Saturday, April 14, 2007

...and pull your pants up.

Childhood in America has changed a lot since I was a kid. When I was growing up, childhood was viewed as training for adulthood; children were adults-in-waiting. Today’s kids are helpless retards who need to be completely shielded from the reality of dirty words, mind-altering substances (unless it’s Ritalin) and human sexuality, while being simultaneously showered with material excess and the ridiculous notion that they are somehow special. When I was a kid, I was thrilled to receive a $12 pair of Converse All-Stars; today, kids are shooting each other over $170 Air Jordans. I often joke that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I think this is a result of my upbringing, which instilled in me a sense of curiosity, anticipation and delayed gratification that seems to be absent from today’s youth, many of whom seem much older and jaded than I am even as they struggle to perpetuate their childhood. I’m not trying to use myself as the archetype of the Successful American Adult—far from it—it’s just that I marvel at how we can view school shootings and melting glaciers and corporate corruption as anything but the inevitable result of our approach to child rearing.

Maybe it’s because my siblings were all older than I was, but as a kid, I always wanted to be older. The older kids always got to do stuff that I couldn’t do, and the achievement of each level of freedom brought eager anticipation for the next. But that anticipation was accompanied by the knowledge that additional responsibilities would be the cost of enjoying the new freedom. The hypothesis (which worked most of the time) was that this system of gradually increasing freedoms and responsibilities would prepare the child for adulthood. There were lawns to be mowed, paper routes to take over from older kids, part-time jobs, and a whole menu of chores and duties the completion of which signaled your readiness for the next level of freedom.

We seem to have replaced that adult-in-training process with one that shields children from nearly every daily reality until they are in their mid-twenties, at which point they are supposed to magically become adults. Many of these overgrown children then decide to have kids of their own as if to clarify for the public that they are now adults—children having children. So they suddenly find themselves at thirty longing for childhood because adulthood came in one huge chunk instead of bit by bit. The divorce and alcoholism and workaholism and materialism and workplace violence and greedy, self-absorbed nihilism that is the unavoidable result of this process inadvertently scars the kids, even as the parents endeavor in futility to shelter them from reality. So, instead of gradually increasing levels of freedom and responsibility, parents offer their kids wild fluctuations between fantasy and reality. And their children—exposed only to reality’s bad parts—eagerly await the freedom of adulthood, which they view as perpetual childhood. And the cycle continues.

The news is full of divorce. The only reason the divorce rate is down slightly from its 1980 peak is that many young couples are choosing cohabitation over marriage, and breakups of these relationships are not factored into the divorce rate. But the fact remains that our culture views romantic entanglements as temporary conveniences rather than lifelong commitments, and spouses blame each other for the fact that adulthood always turns out to be too full of reality. My hometown paper, the Star Tribune, recently ran a three-part series on divorce. Part two chronicles this woman’s reason for leaving her husband of 23 years. “I loved my husband, but I was not in love with him,” she explains. This is something a teenage girl says to her boyfriend when she wants to date someone else, not something we should expect from a grown woman with two grown children.

Marriage is full of shitty diapers and shitty jobs and shitty school boards and crooked mortgage companies and buying the minivan when you really want a Porsche and endless sacrifices and compromises and emergencies. And at the end, all you get is a sore back, arthritic fingers and death. But it can also be a beautiful enterprise in which both partners share triumph and defeat together, because no matter what happens, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, they have each other. This used to be the American Dream, and the American Dream used to be good enough for most Americans. But that American Dream has been replaced with a phony and unattainable cornucopia of fake tits and relentless luxury where women are madly, deeply in love with handsome, opinionless men who never raise their voices or smell bad. Here’s a secret: Fake tits only look good on TeeVee; up close they’re kind of gross, and that man you’re with is going to have hair growing out of his ears in about twenty years.

America’s collective refusal to accept reality at almost every level has resulted in a corrupt, ruined planet; and as reality gets worse and worse, we concoct more and more elaborate methods for denying it, the most tragic of which is an endless cycle of abuse whereby each generation is less prepared for adulthood than the last. Children are not stupid; they’re simply inexperienced. They can handle all of the realities of life and death as long as those realities are presented to them in a logical and gradual manner.

No comments: