A few years ago I was driving with my mother through the small Ontario town where my parents live. We were tooling along a residential road in order to avoid the crushing traffic of the main street at the tail end of rush hour. It was late summer, so all around us were middle-aged dads barbecuing on the front lawn, housewives delivering trays of iced tea to the children frolicking in sprinklers, playing kick ball and skipping rope. As bungalow after quaint little bungalow passed by my window, I thought, “this must be what the inside of Norman Rockwell’s head looks like.”
A little boy of about seven kicked his soccer ball out into the street, and it came to a stop about ten feet in front of us. The boy chased his ball into the center of the road to retrieve it, and my mother (who was a Block Parent in another life and believed firmly in tenets like “look both ways”) gently beeped the horn to warn the boy of our gradual approach. The boy, dressed in naught but his Spongebob Squarepants swimming trunks, looked up in surprise, raised his pudgy middle finger and screamed “Fuck off, assholes!”
I had my seatbelt off and was halfway out of the car, intending to drag the little shit back to his father (who was casually observing the scene from his vantage point on the front porch, where he was drinking a beer) and demand some kind of apology – not because I’m offended by that kind of language, but because I think that attitude is totally inappropriate in a child so young, and if it were my kid, I know how I would deal with that kind of rudeness to strangers. I explained all of this briefly to my mother as I was extricating myself from her broken seatbelt, but before I could execute my conscientious politeness intervention, she stopped me with the words, “Alex, where do you think he learned that language?”
Good point, Ma.
I’ve had several conversations over the last few weeks about children. A lot of my friends are getting married and settling down, and in a few short years (maybe less if the condom breaks) I’m going to be Bitter Old Uncle Alex to a lot of my friends’ kids: a distinction I consider an honour and a moniker I’m eager to take up. But there’s a distinct difference between my friends and the parents I interact with on a day-to-day basis. Most of my friends are between the ages of 26 and 31, so they were raised in roughly the same generation bracket as me. Our upbringings were distinctly similar – we were taught from the time we were old enough to ambulate that you say “please” and “thank you”; when you’re introduced to an adult you address them as “Mister” or “Missus” (and if you don’t know their last name, it’s “Sir” or “Ma’am”). You pull out chairs and open doors for women and the elderly. You ask to be excused from the table when dinner is over. My father particularly taught me the importance of solid eye contact and a strong handshake. And you most definitely do not flip off strangers, nor do you curse at them.
The phenomenon of poor parenting isn’t a new one. When I was a young whippersnapper of about 4 or 5, I entered Kindergarten in a less-than-favourable area in North Toronto. Almost all of my classmates came from disadvantaged families who lived in the housing projects south of Wilson Avenue – the kind of kids for whom a packed lunch consisted of a Fruit Roll Up, a can of coke and a pack of Marlboro Lights. These were hardened children, man – the vast majority (I learned later) were the products of abuse, generational welfare and drug addiction. Needless to say, I didn’t really fit in. Not to say my family was rich (we lived below the poverty line for most of my childhood) but my German-Irish heritage made me stick out in the multicultural environs like a big white target, and my 6th grade vocabulary made me something of an oddity in a room full of kids still trying to figure out which colour “brown” was and how to tie their shoes. I spent most of that time getting the ever-loving shit kicked out of me, until my parents had my IQ tested and transferred me to a school for “gifted” students.
The kids at my first public school were poor, angry and hurt. Their parents were more likely to spend the welfare cheque on cases of Molson Export than they were on food or clothes for their children, and therefore the hallmarks of the parenting I received weren’t high on the list of priorities for those parents. Sure, these kids were rough around the edges, ill-mannered and violent, but I could put that down to their shitty upbringing and lack of resources.
When I moved to my new school, I found myself excluded for a whole new set of reasons. The kids whose classes I shared from grades 1-3 came from the extreme other end of the economic spectrum. Their parents were all optometrists and lawyers and investment bankers, so they had the very best of everything – clothes, toys, books, you name it. It wasn’t uncommon for these kids to have their birthday parties at the Country Club, and some were even chauffeured to work by a hired employee. They all had nannies or other caregivers because mom and dad were too busy making their next million to be bothered by an inconsequential responsibility like parenting.
