The Obstacle of Affluence
We were driving on the freeway, talking about the Federalist Papers, when my friend made the observation that several of the movers and shakers at the time of the founding of this country were quite young. He asked why young people at that time seemed to be so much more mature than young people today.
This is an issue about which I am not entirely indifferent. I have four children, and I would dearly like for them to grow up to be mature, responsible adults. Comparing the present with the past is always tricky. Memories and records are always incomplete or prejudicial. But having made this disclaimer, I think it is fair to say that we live in a time when people are particularly immature. When I recall the people I know from the generation of my grandparents and my parents, they were not uniformly exemplary, but, in general, they had a more developed sense of honor and duty. Novels and short stories from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveal a similar disparity with the present.
This feature of modern society struck me one day when, riding on the city bus, I overheard a conversation which shocked me. On the one hand, there was nothing shocking about it–it was just a simple exchange between two ordinary people that could be heard any day of the year. Yet on the other hand, it constituted a revelation about our culture that hit me like a bucket of cold water to the face.
A young woman in her late teens boarded the bus and sat down next to another young woman of about the same age. As they began to talk, it became apparent that they were co-workers at a local fast food restaurant. One of the two women had been scheduled to work on the previous day, but she had not felt like working, and so she did not work. She spent the day shopping at the mall instead. She learned from her co-worker that this had caused the manager considerable consternation as the manager tried to find a way to cover for a missing worker. Upon hearing this, the delinquent worker admitted that she was seriously considering quitting. She did not plan to notify anyone; she was simply not going to return to work.
Several aspects of this conversation disturbed me. First of all, the young woman showed no sense of obligation or commitment to her employer. She viewed work as an optional activity. If she felt like working, then she would. If she did not feel like working, she would not. And furthermore, she had no sense that the employer was entitled to any notification regarding her absence. Although I was ever so slightly mollified by the fact that she seemed to realize that her employer would not view her work obligation quite so cavalierly, the fact that she showed absolutely no awareness of the disruption and extra work that her absence necessarily caused her manager and co-workers bothered me. She clearly made this choice, and other such choices, without regard for anyone else. She was single-mindedly focused on her own interests. She exhibited no sense of guilt or shame for her actions.
I do not pretend to know whether this kind of attitude has become the norm or whether it is exceptional. I do know that I have witnessed a slow increase in the amount of irresponsibility and narcissism in the youth of our society. This interchange, however, was so brazen that it surprised me a bit.
I am under no delusion that we are witnessing one aberrant generation suddenly appearing out of a whole line of virtuous ones. Quite the contrary. What we are witnessing is the natural outgrowth of the narcissism and irresponsibility of past years. The young people of our time are a generation of children raised by a generation of parents who never grew up. We sowed the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind. Values and attitudes antithetical to mature, responsible behavior now permeate the culture, a culture which has hijacked the very terms “maturity” and “responsibility” and appropriated them for their own use. Calling “mature” the use of birth control pills in order to be able to engage in promiscuous sex without a willingness to shoulder the natural consequence of such activity does not make it so.
Is it enough, however, merely to protect our children from cultural forces in order for them to become mature, responsible adults? Surely these qualities do not just magically happen; they must be fostered, encouraged, nurtured. Responsibility is learned through practice. A child is given small responsibilities when he is young and then increasingly heavier responsibilities as he proves himself equal to the task. As a parent in the modern world, however, I have found this difficult to implement. Whereas necessity forced parents in former times to demand that their children help with the work of the household, affluence has made our children superfluous. Let me explain what I mean.
The world of the founding fathers was quite different from our own. They experienced much of the harshness of reality at an early age. Life was hard, and many had to play a significant role in the household economy from the time they could walk. Childhood was not fun, but it was meaningful. Imagine a child who has been given the responsibility of starting a fire in the stove every morning. He knows that if he does not do it people will suffer. No one else in the family can easily fill in for him because they are all busy with other tasks; necessity imposes this responsibility on him and him alone. Notice that this is a big burden to place on a small child, but also notice that this is a big honor to place on a small child. This is a chore of importance; he is providing heat to warm the whole family.
