American Kids Really Have Changed

by Tina Blue
August 11, 2003

Lisa, a 19-year-old friend of mine who has always loved children, and who since age 12 has babysat regularly as her primary source of income, just gave up babysitting--permanently.  Her reasons are the same as those that caused me to close my home daycare in 1999, after 18 years of operation.

Partly we just didn't want to deal with the parents anymore.  Sure, some of the parents were absolutely wonderful.  But all too many were outrageously exploitative.  They demand far more than is reasonable and pay far too little--if they bother to pay at all.  You'd be surprised at how many parents delay paying their babysitters, or try to stiff them altogether.

Parents are also often lazy and weak where their children are concerned.  It's very difficult to potty-train a child when the parents leave her in pull-ups day and night whenever she is at home with them.  A 3- or 4-year-old child kept in pull-ups all the time simply loses interest in using the toilet.  Then, when she is wearing underwear at the daycare, she forgets that she can't just pee or poop in her pants--and the babysitter has a heck of a mess to deal with!

Parents also spoil their children terribly, even as they neglect them.  The same parents who can't be bothered to remind a toddler or preschooler to use the bathroom, or who park the kid in front of a TV so they won't have to deal with him, will give in to almost any demand that child makes--and usually for the same reason.  It's easier to give the kid whatever he wants in order to shut him up for a while.

I'm sure there's a certain amount of guilt involved, too.  After spending 40-60 hours away from the child during the week, the parents might well be reluctant to set limits or enforce discipline.  Besides, parents who seldom see their child are rather like substitute teachers, since the child has spent most of his waking hours in the company of the babysitter. 

And we all know how kids act up for substitute teachers.

The same kid that minds the babysitter quite well might still turn into a demanding, disobedient tyrant whenever he is at home or anywhere else in the company of his parents.

But more often, the parents' failure to socialize their children or discipline them in any way means that the kids are just not very pleasant to be around, even in the daycare.

During the last few years I did daycare, I felt terribly frustrated by the fact that the children who were coming into my care past infancy were almost completely unsocialized.  They had no idea of how to behave, no respect for anyone else or anyone else's property, no impulse control, and no toleration for any limits at all on their speech or behavior.

In "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum" I describe my experience this past year, when I worked as a substitute teacher in our local elementary schools.  I will never substitute teach again.  The kids were just awful!

I did a lot of volunteer teaching in the grade school my own two kids attended, from 1985 to 1993.  Believe me, there is a very real difference in today's children.  When I worked in my own kids' classrooms, I never had any trouble with out-of-control children.  Even the ones who had trouble paying attention or following instructions had no trouble obeying major rules of behavior or accepting the authority of the adult in charge. 

But in today's classrooms the adult is not in charge.  Instead, it is the worst-behaved, most defiant children who control the classroom.  The teacher has no real authority at all and the kids know it.  Any kid who wants to cause trouble can complain to his parents, who will then complain to the principal.  No matter how much the child is in the wrong, the administrators will not back up the teacher when an irate parent threatens a lawsuit, as they so often do these days.

There are reports now that many schools are installing or at least thinking about installing webcams in their classrooms:

Most teachers welcome the idea, simply because they want evidence of how the children are behaving, as well as proof of the appropriateness of their own behavior if some defiant child decides to level a charge against them.  And kids are very savvy now about what sorts of things they can say to get a teacher into trouble.  Any teacher is in danger of being accused of abuse if a child doesn't like being corrected for misbehavior.

Last month Lisa helped to chaperone a delegation of Japanese students visiting our town (Lawrence, Kansas) from our sister city of Hiratsuka, Japan.  The students, ranging in age from 10 to 18, were in Lawrence for 10 days.  Lisa and the other chaperones spent very long days with them, taking them to see everything of interest in this area--including a day spent at Worlds of Fun amusement park in Kansas City.

Now, I can assure you that 8- to 10-hour days spent herding a large mixed-age group of American students all over the place would be a nightmare beyond belief.  In fact, when chaperones from our city take a similar delegation of American kids to visit Hiratsuka, they usually have a lot of trouble keeping the kids under control and out of trouble.  (Last year, some of the American kids played around setting their leg hair on fire while in their hotel room. Really!)

But Lisa couldn't stop talking about how polite, sweet, charming, and fun these Japanese kids were.  She did not mind one minute she spent in their company, and she was truly sorry when the time came for them to leave Lawrence.

To Lisa, these Japanese kids were amazing.  She had no idea kids could be so nice, so pleasant, so little trouble.

But Lisa is only 19.  I am 53.  I remember when American kids were a lot nicer and a lot better behaved than they are now.  (In fact, Lisa herself was one of a group of those nice kids when she was in my daycare as a little girl.) One reason I got out of daycare was that over the years children coming into my daycare were progressively less socialized and more obnoxious.

I can point to a striking example of the sort of difference I am talking about.  One of last year's most popular movies was the horror flick The Ring, which was a remake of a Japanese cult film called Ringu.  Though not identical to the Japanese film, the American film does follow the original's plot fairly closely.

There is one scene where a reporter, who is the aunt of a teenaged girl who has died horrifically, approaches a group of her niece's classmates to get whatever information she can about her niece's strange death. 

In the American movie, the reporter, played by Naomi Watts, intrudes among the teenagers and bums a cigarette, which she then smokes in an aggressively "tough chick" way.  She begins to ask questions, but the teenagers obviously distrust the adult and don't want to cooperate with her or tell her anything, even though their friend, who was her beloved relative, is dead.

The teens show no sympathy and no respect to the adult who is trying to find out what might have caused her niece's death.  They are sneering, recalcitrant, and smart-alecky. 

In the Japanese version of the film, this scene plays out much differently.

In the first place, the reporter is much more polite herself as she approaches her niece's classmates.  There is none of that "adult trying to be one of the cool gang" quality to her interaction with the teenaged students.  Even more striking, though, is the way the Japanese girls respond to the woman's questions.  They speak quietly and respectfully, and not one of them glares defiantly at the reporter, which all of the kids do in the American film. 

You also get the clear sense that these Japanese girls want to cooperate with the adults in any way they can, to help them find out why their friend died and how other such deaths might be prevented. In the American movie, though, defiant solidarity against adults is obviously much more important to the kids than helping adults find out how or why their friend died, even if that might save other young lives, possibly even their own.

These different versions of the same scene suggest a very strong cultural difference in the way the two societies expect children to behave. 

In fact, the very difference Lisa noticed as she escorted all those polite, charming Japanese kids around our part of Kansas for 10 days last month.

*For more on this subject, read "What's the Matter with Kids Today?"

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