National Post

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Tuesday, August 10, 1999

The problem with today's kids is their parents

Jane Christmas
National Post

An illustration of a couple with a baby.

The incident is annoyingly typical: An eight-year-old is riding her bicycle in a schoolyard when two boys, about her age, take aim at her with their sticks and pretend to shoot her. It's safe to say these kids don't have malicious intent in mind, they're simply horsing around. However, their actions throw the girl off balance, catapulting her from her bike. Observing the episode, the girl's father marches toward the boys and admonishes them. The young turks immediately run to their father and tell him they've been "growled at by a man." Father A senses what's going on and heads toward Father B. "Your boys pretended to shoot my daughter, it scared her and she fell off her bike." His words barely leave his lips when Father B says: "Don't approach a child." "But your boys startled my daughter and. . ." "Don't approach a child," Father B replies evenly. He then takes each boy by the hand and walks away.

Not audacious enough? How about this. A teenager steals a neighbour's van and he and a group of friends take off for a joy ride. The mother of the thieving teen explains her son's actions thus: "I told him [the son] it was not his fault. There were other kids there, too, and they were just as responsible for doing this." No punishment. No apology.

As Nicholas Tavuchis writes in his 1991 book Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation: ". . . apologies call attention to what we may be as well as what we have done."

And what these two examples call attention to is that today's parents have blithely abrogated their basic responsibility to society in order to stay on buddy-buddy terms with their children.

Baby boomers are credited with some remarkable achievements and advances over the years. But in the social history of North America they will have the dubious distinction of having initiated the hey-pal style of parenting, a casual, parent-as-buddy approach to raising children that, on the surface, looks family-friendly but is, at its core, void of standards and values. It's a style that's as rampant as head lice at an elementary school and as difficult to eradicate.

More worrisome is that it isn't necessarily being practised by your basic yobbo adult; you know, the fathers look like bikers, the mothers look like crack addicts. No, we're talking about your basic salt-of-the-Earth types; they work hard, they're well-educated (some exceedingly so), they care about their children, they probably even use their tax refunds to top off their RRSPs; in short, decent, average folk. But they suck as parents.

Hey-pal parenting takes its name from the clarion call of the progenitors: "Hey, little buddy. Playing with matches isn't a good idea." Or the female version: "Hey, babe, let's think about navel piercing next week." Here's a sample from their manifesto:

- Serve non-alcoholic beer to 10-year-olds,

- Show more-suited-to-adults movies at the birthday parties of eight-year-olds,

- Allow your 14-year-old to stay out until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. because, as one mother explains, "Everybody else's child does."

- Leave cigarettes out for children so they don't suffer the trauma of smoking behind your back,

- Counsel your 12-year-olds about losing their virginity, despite the fact that when you were 12 the only thing you worried about losing was the key to your diary.

And what happens when "Babe" or "Buddy" screws up? The parents revert to Teflon-mode and find someone or something to blame. In fact, a hallmark of hey-pal parenting is to lay the blame for your child's problems squarely on (take your pick) environmental contaminants, sugar consumption, government cutbacks, the media and immigration.

Let's face the truth: It's the parents, stupid.

The point is you can't be a buddy and a parent to a child. A buddy doesn't tell you to brush your teeth and go to bed. But most parents prefer to mellow out with their kids. "Feeling good about yourself" has become the '90s Golden Rule.

That's not to say parents don't talk to their children. Boy, do they talk! At the rec centre, you can witness their loud voices and gestures instructing their young on perfecting a front crawl, dissecting every motion as they talk, talk, talk. Another father is overheard bragging about how he and his wife took their daughter to Lollapalooza "to show her what can happen when people drink too much or take drugs. We had a great time." Yeah right. I'll bet the poor kid is still living down the humiliation. Why this need for parents to link themselves inextricably to their children?

Will the recent suggestion from the American Academy of Pediatrics propel parents to remove TVs and computers from the bedrooms of their children? Of course not. Such a move would damage the precarious buddy bond, which, as these parents demonstrate, must be preserved at all cost.

Never before have children been more indulged materially and so bereft of mature guidance. And as their gotta-have-it-now odometer rises so does their anxiety. Is it any surprise that we read of Ritalin statistics, such as those cited on these pages recently, indicating that 6% to 16% of boys under the age of 18, and 2% to 9% of girls in the same range, have a "conduct disorder"? Has anyone considered that most Ritalin prescriptions are panaceas for parents who are just too damn lazy to teach values such as humility, sacrifice, duty and love? And by love, I don't mean that mushy hey-pal-give-me-a-hug love. There's far too much hugging going on. A teen sweeps a floor and he gets a hug, a child brushes her teeth and she gets a hug. Since when did basic hygiene and helping around the house merit a hug? Some parents dispense such frequent public displays of affection -- both verbal and physical -- you wonder whether they're covering up child abuse. No, intangibles such as strength of character, courage, humility, are for war veterans, not modern parents. Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation (no, it wasn't the baby boomers) reveals an era in which sacrifice meant more than saying no to Nintendo, and duty was a moral virtue, not the act of car-pooling the Brownie pack.

In the hey-pal style of parenting there are few limits beyond "Don't hit your brother," and "Don't swear in front of grandma." With such flaccid standards, and no code being taught or enforced, who's in control? Hey-pal parents say an open approach enables children to grow, unencumbered by someone else's rigid standards. Interestingly, it's these same parents who get their love beads in a knot whenever Mike Harris, the Ontario Premier, or Preston Manning, the Reform party leader, float the idea of making parents responsible for the conduct of their children. I wonder why.

Copyright Southam Inc.