The year: 1880. The place: Springfield, Ohio. The year: 1662. The place: Genoa, Italy. The year: 122. The place: Alexandria, Egypt.
Times and places far distant from one another. So, too, their cultures. What do they all have in common? Historians might debate the answers, but one thing all could agree on: The family — or the clan or the tribe — was the undisputed teacher of the youth. For better or worse, they were the dominant shapers of the next generation. Consequently, what most children absorbed when young, they retained when old. Those who opposed the guardian adults had little or no reach into the child’s world. Their power to mold him into their image was minimal, if they had any at all.
Or so went the social reality for 99-plus percent of human history. The other fraction of 1 percent is happening today. In the last few generations of family life, at least in our culture, everything has changed.
Who Is This?
A sad but common scene in my office is that of parents struggling to fathom the wayward conduct of their teen or young adult. They feel helpless as he ignores or rejects the family’s standards. Years of conscientious parenting are having waning influence. His moral trajectory looks to be veering from theirs at accelerating speed.
Hurting and confused, they ask, “Who is this? We didn’t raise him this way!” And indeed, they didn’t. These are good parents whose aim all along has been to instill solid character in their children. Along the way, however, they likely underestimated the power and persuasiveness of what opposed them — the surrounding culture. Not only does the culture talk and act differently from them, but it celebrates its way and belittles theirs.
As used here, the “culture” refers to society’s reigning morals, attitudes, and conduct — in essence, what it values, what it pushes as acceptable and “enlightened” living.
One Child Too Many
Not only is the culture not fond of your way of raising children: It isn’t all that fond of children themselves. Oh, kids are all right — in the proper, respectable number per household. You’re generally permitted two before meeting society’s judgment. If both are of the same sex, then three might be understandable: “You’re trying for a girl, right?” Or, “You’re hoping for a boy now, huh?”
Beyond three, though, the editorial comments multiply per child. You’re being irresponsible, selfish (talk about irony), and soaking up more than your fair share of the rain forest.
Our society has wrapped its arms around a “liberating” carnal code: If it feels good — even if not — do it. Pretty much any sexual activity is applauded. Pretty much any, that is, except having one too many babies in marriage.
A reigning cultural commandment: Don’t judge another’s behavior — unless she’s a married mother of more than two. Upon visiting their physicians for a checkup for their third pregnancy, mothers are handed “family planning” brochures, as though they are afflicted with an illness that needs prevention.
A father of ten told me that after his fifth, he kept to himself news of his wife’s pregnancies, as the congratulations were decreasing and the stunned silences increasing. Out-of-state relatives would just have to be shocked at his family’s expansion at the next holiday.
There is risk in cornering veteran parents who’ve heard the same tiresome critiques and who are trained in fielding quirky queries from all the little people living around them. “Is this all your family?” Of course not, our oldest is at home with the triplets. “Are you thinking of getting fixed?” I didn’t know I was broken. “I’m glad it’s you and not me.” I think my kids are glad, too. (Ouch!)
This bent attitude toward the acceptable quota of children, at its very core, speaks to the collision between our society and traditional family life.
When my wife and I trooped through a public place with our ten adopted children, we got our share of stares, perhaps because of the sheepherding dog with us. Because our kids had a variety of skin colors, we weren’t targets of the heavier critiques reserved for parents of ten biological kids. Adoption does lend a certain concession to family size.
Not always, though. A mother of eighteen special-needs adopted children said that with each child, she received more swipes than support. “What are you trying to prove?” was a familiar refrain. That she wanted to give a home to a child who needed one?
If you’re accused of adding people to an already over peopled world, ask a simple question: “How are you so sure you’re not one of the too many?”
“Adolescents rebel. It’s a stage on their way to independence.” So says the theory, held as developmental gospel. Reality says something different: Some kids rebel; some don’t. Some a little, some a lot. Some for months, some for years.
No question, adolescence is a time of accelerating physical change. Bodies stretch; hormones surge; adult anatomy beckons. Yet rebellion for many teens remains time limited. It’s a transient grab for multiplying freedoms and perks. Craving more independence than their parents know is good for them, they strain against the rules.
At peak rebellion, though, the teen still holds, however loosely, to what she has been taught. For a spell, she thinks herself more savvy and up to date than anybody over twenty-two. Life, however, in time compels a more grown-up (read: old person) outlook. To paraphrase Mark Twain: When I was eighteen, my father was the dumbest man in the world. I was amazed at how much smarter he got by the time I reached twenty-one.
Present-day teen rebellion seems more cultural than biological. Even the word “teenager” is fairly new to the child-rearing lexicon. Would a farm father in 1880 lament, “My son’s fifteen. He’s giving me all kinds of attitude when I ask for help around here. Even when I let him sleep in until six in the morning, he still fights me over getting up. Most folks I know are running into the same trouble. It must be that teenager thing.”
Right. Like almost all parents everywhere for millennia, that father saw the teen years as a positive, not a disaster waiting to happen. His kids were bigger, stronger, more competent. Adolescence wasn’t a rocky parenting stage to be weathered. It was welcomed. The idea that “older is harder” didn’t cross Dad’s mind — or, if it did, it was more than balanced by “older is more helpful.”
