here. I further do not believe my grandmother’s generation would have behaved this way, despite their proclivity for racy flapper shoes and scandalously short haircuts, and even if they would have, my grandma was too busy surviving the Depression, helping her mother, father, and seven siblings survive the Depression (one didn’t make it), and somehow miraculously going to college at the same time to do much spring break revelry anyway.
What gives? What happened in human culture between 1929 and 2019 that turned youthful rebellion from being about a little harmless raccoon-coat-wearing to being about joyfully killing old people because they had their chance, man?
Some of you may be content to hang out in your safe space with your preconceptions unchallenged and assume that you can blame this on those twin boogeymen “social media” and “bad parenting.” The mother’s fault of course, nothing ever changes.
But I don’t buy that.
I don’t buy it not only because I’ve done scads of research into it and reputable researchers not pushing a political agenda no longer believe that “parenting” is anywhere near as important a determinant on a child’s personality than nature and culture. Some researchers even believe parenting has NO effect on how kids grow up. (That’s why children of immigrants come to America and inside a generation start acting like garden variety all-American buttheads). I don’t buy it because I have looked around the world and watched pretty crummy parents churn out excellent children, devoted ones churn out terrible ones, and a whole lot of parents who did their best by all their children churn out mostly good ones with a terrible one tossed in there apparently for no reason at all. I don’t buy it because I’ve seen too many people rise above situations of heartbreaking abuse and neglect and other people who had every advantage delight in being irredeemable human scum. I don’t buy it because I have five children and every one of them had their exact personality upon emerging from the womb and all I could ever really do was make some well-intentioned suggestions. I don’t buy it because I have seen too many people pat themselves on the back for something that they achieved through sheer luck while picking apart the efforts of those who had less good luck.
Please folks, if you have good kids just hug and appreciate them, don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back for it, because there but for the grace of God go you. If you’ve raised kids to adulthood and haven’t seen several of your friends/family’s kids turning out like utter shitheels even though they’re just as good or bad a parent as you, then you probably live in a culture where kids acting like utter shitheels is frowned upon, you lucky thing you. I know it’s hard to accept when you’ve based your self-image around it, but your good kids are NOT wonderful and lovely because you’re like so totally the best parent ever.* They’re wonderful and lovely because they want to be, and had they grown up in or fallen into a different culture in which being wonderful and lovely was seen as uncool, they may not have wanted to be.
You probably agree with this concept, as shocking as it seems, when it’s applied to other people and not yourself. Of COURSE poor children have a worse outcome than rich children, it’s because poor kids are raised with countless disadvantages, some of which are cultural in nature, such as people around them not valuing education. This is why, some would say, we need early intervention! It is why, some would say, we need Head Start, so we can expose those disadvantaged kids to things they aren’t getting at home, like exposure to written language and seeing functional adults who are “hardworking members of society” unlike those losers who call themselves Mom and Dad. These kids need to be shown how to be “good people” as defined by Upper Middle Class White America -- they should brush their teeth twice a day and they shouldn’t eat junk food because Upper Middle Class White America doesn’t like rotten-toothed fatties. These kids need to learn who to vote for to be sure the planet gets totally saved so future generations can continue to be ruled by Upper Middle Class White America who will need their toilets scrubbed and their lawns mowed and their children to have a nanny. (I disagree, perhaps obviously, as I find this to be an immensely classist and racist set of beliefs, but it is a set of beliefs held by massive numbers of folks both liberal and conservative). It’s ok, I won’t try to talk you out of it. I mention it only to point out that a whole lot of people manage to hold that set of beliefs whilst believing that their children turned out great not because of variances in cultural values but because they did time out instead of butt smacks and because they were always asked about their day.
To sum up -- If you think that other people’s kids turn out bad because of environment and think yours turned out great because you’re just incredibly awesome at raising them, I think you may have some problematic assumptions in need of closer examination.
So let’s go back to the idea of culture as shaper of impressionable youths again. Let’s go back to this idea in particular: Expressing yourself is the highest value in our whole wide world according to many, many movies/books/TV shows of the last half century, and those who stand in the way of self-expression in any way are terrible, awful, repressive people.
Now, some would say that this is true. We should let our children “find their way” and “express themselves” and it’s “bad parenting” to “stand in the way of that.” Because “as we all know” it is a moral imperative to express yourself, because being repressed KILLS PEOPLE, MAN.
This philosophy is all cute and fun when you watch a movie like Coco or Akeela and the Bee where the parents/grandparents are portrayed as lunatics holding ridiculous, nonsensical grudges against guitar playing and spelling (actually come to think of it, I don’t find it cute or fun -- I find it makes legitimate parental concerns such as having an everyday job vs. strumming a guitar look petty, illogical, and small, but I digress). But what about when parents have well-considered reasons for not wanting their kids to do things that are dangerous or morally wrong instead of made-up-Hollywood-bullshit reasons?