And it showed. It was a very different style of brat than what I’d become used to at my old school, but the moniker fit anyway. These kids were just as poorly-behaved as the most feral of the abused welfare cases that used to kick the crap out of me, but they sported triple-digit IQs, an inflated ego courtesy of the pedestal their parents put them on since birth, and a sense of entitlement brought on by growing up filthy rich and having everything handed to them on the proverbial silver platter. In a lot of ways, that made their behaviour even more inexcusable; at least, that was how I felt at the time.
In later years I came to realize the “gifted” kids were just as parentally disadvantaged as the poor kids from my first school. In both cases, their parents placed more importance on other aspects of their lives, to the detriment of their children. It didn’t matter, I noticed, whether the parents’ priorities were getting drunk or making money – it amounted to the same thing.
I’m not trying to get all preachy or anything, but it strikes me there’s been a growing trend throughout most of my life towards the fragmentation of the family unit. No, I’m not talking about the “traditional American family” the same way you see it discussed in the media. I’m not Norman Rockwell and I don’t think that 1950’s vision of the family is realistic anymore. But there’s got to be a gray area between the facade of domestic bliss and the brutal reality of dissociation that seemed so prevalent in my peer group as a child, and that appears to be even more so today.
We live in a complicated, fast-paced culture that emphasizes the accumulation of stuff over the importance of interpersonal relationships. For some people, that means keeping their heads above water financially and ensuring there’s at least a roof over their kids’ heads and food in their stomachs. For others it means purchasing that second Mercedes or the boat or the cottage or whatever. Either way, there’s a limited amount of time in the day, and sooner or later, some part of your life has to lose out. For too many people, that deficit comes right out of the time they spend with their children.
It goes further than that. In the town where I grew up, which was basically a commuter stopover between two major cities, I saw firsthand the epidemic of the “latchkey kid”, a mid-90s buzzword used to describe school-age children forced into relative self-sufficiency by their parents’ work schedules. I’m not in the business of castigating parents for trying to be fiscally responsible (if that’s indeed the case) and I don’t want to come on too strong seeing as I’m not a parent myself, but you’ve got to understand the kind of effects I saw on my peer group.
Money replaced “family time”. Guilty parents would provide significant cash flow to their children in lieu of being around, and with no guidance and not much to do in the community, that money inevitably got spent on cheap liquor, stink weed and (I’d assume from observation) spray paint. We used to joke that the only things to do in that town were a) get drunk, b) get stoned, c) get laid, or d) get in trouble, and we weren’t that far off. Kids with no direction and nothing better to do inevitably find ways to amuse themselves, often to their own detriment.
Like I said, parents own a big part of this issue. There’s this trend towards a transference of responsibility, where somehow parents seem to think it’s the job of the state, the school, even the media, to educate and raise their kids properly. Look at the number of parents who complain about what is and isn’t being taught in the education system, particularly insofar as sex ed is concerned. Guess what folks? If you were to teach your kids healthy living at home, including frank and honest conversation about sex, maybe they wouldn’t need to learn it from some middle-aged gym teacher using visual aids that were outdated in 1982.
(You could have told your child this yourself. If you were backwards and stupid.)
It’s the same thing as these parents who bitch about totally nonsensical issues like the infamous Janet Jackson nipple slip a few years back. “Our kids are being exposed to filth on television!” Oh yeah? Who owns the TV? Who’s letting their kid sit prostrate in front of the boob tube watching what amounts to gladiatory combat and then has the self-important balls to turn around and complain about a tit? Maybe if you didn’t use the TV as a cheap babysitter you might be a little more tuned into the fact that your kid is online 24 hours a day, downloading bad porn and pipe bomb diagrams.
It’s only rarely that somebody calls parents on their shit. I came across this article about a high school principal in Australia who instituted a “zero tolerance” policy towards violence, bad language and poor behaviour in her school, and has since suspended over 650 students for violations of her code. The result? All of a sudden these kids are a lot better-behaved, no longer swearing at teachers and getting violent with one another. And the parents are applauding her move, citing they’re now “proud” to be part of that school. Personally I’m applauding her too – it takes real balls to make a move like that in today’s culture (I’ll talk about that in a minute) but some part of me wonders whether the parental approval of this move isn’t at least partly masking the collective sigh of relief exhaled by a bunch of people who can rest easier knowing the school system is disciplining their kids so they don’t have to.