Our culture has birthed a cruel relative to rebellion: rejection. While rebellion is typically linked to adolescence, rejection can continue through the teens into adulthood. It is a much longer departure from a parent’s guidance, an embracing of alternative, often antagonistic, ways of thinking and living. Fortunately, not all rejection is lifelong, but while it persists, it creates distress and feelings of failure for parents, who wonder, “Who is this person I raised?”
Movers and Shapers
Who or what is fomenting this rebellion turned rejection? Those who speak through the cyber sphere, media, entertainment, and education. They are the movers and shapers of our cultural mores. They extol with vigor the “progressive” ways to view values, religion, and life. They pronounce Mom, Dad, or both to be moral throwbacks, out of touch, living in last week.
Two professors, Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, in the 1980s conducted a bombshell survey. They asked 240 members of prestigious media — journalism, television, movies — about their political and social views.1 Some highlights (though a better word might be “lowlights”): 45 percent of media elite considered themselves atheist or agnostic, compared with 9 percent of Americans; 6 percent of the media establishment attended church weekly, and 89 percent seldom or never, while weekly church attendance among the general population was 42 percent (it’s roughly similar today), with only 25 percent seldom or never attending.
When asked if abortion at any time of pregnancy should be legal, 94 percent of those surveyed said yes. Is adultery acceptable? Media — 55 percent: yes.
Is television critical of traditional and religious values? 80 percent: no. Too much sex on television? 70 percent: no. Too much violence? 40 percent: no.
Regarding television’s elite, Lichter and Rothman state, “They are not in it just for the money. They seek to move their audience toward their own version of the good society.” They emphasized that the political, social, and moral outlook of those who dwell in the upper echelons of the media does not remotely align with those of the typical American. They wholeheartedly disputed the media’s claim that it merely reflects society’s values and does not reshape them.
Lichter and Rothman looked at media attitudes of two generations ago. Their downward moral slide, it would be hard to dispute, has only gained momentum.
In 2006, the Media Research Center surveyed two thousand Americans, ages eighteen and older, representing a wide range of views on religion, politics, and media. Among their many findings: “Adults who perceive moral decline in America consider the media the second greatest influence on moral values in our culture, exceeded only by the family.” Sixty-four percent believed that the media dramatically shapes cultural morals. Only 7 percent said they do not.
“People who adhere to traditional moral values are more likely to believe the media are a major influence . . . at seventy-three percent.” Hollywood specifically as a major influence: 82 percent.
“The consensus is overwhelming: Any way you measure it, Americans from virtually every demographic category agree that the media, both entertainment and news, are undermining moral values.” Badly.
You don’t need to read all the surveys to be convinced that the media and entertainment are radically at odds with parents trying to raise moral, responsible persons. It pervades our experience. It’s coming at us and our families from every broadcasted direction.
My college-age son, Peter, said to me, “Dad, you’re one voice telling me how to live. There are thousands out there criticizing you and telling me their way is better.” So far, my one voice has been louder. Either that, or Peter doesn’t want to cough up his own tuition.
Some years ago, a movie called The Fog wafted into theaters. Its plot depicted malevolent forces inhabiting a virulently threatening ocean fog. Overcoming all attempts to seal it out, it diffused through the tiniest of cracks in any building.
The culture’s voices are like this fog. They seep in, probing for the tiniest gap, breaching the protective surroundings of the home. Sophisticated and seductive, their stamina is limitless.
Is the only surefire defense to flee them? To head for the Arctic, the Sahara, the Himalayas? Suppose one did: How long before cell towers and the Internet would follow, if they aren’t there already? The acceleration of technology is inescapable. And while it can move much of life upward, it can move much of family life downward, or at the least toward new terrain that is trickier to navigate. Technology itself is not the primary villain: It’s the ugly stuff it invites and carries.
When Peter was in his mid-teens, he and a buddy were walking down our driveway. Looking out a window, I teasingly yelled, “Hey, you kids, get off my driveway!” At which Peter turned to his friend and cried, “Run! It’s old man Ray.”
This book will not be in the caricatured voice of the reclusive neighborhood curmudgeon, bemoaning the now and living in the then. Rather, this book will respect the culture when it respects you, the loving and conscientious parent, but will oppose it when it opposes you. My intent is to raise your awareness of the forces undercutting you and to build your confidence to resist them and, whenever possible, to render them allies rather than adversaries.
In the end, if you’re not standing stronger, then you can walk all over my lawn. Just stay out of the flower beds.
The culture has a message for parents: We don’t like the way you are raising your kids. We don’t think like you, believe like you, or act like you. You are so yesterday. We have all the means to mold your child in our image — a much more attractive image. And we’re experts at wielding those means.
Don’t underestimate the pervasiveness and persuasiveness of popular culture. From outside and inside your home, it can laud its ways and scorn yours.
You have the power to diminish its power. You have vigilance, supervision, resolve. Most of all, you have love. You love your child; the culture doesn’t.
The culture thinks its way is the better way for your child to live. You know better.
Art for this post on parenting: Cover and featured image used with permission.