In reality, there are plenty of parents who wanted their children to marry/not marry a certain person or join the family business or not become artists/actors/musicians/party animals because they legitimately want what is best for their child and for society and yes, (gasp) even for the family unit as a whole, up to and including Grandma. Even though Hollywood often portrays strict parents as the bad guys, the truth is even in many of these movies I mention, let alone in real life, the parents are just trying to do what they believe to be right both for their children and for everyone involved. In reality, a whole lot of people have said they should have listened to their parents, grandparents, and teachers (I freely admit mine were right about some stuff that I ignored, to my sorrow) instead of being headstrong and following “a young un’s dream of growing up to ride on a freight train leaving town”.
“Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I ignored.” A little different message than “mothers are to blame for literally everything”, isn’t it? Where did that message Merle Haggard heard about leaving home to ride on a freight train even COME from, anyway? It didn’t come from his Mama, that’s for sure. He got it from the culture that surrounded him and the values of that culture meant more to him than anything his mama could have said or done, even though his mama was right all along. It was just that the influences of that culture were stronger than poor Mama was. She tried, and she wasn’t wrong to try. Trying didn’t make her the bad guy because she wasn’t a character in a Pixar movie. It is the job of a parent to try and save their child. Mama wasn’t evil or awful for attempting to quash that young un’s dreams, she was doing the best she could to rescue her boy from a corrupting culture.
In Footloose, remember those terrible repressive Christian parents who forbid dancing?? They were the way they were because their son had been killed when drunk driving and they didn’t want that to happen to anyone else. Understandable. (Footloose is surprisingly nuanced)
In Whip It, remember those terrible repressive Christian parents who didn’t want their daughter to do roller derby? They wanted her to take an SAT class instead, and also roller derby is insanely dangerous. I wouldn’t want my kid doing it either, and if you don’t let your young un play football, you understand the reasons why.
In Bend it Like Beckham, remember those terrible repressive Sikh parents who didn’t want their daughter to play soccer? They wanted her to go to college and become serious about being an adult instead. (This movie is often portrayed like Jess’ parents are oppressing her due to gender/sexism, but I find that to be a mischaracterization to market the movie from a “girl power” angle. BILB is about subverting parental expectations, NOT sexism.)
In Dead Poet’s Society a kid kills himself after a single fight where his father pushes back against the idea that he wants to be an actor (A SINGLE FIGHT). Suicide is portrayed as being heroic, even necessary, and entirely the dad’s fault for not immediately supporting him in this scheme. If my kid suddenly wanted to be an actor, I’d have some hard questions for him, and in fact I believe it good parenting to challenge a young un’s impractical dream.
In Moana, Moana’s parents want her to stay at home because they have reason to believe venturing beyond their island is dangerous. And lo and behold, it is actually dangerous, extremely dangerous. Moana nearly dies several times, but her parents are still portrayed as misguided and repressive for trying to protect Moana so she can survive to lead her tribe in the future. (See also Finding Nemo, Mulan, Tangled, Ratatouille, Brave, The Little Mermaid, and many others. Sure, the parents in these stories may not be perfectly perfect in every way, but they all wanted what they legitimately thought was best for their child, in addition to the rest of their family/society as a whole.)
Even in everyone’s fave Frozen, Elsa’s parents make her wear gloves and stay away from Anna not because they’re big fat meanies who like seeing Elsa miserable, but because they want to protect Anna, the kingdom, and Elsa herself from the consequences of her powers running amok.
In every case the parents’ concerns -- even when totally reasonable, even when simply a part of the heavy lifting and hard work of parenting, a job which requires parents to guide, mold, and protect their children because hey, in case you hadn’t noticed, young uns are freaking idiots, precious SCIENCE (TM!) has proven that their brains aren’t even finished yet -- are portrayed as extreme, repressive, and terrible. But it is a parent’s job to prepare children for growing up, and growing up does not, for most of us, entail a joyful existence playing soccer and roller skating and hanging out in the forest shooting arrows at stuff all day, doing only stuff we want to do. For most of us, adulthood requires, REQUIRES, the setting aside of childish pursuits to focus on doing things for other people -- bosses, family, our spouse, society as a whole -- not to mention unpleasant things we must do for ourselves like exercising, eating kale, not drinking until we puke, and having colonoscopies. Thus I believe it’s kind of a stupid message to send to children that anyone who wants you to do a reasonable amount of adult things instead of playing pretend all day is a bad guy who is literally trying to KILL YOU, MAN.
