Excuse me, but as a reluctant child of the ’60s, I find myself still waiting for the revolution. The revolution in the sense that all great modern revolutionaries expected: The revolt of the most derided, denigrated, disrespected, dissed, and marginalized; the joyous throwing off of social shackles and the triumphant assumption of full human dignity by the wretched of the Earth, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” full-throated in the back-ground; the rising up of those held down by injustice for so many years.
I mean the revolution of American parents.
Lately, though, I have come to doubt whether this natural fount of revolutionary rage has what it takes. I’m talking about my generation, the parents who weakly try to get the television set out of the house or at least under control; who can’t seem to say no and mean it; who worry more about their kids fitting in and going to the prom than about their kids, literally as well as figuratively, going to hell. I don’t pretend to know exhaustively how this generation of parents came into being, but something utterly new has appeared under the sun.
You do not need to be a conservative, a Catholic, an evangelical Christian, an ayatollah, or a control freak to think that sheer desire for self-preservation ought to make parents take children in hand. But that is what is missing among my peers. An old joke says a conservative is a liberal with a teenaged daughter. But I come across many parents, some conservative, with or without teenaged daughter, who would do better by themselves and their kids playing Russian roulette.
Of course, they all say the right things. They understand that all the central challenges in the United States today are moral and spiritual, more than economic and material. There is hard evidence of this. Public Agenda, a mainstream outfit, received funding from the Ronald McDonald House Charities last year to survey what Americans think about children. According to the numbers, you can hardly find an adult who doesn’t think schools and the wider community need to “teach values,” that there is “too much sex and violence” on television and in films, and that other parents are failing to give children a healthy religious sense.
But all this strikes me as a mere pose. A telling example: When my oldest daughter was in a public high school, my wife and I naturally opted her out of a sex education program. In truth, it was largely innocuous or boring, but it also had some truly nutty segments. Virginia, where I live, does parents the courtesy of allowing an escape hatch. (In the current legal schizophrenia, your kids may get an abortion without your knowledge, but they can’t be taught about it unless you say so.) But besides my daughter, out of more than 400 students, one other had study hall during sex ed, and he was the son of an evangelical friend who works at another public policy institute.
This very month, the same parents who are worried about sex, drugs, alcohol, lack of discipline, lack of parental supervision, and a lack of a sense of responsibility among young people, will send graduating seniors to “beach week,” a kind of junior league spring break where misbehavior is the whole reason for the event. Worse, the tacit message is that it is all acceptable to parents. You might say that here, if anywhere, the rubber should meet the road, but more and more, it seems, there is no rubber.
The current ethos of most parents, far from rebelling against the culture, is more like the attitude of Dr. Lewinsky, Monica’s dad, when he found out about the scandal. Instead of quietly suffering the sorrows of a father placed in a sad position or showing up on the White House lawn to demand an explanation, he turned up on television shows complaining about—media exposure! Not wanting to face the thing itself, during one interview he entered a rhetorical thicket from which he was only able to extricate himself by taking the safe line that, as a Jew, he feared Clinton’s departure might lead to a Republican who might not be as supportive of Israel. This from a man whom the AMA deems fit to care for the sick and dying.
Being a decent parent is not rocket science. It involves a few simple principles and, admittedly these days, the guts and steadiness of a samurai. You have to be willing to face rebellions at home and abroad. You need to enter your own ghetto, not to do social work, but to keep out the Visigoth. I admire the work of the many people in this country who are trying to restore to parents greater legal control over their children. But if they succeed, how many parents will still know how to use it?