Monday, June 27, 2005
Now, deserved or not, this latest generation is being pegged, too — as one with shockingly high expectations for salary, job flexibility and duties but little willingness to take on grunt work or remain loyal to a company.
"We're seeing an epidemic of people who are having a hard time making the transition to work — kids who had too much success early in life and who've become accustomed to instant gratification," says Dr. Mel Levine, a pediatrics professor at the University of North Carolina Medical School and author of a book on the topic called "Ready or Not, Here Life Comes."
Many parents of our generation -- particularly, I think, educated professionals -- stand ready to smooth the bumps or interdict troubles for their children at every juncture. Not only do they fail to make genuinely tough demands on their own children, but they interfere so that nobody else does. Under pressure from such parents, schools struggle to make sure that children never hurt their feelings, let alone their bodies. How many children face incredibly demanding teachers like "Mr. Burnett," the drill sargeant who thought wood shop was preparation for all that was important in life? Addressing our class the first day, he said "Some of you will hate the very ground I walk on. The rest of you will learn something." In fact, nothing was good enough for him -- you could whittle the Statue of Liberty out of the end of a two-by-four and he wouldn't be impressed if you didn't sand it perfectly. I worked on my stupid "pump lamp" until I cried -- which is pretty farookin' humiliating in the 8th grade -- but in the end I had the satisfaction of not having been beaten (as in defeated) by Mr. Burnett. After him, I understood that there were no challenges -- in school, at least -- that I would not be able to meet. And I still have the pump lamp, having inherited it from my parents who kept it their living room for 25 years.
Our parents, who were fairly well off, had several advantages going for them. First, they were raising their children in Iowa, where I suspect even today "entitlement" is a dirty word (unless, of course, it is a crop subsidy). Iowans do not appreciate people who flaunt their wealth, so affluent kids dressed and acted the same as kids from families that struggled. Suffice it to say that this is not true in suburban New Jersey in 2005, or even 1975. Second, our parents were not consumerists in the millenial sense. They both believed and preached "deferred gratification," deplored "the Joneses" with whom other struggled to keep up, and spent their money on experiences rather than things. We were often among the last of our friends to get a new gadget, but we were the first to go on an extended family trip through Europe.
Today, the world is much changed. Chinese manufacturing has made toys dirt cheap in constant dollars, so it seems churlish to deny them to your kids on principle. Popular psychology has had a tremendous influence on how we raise and teach our children, so we are extremely careful to avoid traumatizing them. Demanding parents, sometimes backed by trial lawyers, have taken away the flexibility of teachers to make children uncomfortable. Imagine what would happen to a teacher today who predicted that many of his students would "hate the ground I walk on" and then acted to ensure that result, even if it turned out to be incredibly effective at building character?
Kids today. Somebody's gotta teach them that life is not a box of chocolates.
Living in a state roughly contiguous with Iowa we can only lament that the sense of noblesse oblige and middle western discipline are no longer what they once were. Beemers, ipods and cell phones for the younger set are as ubiquitous here as in other places, if you are poor you may have to substitue a late model sentra or chevy cavalier.
Unfortunately gone are the days when the fabled Grosse Pointes and Lake Forests of yore were ruled by those who wore wash pants and drove Buick station wagons in stolid self denial, said wagons only to be borrowed by the teenagers on special occasions.
It remains incumbent upon us as parents to make some rough approximation of that bygone Laconia. But the choices kids have today... by way of example the viking daughter recently had to choose between a nifty used Saab and a screen writing seminar...
I could not agree more.
Heinlein has a great quote on this topic: something to the effect of "do not handicap your children by making their lives too easy".
I intentionally threw obstacles in my sons' paths to toughen them up a bit. At the time it was hard to do and I often wondered whether I was doing the right thing, but I also read a lot of older literature and that was the way they raised their kids.
They are adults now and the first results are in. I'm thrilled. My oldest son continues to make me so proud I could just burst. He is thoughtful and responsible and best of all he's not a whiner. He pays his own way in life and even treats his old man and his Mom to things even though we make three times as much as they do.
And I let him, even though every time I want to stop and say "We'll pay for that". Because it's good for him to have pride. And he *is* proud of himself.
I do buy them things, but never because they ask (and they never do - I love that). I was really tough on him earlier. He didn't have some things we could have easily afforded - I made him earn them. But it was from love. And he knows that now that he's an adult, and I think he feels more confidence in himself than most people his age.
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