What's the Matter with Kids Today?

by Tina Blue
August 8, 2000

We are not born socialized or civilized. Despite the sentimental nonsense we like to spout about how innocent and adorable babies are, the fact is that babies and small children are adorable to serve their own purposes, not ours: to get us to do what they want, and to prevent us from turning on them when their insatiable demands and impulsive, outrageous behavior start to push us over the edge.

      If an adult made even the tiniest portion of the demands a small child makes, or exhibited even a slight degree of a child's selfish, self-absorbed, irresponsible, irrational, uncivilized behavior, we would find that adult insufferably boorish and rude.

If said adult took it further and behaved substantially like an infant or toddler, with the same sense of his own preemptive rights and disregard of the rights of others, the same lack of impulse control or conscience, and the same violent rages (combined with an adult's power to act out such infantile rage), we would call him a sociopathological criminal.

Oh, that's right. Adults now do act like infants and toddlers. Or at least teenagers and young adults do, and to a lesser but still significant degree, so do the baby-boomer parents who have raised today's crop of teens and young adults.

It takes an enormous amount of time, energy, and attention to socialize an infant, to make him fit for human company. Usually that task is accomplished, as nature intended it to be, by the close supervision of the infant by his mother and her close female relatives.

      As the baby becomes a mobile unit, especially after he's past the toddler stage and old enough to start venturing further from his mother and for longer periods of time, the community also has a significant role in teaching the child what is expected from him by the larger social group, both in terms of behavior and in terms of contribution to the group's survival.

Watch a group of mammals in the wild--lions, say, or baboons, gorillas, or chimpanzees--and you will see that the young play very near their mothers, and that the mothers, or other females (for the females hang together as a childrearing social group), are constantly correcting the young, intervening when their disputes get out of hand, or vocally threatening them, chasing them, or cuffing them whenever they get rambunctious enough to seriously annoy the adult females in their vicinity.

Adult males are usually around a fair amount of the time in such mammalian groups, also, and they are despots. The alpha male pretty much gets whatever he wants and whenever he wants it, but he, and other males if such are included in the band, also has some input into helping teach the little ones what boundaries of respect they must not cross. When an adolescent male is large enough and strong enough to be essentially beyond a female's control, and whenever the adolescent's early socializing process doesn't kick in to make him defer to the older female, there is usually an adult male to take the little dickens down a peg or two.

Over time, the young of the band learn to show proper respect to their superiors and to contribute to the group's food gathering/hunting activities and to their protection against outside threats. Young who cannot learn their proper role, who persistently violate standards of behavior, are either killed or driven off to survive on their own or, more likely, to die.

We don't just kill children when they annoy us too often--or at least we don't sanction killing them. But we also no longer make any "group-wide" effort to make sure that children in our society are properly socialized, or that they learn what they "owe" to others--or what sort of behavior will not be tolerated by those who have the power to seriously knock them down if they cross the line in the wrong place or in the wrong company.

In the United States, childrearing by families has become a strangely isolated activity. Mothers who raise their children themselves, rather than dropping them off with a babysitter so that they can work at a job, are often lonely and desperate. Their children are isolated in the home during their younger years and are bored and restless, and thus overwhelmingly demanding. The mother is driven to the point of insanity by being cooped up all day with her bored children, with only brief respite in the form of trips out into the world--usually to parks, store, libraries, or fast food restaurants.

Since raising one's own children is so difficult under such circumstances, and since there is no status or pay associated with raising one's own children, it is no wonder that so many women choose to leave their offspring with strangers, which is after all what leaving a child in a daycare amounts to.

These substitute caregivers are poorly paid, overworked, and largely lacking in either the skills or the patience to handle the obnoxious behavior of the very young; and since these are not their own young, they lack the instinctive attachment that would make training the children and preparing them for success as adults a personal priority.

As a result, huge numbers of America's children are being raise in "kiddie ghettoes," by adults whose main concern is to keep them quiet or distracted, not to socialize them or to civilize them.

Even large daycares and preschools with supposedly good reputations usually hire very young, poorly trained, and poorly paid "teachers" to take care of children segregated by age-group in the school or center. These "teachers" have a high rate of turnover, so there is little real bonding between them and the children they take care of.

Also, in professional daycare situations, the children stay in a given "room" only until they reach the age that allows them to move up to the next "room." Thus, an infant moves to a new group at eighteen months, and to yet another group at three years, etc. There is no opportunity to establish the sort of long-term relationship with a specific adult that facilitates a child's social development.

