Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On these rackin'-frackin' kids these days who don't know how good they've got it

Okay, so Doug and the parents and I managed to get in an entire weekend of quality family time over Father's Day weekend. That we were able to spend the entire weekend together without killing each other was, I think, an accomplishment, not because our family doesn't get along with each other but because a lot of families don't. I say this not because I think my family is better than other people's, but because I have plenty of friends who don't enjoy spending time with their families, who try to avoid it, who dread holidays and weddings and family reunions because their families just plain don't get along.

That was a topic of conversation over lunch. Also discussed were our younger days and the things our parents did in the name of good parenting that we just plain hated. We were expected to have jobs - not just summer entertainment, but paying jobs that we were expected to stay at whether we found them entertaining or not. We were expected to budget our money, and if we blew our allowances on an impulse buy and then lacked money for a future purpose, we weren't getting an advance. We were expected to take responsibility for our own academic progress, and while both parents were willing to offer as much help as they could and arrange for extra help as necessary, there would be no school visit from Mom insisting that the teacher was unfairly harsh and demanding opportunities for extra credit - or that the grade be changed outright.

That discussion was prompted by a story the parents had heard on NPR during their drive over. The story (links to which I'm hunting down) talked about parents who, beyond intervening in their children's high school and even college careers, go so far as to help their children through their professional careers. Parents will storm into bosses' offices demanding to know why Mr. Burrows is so hard on little Ricky when he's just trying his best, and those miserable dues-paying all-nighters are sometimes interrupted by Mom showing up to help Miranda get her work done in time.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

My parents, at least, know better than to try and pull that stuff, even if they were so inclined, which they unequivocally aren't. But that story got me to wondering when the role of a parent shifted from preparing a child for adult life to shielding the child from all adversity. When I was growing up, which wasn't so very long ago, a bad grade or a difficult professor was meant to be a challenge to overcome, and to bring that grade up or impress the teacher was the kind of victory I could carry around for weeks. Now, parents lobby away bad grades, beat up coaches on the playing field, and browbeat their way through their children's disciplinary problems, resulting in a generation of kids unable to fight their own battles and win their own victories even in their adult life.

I blame video games.

We live in a generation where video game technology is rapidly approaching lifelike qualities. Graphics are incredibly realistic. Points of view are first-person-shooter, first-person-driver, first-person-fighter with realistic blood spatters and bone-crunch sound effects. The Nintendo Wii even eliminates the need for buttons and joysticks to accomplish it all. But the one thing video games can't, or don't, reproduce is the fact that in real life, actions have consequences.

Not so in video games. In video games, cheats are so prized and so prevalent that entire publications are devoted solely to the art of getting around the rules. Find enough hidden mushrooms, and you can "die" an infinite number of times without actually being dead. Getting your ass kicked in Zombie Nation? Up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-A-B-Start, and you're on top again. Secret passages and unlock codes allow players to skip entire levels. And if worse really comes to worse, you can always, in a fit of rage, hold down the "reset" button until the game resets and your opponent throws down his controller, calls you a baby, and goes home.

Kids are so unused to facing consequences that can't be secret-coded or hidden-passagewayed away that when they face real adversity, they don't know how to handle it. There isn't a button to push to go back and study for that test instead of going out with friends. There isn't a code to enter to skip from "college" level all the way up to "CEO" without going through "mail room" and "second assistant" first. And so Mom and Dad have to come in, browbeating the teacher to make him raise the grade, browbeating the boss about being so difficult, decrying the unfairness of life so that their kid never has to experience it for himself.

And that, we decided over lunch, was one of the most valuable lessons our parents could have taught us: You got your ass into this, you're getting your ass out. When, in the summer after my freshman year in college, I asked my dad for a loan to pay off my (considerable) credit card bill - because then I wouldn't have to pay interest, which would be great, right? - he laughed at me. Because I knew when I signed for the credit card that I'd be charged interest, and I knew when I made the purchase that I'd have to pay it off eventually, and if I was going to pay it off I'd have to get a job. And I did. And I did customer service for AT&T calling cards, and it sucked every day, and nobody stormed into my boss's office demanding better hours or told irate customers to be nicer to me.

It didn't, at the time, seem like an unreasonable expectation that I should clean up my own mess, or that I should deal with my boss myself if I wanted better hours. It doesn't, now, seem unreasonable that I should all-night my own all-nighter if I put off my work until the last minute, or that I should talk to my director myself if I want a raise. The thought that there's an entire generation of kids about to enter the workforce who find such things entirely unreasonable scares me. The thought that that generation will, eventually, be responsible for things like legislation, law enforcement, and public policy scares me even more.

Parents, do the world and your kids a favor: Let the kid swing. Take the D-. Let the kid ride the bench. Make the kid get a job, and make her stay at the job even if it's not super-fun. Tell him that if he wanted a car to drive, he shoudn't have wrapped the last one around a tree. Because someday, your kid will be reforming policy on my Social Security, and I'm not going to take, "Well, what was I supposed to do? Balance the federal budget?" for an answer.

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