Disrespectful, rebellious, and a menace to themselves and others, the American teenager has become America's embarrassment before the world.
Perhaps we find it funny that many American teens are having more sex than their parents. And perhaps we have so given up on the idea of teenage boys respecting women that we don't bat an eyelash when we discover that 70 percent of all sexually active 14-year-old girls have had intercourse against their wills, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
But statistics aside, the best evidence of the how the American teenager has become a bewildered beast of the field is empirical. Go to any American public high school, look at how the teens dress and interact, and ask yourself if they were raised by parents in homes or by wolves in the woods?
The biggest factor in the decline of the American teen is abysmal parenting. Parents are at a loss as to how to even communicate with their teen sons and daughters. In their desperation they have taken an unexpected and radical step. They have now turned to the teens themselves for advice.
Welcome to a world turned upside down, with parents now looking to kids to find out how they ought to be parenting. When I first saw two young teen girls, Lara Fox and Hilary Frankel, on "Good Morning America" promoting their new book, "Breaking the Code: Two Teens Reveal The Secrets To Better Parent-Child Communication," I could scarcely believe my eyes. Was this for real? Are teenagers now writing parenting books? Are 16-year-olds the new Dr. Benjamin Spocks? Surely, I thought, this cannot be. Surely we understand that it is the younger generation that must follow the lead of the older, and not the reverse. Surely no one would take such books seriously.
So if you want talk to your 15-year-old daughter about her Neanderthal boyfriend, or your 14-year-old son about the strange odor of a Colombian origin lingering on his clothing, you don't just barge into their rooms. After all, they may be watching their favorite television show. And what gives you the right to interrupt something so important as "The O.C."? Rather, knock on the door, tell your teen that you'd like to speak with him or her. If it's not convenient, make an appointment to speak to them later. That's right. Give them a little respect.
Which is more unnerving? Parents asking advice from teens about how to raise their children, or the suggestion that rather than kids respecting their parents, parents ought to be respecting their kids?
Of all the books I thought I'd never see, this might have been at the top of the list. But there was the book again, on the cover of the Sunday New York Times "Style" section with a positive spin. The idea of kids giving parenting advice to parents was going mainstream.
Surely the American parent cannot fall any lower. Is it really possible that grown men and women who have gone to college, worked jobs, and lived life are less wise than their teenage children? Was this about to usher in an alarming genre of self-help books and TV programs with teenagers giving advice to their adult parents? Were we about to see books with titles like "Two Teenagers Advise Parents on How to Be Happily Married?"
This topsy-turvy world, where the very foundation of reason is turned on its head and the older generation is expected to learn from and show respect to the younger generation, subverts the very essence of the fifth commandment. G-d did not decree "Honor thy teenage daughter." He decreed that all children must "Honor thy father and mother."
The inclusion of a commandment to honor one's parents in the most important moral code ever delivered is curious. Is honoring your father really as important as not murdering? You mean that not becoming a rebellious, spoiled brat is as important as not becoming Charles Manson? What could G-d have been thinking?
But without the commandment to honor one's parents, without G-d establishing the precedence and primacy of earlier generations, the very idea of morality is undermined. It is the immutable authority of G-d's laws, and their eternal application at all times and at all places, that gives "Do not murder" its power.
Without a belief that children must honor their parents, we would be back to the erroneous belief that the wisdom of every generation is equal. That the truths contained in the Bible are no more valid than the truths contained in self-help books.
The commandment to honor one's parents establishes an unbroken chain whereby G-dly truths and traditions are transmitted authoritatively from fathers and mothers to sons and daughters. The commandment to honor our parents also serves to protect children. It informs them that, contrary to popular opinion, the best way to learn in life is not by making your own painful mistakes, but by listening to and learning from those who have lived longer and acquired wisdom.
The point is neatly illustrated by a story that is told of a rabbi and a scientist who were traveling together on an airplane. Each brought with them a grandson. The rabbi's grandson came every few minutes to check on his grandfather's welfare and inquire as to his needs, while the scientists' grandson sat in back watching the movie, never once coming forward. The scientist asked the rabbi why his grandson was so profoundly respectful, whereas the scientists' grandson had forgotten that his grandfather was even alive. The rabbi replied, "In our tradition, G-d gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai, and the closer you are to that great moment of revelation and truth, the more respect you deserve. Hence, my grandson accords me respect. But as an evolutionist, you believe that mankind begins in a primordial soup, and becomes ever more complex and developed with the passage of time. Every successive generation moves further away from its primate ancestors. Hence, your grandson believes he is your superior and that you should be respecting him."
Finally, by commanding us to honor our parents, G-d is teaching us the most important of all human attributes, gratitude. To begin life as a helpless soul who is sustained by another, and not to live with a lifelong acknowledgment of that kindness, is to be incapable of basic human gratitude. Not to honor our parents is a prima facie demonstration of our inability to be touched, to have an impression made on our hearts by the love of another.
The arrogance of teens selling a book lecturing their parents about respecting them, rather the reverse, brings chutzpah to a whole new level.
But in the shallow, ignorant culture we inhabit, you can bet that lots of parents will imbibe this silly, destructive message and continue in the tragic belief that they should be their children's best friend rather than their parent.
Parenting is not about winning a popularity contest, but about protecting one's children from the pernicious effects of an increasingly base culture. When G-d delivered the Ten Commandments, He did not do so with the voice of compassion, but with the voice of authority. Mt. Sinai was enveloped not by candy and hummingbirds, but by thunder and lightning. In effect, G-d was telling humanity that before anything else He is their father, their parent, and expects that His rules be obeyed. It is we who must respect Him and not the other way around, a message that would do wonders for today's lost teens, if only they were to be taught it.