The Kids Are Alright
Issue #47, January 2000
George Bernard Shaw, who lived into his 90s, suggested that youth was wasted on the young. One understands Shaw's sense that our younger years, relived with the knowledge picked up during our adult lives, might be less of a waste. It isn't clear that it would still be youth, though: youth is by definition the life of the less-experienced. Furthermore, for many of us, youth, particularly adolescence, isn't wasted on us so much as it terrifies us into submission. Whatever our nostalgic memories, most adults would refrain from trading our grownup lives for a return to childhood. Socially, in America at least, young people are treated woefully, are treated as Kids. Kids who aren't old enough to take care of themselves. Kids who don't know better. Kids who need social control. While all of this might be true, living under such a reality is rarely as wonderful as people remember in retrospect. The youth that is wasted on the young is a life of being told what to do and when and where and how to do it, a life as a second-class citizen, a life of curtailed freedoms, all in the name of what's "good for you."
I've been thinking about kids lately,because mine are gone. I was never much aware of the so-called "Empty Nest" syndrome until it happened to me. Now I know. I miss my kids.
Our son was born when we were only 21 years old. Our daughter came when we were 24. Now we're 46, and the kids have moved out. In truth, the "kids" have disappeared, with adults suddenly showing up in their places. It's an odd situation. They were wonderful kids, and now they're wonderful adults. But they are also gone. The nest is empty.
I felt more like a kid than an adult in those early years. In fact, while I'm not ready to relive my childhood,it wouldn't be a bad idea to return to the days when my children were young. I'd be a much better parent now. I suspect this is one reason why I am a teacher: it gives me a chance to repair some of the mistakes I might have made with my own kids.
In any event I admit this empty nest represents a time I have looked forward to, having the house to myself during the daytime, never worrying about sharing the bathroom, having more freedom for the daily minutiae of life. My wife and I have always been best friends; we get along best when we spend the most time together. I thought this would be among the happier times of my life.
But I miss the kids.
I don't miss their minutiae. But I miss being able to count on them when I needed them. The adults are supposed to provide the instruction to the youth, but in my case, it's often been the opposite. My kids are great resources: they know things I don't know and they are always ready to share that knowledge. I can still call them on the phone, or in my daughter's case, I can just hang out online and wait for her to show up for a chat. It's a good feeling to know I'll have that forever. But it isn't the same as just having them around. And I wish I'd realized when they were here how important they are to me; I wish I'd told them what I'm telling here now.
We Have Met The Enemy
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.
— Abraham Lincoln, 1838
The Red Scare of the post-WWII era in America is well-documented. The psychic turmoil of those years grew out of a fear of infiltration, the possibility that We might become Them. The enemy wasn't just "out there;" Communism in Russia wasn't the only problem. The problem was Communism within, resulting in an outburst of finger-pointing and categorizing, establishing firmly in public that We were We and They were the Other.
In this period, adolescents, that group halfway between childhood and adulthood, halfway between innocence and corruption, found that their behavior, which at one time might have been considered part of the classic American ideal of sowing some wild oats, now appeared to be anti-social, delinquent, destructive of the Promised Land of America. Teenagers of the early 1950s were Other, just like the more commented upon Communists. Dr. Robert Lindner wrote some of the most evocative attacks on the young during this time. It is interesting to note that his non-fiction book Rebel Without a Cause, which lent little more than a title to the influential James Dean film, is not a tragic tale of middle-class adolescent alienation but instead a series of psychoanalytic sessions with a psychopath. "The psychopath," Lindner informs us, "is a rebel without a cause, an agitator without a slogan, a revolutionary without a program.... The psychopath is not only a criminal; he is the embryonic Storm Trooper." Lindner, writing when Storm Troopers were still a fresh memory, is concerned with the effects of Mass Culture on society, especially on the young, the rebels without a cause. He later wrote, in "The Mutiny of theYoung," that "our civilization appears to have entered its terminal phase." The chief manifestation of this phase was "the increasing presence among us of Mass Men.... The Mass Man, of course, is the psychopath in excelsis." Mass Men hang in packs, they act out, they are the embryonic Storm-Troopers come home. They are psychopaths. They are also adolescents: "Almost every symptom that delineates the psychopath clinically is to be found increasingly in the contemporary adolescent." Adolescents participating in the great mass movement called Youth Culture.
Teenagers were scary then, as they are scary now, not only because they acted out impulses adults had hopefully hidden away. They were scary because they weren't just "out there." They were Us, our flesh and blood. Their actions, seen by adults as destructive of self and society, did not come from a nameless Other. They came from home. We were its author and finisher. Teenagers showed us what we had once been capable of, what we might still be capable of. In teenagers, the clear line between We and Other becomes a muddled, tentative barrier.
It is easy to assume that we have left behind such paranoid notions. Even the Red Scare seems almost quaint as we enter the 21st century. Nonetheless, America remains obsessed with borders; lacking the Evil Communist Menace, we turn to immigration fears. As America becomes an increasingly diverse populace, the line between Us and Them breaks down. Repressive measures rise up. We see too much of ourselves in these new Others, we can no longer be sure what it means to be an American, and so we fight back. And kids still scare adults. Kids embrace a popular culture that crosses borders. Just as in the 1950s, when white middle-class kids embraced rock and roll with its African-American roots, suburban kids of the 90s enroll in hip-hop nation, messing up those borderlines. Adults still find ways to squash those kids, to prevent them from reminding us of our Other capabilities. They can't be trusted. They don't know better. They need social control. Not just curfews, or anti-skateboarding ordinances, or internet-censoring software, but criminalization, sexual repression, and more.
At times it seems like there are only two kinds of parents. One kind refuses to remember what it was like to be a kid, refuses to accept that when we were young, we did things we shouldn't have, and yet we survived, perhaps even better for the experiences. The other kind remembers only too well, and insists that our kids will not be allowed to make the same mistakes we made. In either case, the result is repression. Repression based in reasonable assumptions about childhood, and the ways in which children need our protection. The world is a bare electrical outlet, waiting for some kid to stick a fork into it. Our job is to put plastic plugs over the holes, because we quite rightly don't want our kids to be fried.
But we also don't want to remember that there was a time when the idea of putting forks in sockets fascinated us. That there was a time when we experimented, a time when we took chances. A time when we flirted with ideas that repel us in our adulthood. That's the problem with kids: they remind us of what we have done and might do again. They must be stifled.
Or so repressive adults seem to believe. And so we do everything we can to make young lives miserable. In the name of phony nostalgia, we simultaneously berate our kids for not being like we pretend we were, and repress them for wanting to be something more than we want them to be. It can be awful to be a kid. It is up to adults to see that it is less awful, not more. Which we can do only by getting to know them better and admitting, ultimately, that We are Them.
I miss having my kids around. They are great people. I like to be reminded of what life is like for a young person. I like the happy contentment that comes with a good family. I like the way they accept me for who I am; I hope I do the same for them. They are gone; they are adults. I'll have to look elsewhere for the youthful perspective now. It's a perspective worth seeking out. Youth is not wasted on the young. It is wasted on grownups who can't see brilliance in the lives of young people.
Thanks to Aaron Shuman for his assistance on this essay. The following links were also suggested by Aaron:
Like Peter Pan, Steven Rubio didn't want to grow up. He did anyway.