The child gains in two very important ways by faithfully doing this chore day after day. First, he gains an awareness that there are other people in the world about whom he needs to think. If he wakes up one morning and does not feel like starting a fire, he still has to do it, because other people are counting on him. If he does not start the fire, someone else in the family will have to take time out of his crowded list of chores to do the child’s; therefore, if the child does not do his chores some day, he had better have a good reason. Second, the child gains a sense of self-worth. Lighting the fire is an important task in the functioning of the household, and if it is not done everyone will suffer. By faithfully doing his chore, the child gains the gratitude of everyone in the family.
Contrast this with today. Many children do not grow up doing chores around the house. They play no vital role in the household economy. It has been said that children suffer from low self-esteem, and the “Self-esteem Movement” wants to cure this problem by chanting to children how valuable they are. It seems to me, however, children have low self-esteem because we, as a culture, do not value them. One reason we do not value them is because they do not contribute.
Having this perspective in mind, my wife and I have imposed chores on our children. I would say that we have been moderately successful. We have required them to do such things as wash their clothes, take out the garbage, wash the dishes, clean their rooms, feed the chickens, and so forth; but there has been something slightly artificial about these chores. They are all things that we would like the children to do, but they are not so central to the affairs of the household that every one notices whenever they are not punctually performed. Sometimes we notice when a chore has not been done, and sometimes we do not. Even when we notice, however, it is sometimes far simpler for us to do the chore ourselves rather than taking the time and effort to make sure the child does it. The fact is, the tasks we give to our children are not vital; failing to do them is not disastrous. Consequently, the sense of responsibility and significance that would come from doing something truly important is not there.
The only thing we ask our children to do that rises to a level of real importance is to watch our youngest child, Seth, who has Down Syndrome. Unsupervised, he very quickly gets into mischief of one kind or another, and he does not have the judgment to know when he is doing something dangerous. Because my wife and I simply can not watch Seth all the time and still do all the other things that need to be done, we frequently call upon our older children to help keep an eye on him. One the one hand, I have had mixed feelings about requiring our children to do this; it is a very big responsibility for children, and I am reticent to have them bear it. On the other hand, it is a very important and meaningful task. In the final analysis, my wife and I have no choice. Necessity forces us to turn to our children for help; there is nothing artificial about this chore.
Consequently, this circumstance has been a blessing. I firmly believe our children are more responsible and mature than they otherwise would have been. As any parent realizes, however, to place heavy responsibility on a child in our day and age is quite risky. As the children compare notes with their friends, they realize how much we ask of them compared to other parents. At any moment, they could listen to the siren song of “injustice” and rebel, deciding that our demands are cruel.
So then, if we compare how the founding fathers raised their children to how we raise our children now, we find that our affluence has significantly affected the role children play in the household. At the time of the founding fathers, necessity forced parents to require children to do essential household tasks. Parents had little choice in the matter; they needed their children’s help to provide for the family. Since the work was imposed by necessity, however, children understood that their parents were not being cruel to require it. Furthermore, since most children had significant responsibilities to fulfill, it was the cultural norm. The child who did not have significant chores to do was the one who had to explain himself to his peers. Necessity could be cruel and harsh, but it was something outside the family that the whole family had to bear together. Children could take pride in the part that they played in that effort.
Now, as a result of our affluence, the situation is just the reverse. The labor of our children is not essential to the day-to-day activities of the household; consequently, chores are not the norm. If a parent sees value in carving out a role in the household for the children, the tasks are often relatively insignificant, artificial ones; they do not have the urgency and gravity of tasks imposed by necessity. Furthermore, parents run the risk of being seen as the “bad guys”: children sense that these tasks are artificial creations of the parents, and our culture only reinforces their tendency to interpret their parents’ demands this way. What an anguishing predicament we modern parents find ourselves in! We see the need to teach our children to be responsible, but we are deprived of the external pressure that forces us to do it. As a result, most children in our day are not receiving this kind of training.
Times have changed and so must parenting. We must teach our children to be responsible even though we have far fewer natural opportunities. This means we have to exploit to the full every opportunity that comes along. If, for instance, our child joins a baseball team, we need to make sure that he understands the nature of that commitment and the impact of his behavior and attendance at practices and games. In some ways this seems like a trivial example, but we must make the most of such opportunities, because affluence has robbed us of all other.
Copyright April 2000 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.