Which brings me to the second part of the problem. I can’t put all the blame on parents, of course, because in the culture we’ve built (at least here in Canada) parents don’t actually have an awful lot of power over their kids anymore. Take the Young Offender’s Act, for example. For non-Canadians, the YOA is a piece of legislature that deals specifically with juvenile crime (under the age of 18) – if a child younger than that admittedly arbitrary age limit, different rules apply to the punishment and the court proceedings. Among other things, the name of a Young Offender cannot be published in the media, the punishments for crimes are significantly reduced in ratio to the punishment leveled against an adult who committed a similar crime, and perhaps most importantly, more often than not the crime is stricken from the child’s criminal record when he or she reaches the age of majority.
On some level this makes sense. Kids are young and stupid, and they make mistakes. If I had stolen a candy bar when I was twelve, I’d hardly want a foolish error in judgment to effect getting a retail job when I was 18. And certainly, at least in my case, getting caught committing such a stupid crime would just about have been punishment enough for me, given that I was a very shy and risk-averse child. Police involvement would have caused me to shit my pants in rapid succession, which probably would have negated the need for further consequence.
Stealing a candy bar is one thing. Kicking the ever-loving shit out of another child to the point where he becomes a drooling vegetable for the rest of his life is somewhat different. That’s a grown-up crime, not an error in judgment. That’s attempted murder, and in my book, if you’re old enough to make the decision to take a life (regardless whether you’re capable of fully comprehending the consequences of your actions) you’re old enough to take the heat for it. Far as I’m concerned, those kids should have been paraded through the streets in chains and then taken to real-life prison to live out a sentence that fits the crime. That might sound harsh, but it’s called “accountability”.
Unfortunately that’s not how it goes, and the vast majority of young offenders wind up getting off with a slap on the wrist and a shaken finger. This breeds a sense of untouchability that you see a lot in the more violent sectors of our culture. It’s the same thing as the old saw about corporal punishment. You can’t spank your kids. It’s “abuse”. If a parent tries to lay a hand on their child, the kid can turn around and charge mom or dad with assault. Okay – if you’re regularly taking the piss out of your child with a belt because he didn’t clean his room up, that’s one thing.
But let me tell you something – I remember every single time I got spanked as a kid (I can tally that on one hand). Every time I deserved it, and every time I learned a valuable lesson about what was, and was not, appropriate behaviour. As a result of my upbringing I’m a well-mannered, helpful, contributing member of this society. I didn’t turn into Jeffrey Dahmer just because my dad tanned my ass once or twice and chances are, neither will your kid.
(Okay, so he turned out a little wonky, but let’s face it…what are the chances of that happening twice?)
But they will turn into a smarmy, self-entitled little brat if you let them have the run of the place. They’re children. They shouldn’t have that kind of power, because they lack the maturity to make intelligent, informed decisions for themselves. I might be going out on a limb here, but I think the scaling-back of authority parents have over their children has contributed in no small way to the kind of little assholes I went to school with and the kind of little assholes who, at age seven, will tell me to fuck off in the middle of the street.
My point in all this is that parenting – and by this I mean the raising of children – is a very, very major responsibility. Should there be a framework of support for families in which we all agree on basic standards of behaviour to which children should ascribe? Yeah. Leaving aside the minor issues, I think it’s fair to expect children to be reasonably polite; to treat themselves and each other with a base level of respect; to understand the fundamental preventative laws of our society (i.e. it’s wrong to steal, don’t stab people, don’t break shit that doesn’t belong to you, etc.); and to observe both our societal laws and the reasonable demands of their parents towards this end.
But at the end of the day, the responsibility lies primarily with the parent. I hate to coin a cliché like “it starts at home”, but damn it, it does. Somewhere along the line, chances are you made some kind of choice that lead you to produce a life. Until that life gets old enough to go off to college, spend their first two years getting drunk and then drop out to become an artist, that life is your charge. Teach your kid how to be a decent person, and I’ll smile inwardly because some of my dwindling faith in humanity and its future might be restored. Teach your kid to flip off strangers on the street who were only trying not to run his stupid ass over, and I’ll personally come to your house and teach you about the efficacy of corporal punishment on behaviour modification. Just make sure to watch your language when I’m putting my boot up your ass – there are children present.