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We're Being Bad: Are Mom And Dad To Blame?

Posted: 12/18/09 05:08 PM ET

The last half of 2009 deserves a special place in the history books and it wouldn't be inaccurate to title the chapter "Grownups Gone Wild."

Some of the glaring examples of the past few months include Congressman Joe Wilson calling President Obama a liar on national TV, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford hooking up with a soul mate in South America, and Richard Heene staging an elaborate aerial hoax (and for the record, I think his son should hereafter be referred to as The Not-Really-In-The-Balloon Boy).

The list of ignominious incidents, augmented recently by the antics of elite party-crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi and golf legend-turned-Lothario Tiger Woods, has caused numerous media pundits to decry what appears to be a relentless erosion of civility and good citizenship from coast to coast.

You can find similar sentiments expressed in coverage of less sensational topics such as teachers being stressed by student misconduct, sideline rudeness at sporting events, and the proliferation of violent video games.

As I read and reflect on the wide range of opinions about these problems, I've noticed a common thread in many of the storylines. When it comes to assigning blame for our collective decline in courtesy, integrity, and good judgement, two popular culprits are the mommies and daddies of America.

I won't argue with anyone who says bad parenting produces plenty of nasty consequences across the cultural landscape. I also agree that lots of kids are growing up with a distorted sense of entitlement and lousy social skills.

But it's simplistic to think substandard child rearing is a major cause of our national character flaws. Plenty of other factors are playing starring roles in this drama. Scandal-oriented journalism is now mainstream. In the broadcasting industry the concept of "restricted material" is nearly obsolete. Every day, American kids (and grownups) are bombarded with media messages that celebrate rudeness and rule breaking for their high entertainment value.

And at the risk of sounding like a total cranky geezer, I have to emphasize that complaints about parental incompetence don't resonate with me because I've been hearing them all my life.

"Bringing up baby" became a hot-button issue during World War II and each passing decade produces a new set of bogeymen who are allegedly damaging the mental and emotional health of our country's young people. Social commentators hammered parents in the 1950s with stern warnings about the insidious effects of comic books and rock music.

In the 1960s a new threat was perceived: rising divorce rates and growing numbers of single-parent households. Law enforcement officials warned that lack of adult supervision left kids with ample opportunities to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Rock music turned psychedelic.

During the '70s conventional parenting wisdom swung heavily in favor of boosting self-esteem and helping every child excel in the classroom. More and more parents began to see themselves as advocates for their kids. Some commentators began to wonder if "advocate" was just code for "I'm going to make sure my kids are always first in line for anything that might help them succeed and nobody better get in our way."

In the '80s the mantra of many schools and community organizations was "We're all winners." Hosting a birthday party meant providing goody bags for each guest. Soccer, softball and other youth teams handed out trophies to all players. The accumulation of commemorative hardware was impressive.

As a new millennium arrived, the push to maximize opportunities for achievement was having the unpleasant side effect of driving up anxiety levels in households all over the country. The January 29, 2001 cover of Newsweek showed a smiling boy, two haggard adults behind him, and this headline: The Parent Trap--Is Juggling Your Kids' Sports, Music, Etc. Burning You Out?

Now, almost ten stress-filled years later, parenting is often viewed as a relentless, grinding ordeal. Recently, my local paper ran a brief excerpt from a blog entry. The author had decided to quit a paid job in favor of staying home with two young children, and summed up her feelings about the task with this prediction: "I fully expected it to be intense work--isolating, emotionally draining, thankless..."

You might assume such attitudes would create a willingness to consider suggestions for improvement and you'd be wrong. In spite of the widespread perception that parenting is a long, hard slog, hardly anybody seems willing to admit their kids aren't doing just fine.

The quickest way to get your face ripped in half these days is to admonish a child for misbehaving in front of his or her parents. Not very long ago a school principal told me it wasn't a normal year "unless I have at least two lawsuits pending against me." She wasn't kidding.

I think of parenting as the ultimate free-market system. There are very few regulations and almost no prohibitions on who can participate. Like the weather, it's easy to complain about but trying to impose some kind of large-scale management plan isn't a realistic option.

How the system affects our individual development is hard to analyze and always will be. I know families that have multiple children, and all the kids have completely different personalities. There can be cheerful geniuses and sullen jerks sitting around the same dinner table. Why is that?

On the rare occasions when prospective parents ask me for advice all I can do is offer a few anecdotes in the form of "Here's what happened in our situation and some of it might be useful to you." But there's no template for parenting that guarantees great results. Every family brings a different set of values, habits, and personality traits into the process.

To anyone who is about to become a parent for the first time, I do have one simple request: please, PLEASE teach your kids to embrace the notion of "don't touch other people's stuff without asking permission first." If more Americans could grasp that concept early on and maintain it throughout their adult lives, I think daily life in the USA would be a teeny bit better.

But that's not a demand. I'm not trying to pump unjustified expectations into this complex and stressful process. And rest assured that if I ever catch your kids in a supermarket opening the bulk food bins and running their hands through the granola (which I have witnessed several times), I won't yell at them to stop or make any other attempt to correct their improper conduct.

Not unless my attorney is standing right behind me.