Check your gut, dear readers. I think you’ll agree that indulgent parents who don’t push their child to grow up at least somewhat, aren’t adequately preparing their child in any way for actual adult life. A parent shouldn’t let their child eat all the candy they want even if it’s the child’s dream to eat candy, right? A parent shouldn’t let their child spend their every waking hour on the Internet with no supervision, isn’t that so? A parent should make a child go to school and do their homework and respect teachers, yes? A parent shouldn’t let their child bully others and steal and beat up their girlfriend or their siblings when they get pissed, even if they really enjoy doing those things. A parent shouldn’t let their child take heroin even if the child really wants to give it a whirl. A parent shouldn’t let their child drink and get behind the wheel of a car. And a parent should not let a child cough on produce during a pandemic. DUH. Parents put reasonable, rational strictures on their offspring for REASONS and many of those reasons are in the job description of being a responsible parent trying to produce a decent member of society.
Remember how we live in a society? And I don’t mean that at all ironically.
In the real world, an overly indulgent parent is just as bad as if not worse than a heavy handed one, and yet it’s very rarely overly indulgent parents who are demonized in Hollywood movies. It’s practically always the parents who expect stuff, even when that stuff is as benign as “please don’t freeze your sister”. According to Hollywood, Elsa’s parents were wrong, wrong, wrong to ask that of her, even though they were trying to protect their other daughter, themselves, and the whole entire kingdom. Well, it’s only a half step from there to “please stay home instead of going to Spring Break because we are trying to protect others from the possibility that you might accidentally hurt them”. Is it any wonder that a whole lot of kids thought “Let it GO, man, cause you gotta express yourself. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong for the adults to ask you to change your ways at all to protect other people! Don’t they know their insane requests are, like, KILLING YOU on the inside?”
Some may argue that it’s not the deliberate intention of Hollywood to send that ridiculous, sinister message to three generations of children, and you are likely right, because never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. In every one of the movies I listed there are complicating, mitigating factors (Mother Gothel in Tangled, for example, was actually a kidnapper with an ulterior motive in keeping Rapunzel locked in her tower for her protection, but she was still a mother figure) that make the parents’ actions worse and the child’s rebellion more justified. But as I wrote about in my piece about how movies (many of which we completely misunderstood) influenced me and others in my age cohort growing up, kids don’t get nuance or subtext or deeper meanings. Kids take a lot of stuff very much at face value, often mistaking cautionary tales as suggestions or even rules to live by.
Hearing “Ignore parents, they don’t have your best interests at heart, they’re shady and selfish and probably jealous of you, they had their day, it’s your time now, and not expressing yourself KILLS PEOPLE, MAN!” nonstop since birth? You can’t tell me this doesn’t have an effect. Culture shapes children, it is inarguable that culture shapes children more than anything their parents teach them (just ask that dude turning 21 in prison doing life without parole despite his Mama’s best efforts) and that is the loudest message the culture has been sending. Not “honor your mother and your father”, not “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, but “your parents and other authority figures do not have your best interests at heart, do what you want to do regardless of the costs.” The Zoomers, more than any other generation, grew up with this message being drummed into their little pea brains again and again with much less Little House on the Prairie and far fewer John Wayne movies to compensate for it. This idea that unless you are able to do whatever you want, every second of every day, well then probably-evil people are repressing you, is freaking toxic.
What’s wrong with kids today? Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re just kids. They took a look around the world and absorbed the loudest message they heard. That isn’t their fault. They are who we made them to be regardless of how hard we Mamas tried to teach them better. They turned out perfectly according to the culture that surrounded them and nurtured their basest instincts. The fault lies up the food chain a ways from these kids, and even beyond the reach of Mama herself (she tried!).
So before you curse the Zoomers, and before you curse their parents (who are all just people EXACTLY LIKE YOU doing the very best they could to raise children in a toxic environment and just had worse luck than you did) take a long hard look at the people who are making the culture, and take a look at yourself for buying into it all. Because even though that beloved “it’s all the parent’s fault” paradigm means you get to blame your own Mommy and Daddy for all the things you hate about your life, it also means everyone gets to blame YOU when your kids decide they just really don’t care too awfully much about some stupid cold that kills old people. It means people get to blame YOU when your kiddos decide that in order to “express themselves” and “live their dreams” they need to get drunk and get laid on a beach somewhere when The Man tells them they should stay home instead because being repressed KILLS PEOPLE, MAN!
On the inside anyway, and as “everyone knows” dying on the inside is just as bad as dying on the outside.
The lesson was learned.
*Even harder to accept is the premise that your personal failings are not actually the fault of your parents. I still struggle with this one sometimes.