Nowadays, even though parents have to a large degree abdicated their responsibility for socializing their own children, they are still very tender of their children's feelings, at least where the influence of other adults is concerned. The parent may not be able to stand his or her little darling's company for any length of time, but just watch what happens when the person who spends hours in the child's company attempts to correct or discipline the child, or to cross the child's will in any way.

Or even out in the wide world, if an adult other than the child's parents were to suggest to a child that he should not shriek or run around and throw things in a restaurant or theater, or that he should not throw candy wrappers or drink cups on the ground at the park, the parents would immediately step in, outraged, to tell the stranger to mind her own business.

Having been that meddlesome stranger on many occasions myself, I know how angry parents can get if anyone attempts to exert a socializing influence on their children, even when the child's behavior in public is clearly antisocial or even dangerous.

So who is teaching children manners? Who is teaching them that when they grow up they will have to live among other people, and no one will be as concerned as their babysitters and teachers were required to be if they don't enjoy the work they are asked to do, or if their tummy hurts, or if they are too tired to get up and go to work after an all-night party, or if they don't like being bossed around by someone, even if that person happens to be their--well--their boss?

When a typical American teenager gets a job, he is often outraged that he is expected to be polite to his boss or to the customers (mostly their jobs are in the service industry, of course), and that he can't get off work whenever there is something he'd rather be doing. Furthermore, he figures what he earns is his own money, to be spent on whatever he wants. He doesn't even consider the possibility that he might contribute to the family income and thus take some of the burden off the shoulders of his struggling parents.

And if the job doesn't please him, for whatever reason, he just quits. It's not an important job or a great job, and he can always get another if he needs some spending money anyway. But certainly he should not be expected to work if he doesn't feel like it or doesn't like the job.

      Even now I am sometimes surprised at the sort of language young people use these days around adults. When I was growing up, it was very unusual for people to use foul language in the presence of their elders. Now it's commonplace.

The young people may not even intend disrespect. They often don't recognize the use of such language as a form of disrespect, because cursing is so much a part of popular culture that it just seems ordinary and normal to children who have been raised hearing curse words even in PG movies.

       Ater all, what is considered normal and acceptable in our society is to a large degree determined by a media-driven popular culture. When children grow up almost entirely in the company of their peers, with little shaping influence from adults, and when all of them are getting their behavioral models and values from popular culture, then the fact that popular culture espouses antisocial values and generally destructive and self-centered behavior should be a matter of serious concern.

And when a significant number of society's children--and here I refer to the most disadvantaged and least guided children in our society--grow up in intolerable poverty among drug- and alcohol-wasted adults who have no jobs, no hope, and no thought for anything beyond their next fix, and these same children are exposed to a popular culture that glorifies murder, mayhem, and the rule of the aggressive, self-assertive individual against the mores of society as a whole, then we should not be surprised that such children carry their infantile aggressiveness and unsocialized attitudes into adulthood.

Physically a teenager is an adult, and unlike a two-year-old, a teenager having a tantrum because he didn't get what he wanted--and the wants of the very young are endless and usually unreasonable--may well have access to a weapon, or may be able to stomp you into the pavement without one.

It is no surprise that the inner cities have become war zones. If the children in the toddler room of your local La Petite Academy, undisciplined and uncivilized as they are, could get guns at the moment of their greatest rage, they would kill you, they would kill the child who stole their crayons, and they would blast out the windows and shoot up the furniture.

      Fortunately, those children are still small enough that they are unlikely to do anyone any serious harm--yet. And fortunately, we do exert some control over most of our children--not enough, but some. But for many of our society's children, no one is exerting any civilizing influence, and juvenile crime is a predictable consequence of that state of affairs.

A sociopathological criminal is an adult with the infantile expectations, demands, rages, and frustrations of a two-year-old, but with an adult's power to act on those feelings, and no adult ability to control his impulses. We have a lot of those sociopaths these days, and we're scared to death of them.

      Unfortunately, their behaviors are at the extreme range of a type of attitude and behavior that we see all too often even in our "normal" children: I want what I want, I want it now, I don't want to do anything I don't feel like doing, and you'd better show me respect, but don't expect me to show you any. It's an extraordinary sense of entitlement, and it fuels extraordinary behavior when the individual's desires are frustrated.

Of course, our children didn't grow up like this by accident. My generation, the baby-boomers, were already pretty spoiled by the time we had our children. We were so busy finding ourselves, following our bliss, doing our own thing, and fulfilling our own potential, that we didn't think what we owed our children. We neglected to raise them to be happy, well-adjusted, properly socialized and civilized adults, because we couldn't spare the time or energy from our own pursuits to devote it to our children.

We gave them what we thought they wanted so they would shut up and leave us alone to pursue what we thought we wanted.
*For more on this subject read "American Kids Really Have Changed."
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