What's going on with today's teens? The latest news does not present a pretty picture. Never has there been a generation of kids who are as badly behaved, or as sexually aware and active, as this one.
Consider that in the United States last year three million crimes were committed in the country's 85,000 schools. Nine percent of eighth graders carry a gun, knife, or club to school at least once a month, and nearly 150,000 students bring handguns to school every day. And don't think they're not planning to use it since 20 percent of students said they believed it was OK to kill someone if they stole something from you. Nor are underage criminals limited to the United States. In Britain, the Observer reports that an astonishing half of all teenagers have committed a crime by the age of 15 and a third of 14-year-olds have vandalized property. Most studies show that the average age for first time intercourse in the United States is currently 13.2 for boys and 14.6 for girls.
A truly staggering 35 percent of young women become pregnant in the United States at least once before they reach the age of 20 (80 percent are unmarried), and every day 8,000 teenagers in the U.S. become infected by a sexually transmitted disease. This year alone nearly 3 million teens will become infected.
How could our kids be this screwed up? To be sure there are many causes. We could for example blame the axis of evil-Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears-and other highly irresponsible teen idols whose aberrant and outrageous behavior is devastating our kids. But even these miscreants would have little or no influence over our children if they weren't first failed by their parents. The principal causes of the fall of our children are truly awful moms and dads who believe it's their job to be their kids' best friend rather than their parents, trusted buddies treating their children as equals rather than disciplinarians policing their kids' errant behavior. If our kids are animals, it's because we have opened the cages and have been forced to become increasingly desperate zookeepers.
Several times a week on my radio show we host experts on child-rearing, some of them peddling twaddle like this. What follows is an abbreviated conversation with one author who herself has a 14-year-old daughter.
Expert: I drove five hours to my daughter's camp on visiting day and brought along her boyfriend to see her so that she knows that what's important to her is important to me too.
Me: You let your daughter have a boyfriend at 14?
Expert: Of course. And he's such a nice boy.
Me: Do you allow him to be alone with her in her bedroom?
Expert: Of course. I never use the word "forbid" with my daughter about anything. We talk about everything. We have such a good relationship. Banning her from certain activities would upset our friendship.
Me: What if she wants to have sex?
Expert: I've told her many times that I prefer that she not have sex. But ultimately she has to make her own choices, and I took her to a doctor to get contraception just in case.
Me: Wow, lady! Forgive me for being intemperate, but this stuff is nuts!
Expert: Your tough line will only get your children to rebel. You don't own them, you know.
Wanna make a bet! They're my kids. And I will not only teach them right and wrong, but I will reward them for the right and punish them for the wrong.
The "Be your kid's best friend" mentality, propagated by dim-witted experts like these, is guilty of destroying a whole generation of children. Kids have plenty of friends. But they only have one set of parents. They need someone to give them backbone and help them steel themselves against the malign forces that seek to subtly corrupt or manipulate them.
The belief that children are better off with parents relinquishing authority and acting as their equals resulted from three misguided attitudes: First, the belief that teens are young adults rather than big children and therefore require understanding rather than guidance. Second, that children will rebel against parents who are harsh disciplinarians. And third, that rather than parents superimposing their beliefs and value system on their children, it was beneficial for the children to discover life's essentials on their own. But if I may borrow the title of a Jim Carrey film, I would classify these assumptions as dumb, dumber, and dumbest.
And that's being charitable. The uncharitable position is that friendship is a posture adopted by lazy parents who find disciplining their children too much work. Much easier to give in rather than resist the demands and rationalize the capitulation with some inane philosophy about how allowing your kids to experiment with marijuana will help prevent them from trying harder drugs.
Recently I was present at the home of a friend whose 17-year-old son yelled at the top of his lungs that his mother should drop dead. The mother reacted by grounding him for a week from the use of her car. A day later he apologized because he wanted to go out on Saturday night with his friends. He gave her a hug. She gave him the keys.
Don't think for a moment that this mother was a pushover. She's one tough lady who eats men for breakfast at her highly successful PR firm. Rather, she feels guilty about denying her son "all the things that I didn't have when I was his age." But is she doing her son a service by allowing him to scream like a lunatic? And will his boss at his first job stand for it? Will his girlfriend?
The toughest thing our children face is peer pressure. Growing up is an awkward experience, and the easiest thing to do is blend in and lose your uniqueness. Children look to parents to neutralize the phenomenal pressure they encounter to conform. We are the steel girder that prevents them from buckling under the weight. What happens when we ourselves become weak? Don't parents realize that one day there will be a day of reckoning? That when our kids get their rebellion out of their system and find themselves screwed-up, lazy adults with no manners, who can't sustain intimate relationships, they're going to blame us for their failure? Do you really think that you can be your kids' friend when they're adults if you weren't a parent when they were kids?
But there is hope that people are finally getting the message. In the United States, the government's Parents: the Anti-Drug campaign recently launched a high-profile media initiative showing one harsh-looking mom with the giant caption "The Enforcer: She doesn't love being tough. She's tough because she loves." A similar TV commercial shows a mother severely grounding her young teen son for trying weed.
Sadly, the demonization of severity is not only limited to parenting. Whereas the Kabbalah speaks of G-d's right hand representing mercy and His left hand representing severity, New Age feel-good liberalism rejects any kind of harshness as outdated. Harsh reprisals are for cavemen, a military campaign against Saddam Hussein or Yassir Arafat is inappropriate. Everyone can be reasoned with. We should all just make up and be friends.
While we can't necessarily change the world, we can change our parenting skills and learn to be both loving and tough in shaping our children's characters. And when they grow up to be responsible and service-oriented adults, then it will be easy for all of us to be friends.