A HISTORY OF RAISING KIDS IN THE U.S. and HOW TO FIX WHAT WENT WRONG
By: J. Marlando
Author of The Politics of Childhood
How to raise your kids NOT to get into trouble
As most everyone knows, times have changed. Even forty years ago when modernism was still somewhere between Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol, family life was pretty much the cornerstone of American life—while the divorce statistics were still high the family unit remained the center of our culture. And part of that culture was that kids exercised great imaginations and played…outside.
Children climbed trees, played ball, jumped rope, ran about in their games like hide and seek; played cowboys, played house and were active at least most of the time. When a kid came home from school, he (or she) typically couldn’t wait to go outside for that dose of freedom and fun. There may be a little of all that going on today but mostly kids today don’t play outside much or, for that matter, play that much. They can’t wait to watch TV, play their computers games or text their friends or fall into the trappings of some new electronic wizardry.
In the meantime they’ve probably stuffed themselves with fast food, gotten lost in some absurd movie about monsters or men of steel—brainless but fearless—and got to see a few murders on television. One statistic says that a child between five and nineteen sees over 15,000 murders on television. In times gone by, kids watched shows where heroes were the good guys who saved lives, today kids watch antiheroes who kill just for the intrigue or thrill of it. And, what many parents don’t know is that a great many video games that their children play are replicas of what the military use to train their assassins and snipers with to reduce their reluctance and emotional responses of…taking someone out.
Some studies reveal that these shows and games have basically no effect on the child’s personality or values. The argument is that while one child might go to a movie, play some violent video game or hear the lyric of some song and then go out and shoot up his classroom when thousands of other children saw the same movie, played the same game or heard the same lyrics and did not commit crimes. Common sense, however, reminds us that the human brain is tremendously susceptible to suggestion. After all, social engineering is based on this knowledge no less than the professional stage hypnotist is and for that matter, the ad agency is.
Certainly, a child who does witness violence in his or her so-called entertainment is typically not going to run out and commit some violent crime but, without any doubt he or she will have responded on both a conscious level and unconscious level to the experience. And it is certainly possible that if a child is particularly depressed, angry or feeling unloved and neglected he or she may be most apt to manifest those negative feeling through his or her own human action.
There is a message, we’ll say, from that child, teen or adult that wears the colors of a gang and prances about the streets as if he or she is indestructible or in the least impenetrable. It is almost certainly a signal of being deeply hurt psychologically, physically or both. Our prisons are populated by a great number of inmates who think themselves unlovable and therefore make themselves unloving. But no one on the planet is born to hate and to be cruel. These are decisions that evolve from an individual’s world experiences and not from their inborn natures.
Lots of folks in our society scoff at this observation and say things such as boo hoo, hoo; my life was no bed of roses and look at me. I turned out just fine! The arrogance of statements such as this emerge out of ignorance and eccentricities since the very old axiomatic wisdom forever proves true—never judge anyone until you have walked a mile in his moccasins. The point here, however, is that as long as a person does not have actual brain damage the tendency toward violence is invariably summoned up from a turbulent interior—fear, anger, depression, deep sorrow, you name it, we are all the totality of our experiences and subject to them in this sense.
Thankfully most children grow up becoming non-violent and loving adults but almost exclusively they are from average, loving and caring families. Sure, there are exceptions to this but we are speaking in general.
It isn’t only home life that grows a violent or non-violent personality. The whole of society must also bare at least some of the responsibility and so. it is at this juncture that our hypothesis unfolds.
A GLIMPSE of THEN and NOW
Going back a few decades, we’ll take a peek at those years between 1945 and, we’ll say 1954. Those years held a national vision of home and family life as being the cornerstone of Americanism—while many women worked, the general opinion was based on Benjamin Spock’s 1945 book, Baby and Child Care that mothers needed to stay home with their children. And so, for better or worse there were definite male and female roles at least theoretically as the nation readjusted to peace and prosperity after the war years.
Home ownership was the American Dream and a dream that came true for multi-millions of Americans—inexpensive suburbs sprouted up like weeds in a garden. Indeed, mass produced housing provided a first home for under $10,000 dollars and *GI loans were plentiful to help young couple purchase their dreams.
As a result a great many children were raised with the sense of belonging; of stability and safety. While there were plenty of divorces, divorce was still a social taboo. Marriage after all was an institution thought to be merged by God and was not to be taken lightly.
Most families attended church back then, just the opposite of today with regular church attendance at all-time lows and seemingly getting lower all the time. So there were what are often called Christian values in most homes and the children were raised believing in them. Even parents who never read the Bible repeated quotes to their kids in an attempt to “raise them right.”
There were a lot of beliefs back then: Most adults and so most children believed that the US president, senators and congressmen—that is—social authority was all but infallible. The general consensus was that our government cared about the individual and that created a general feeling of having the impossible dream: freedom and security! (This does not apply to the black person of those times but that is a subject for another article and far too complex to go into in this limited space).
Today all that has gone away—most people do not trust government and as far morality is concerned we have Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George Bush the 2nd—Kennedy with his affairs, Johnson’s blatant lie about the North Vietnam Gulf of Tonkin attack on American ships, Richard Nixon’s I’m not a crook era, Clinton’s swinging escapades and Bush’s weapons of mass destruction campaign all served to break the enchantment Americans had with leadership and, for especially young people, the feeling of security and connectedness that the kids way back when had.
The point is not to rehash old scandals but only to point out that children do not grow up with the blind-faith confidence in government as they did back in the 1950s. Indeed, the 1950 mindset was that we lived in an “us” nation and that government was by, for and of the people. Today the mindset is that we live in an “us” and “them” nation wherein our leaders are simply dedicated to the bureaucracies for which they stand. As a result that security of trust in authority that people had in the early 1950s is gone by the wayside and a form of alienation has set in.
This is not the only thread that has been pulled out of the old, national tapestry of course. Young people into the early 1950s believed wholeheartedly in the sanctity of marriage—kids giving birth to kids were the exception and mostly backseat romance between teens amounted to nothing more than deep kissing and some petting. Sure, sometimes that got out of hand but mostly even boys thought of “going all the way” was something special that waited for marriage.
Back then, sex was pretty much a taboo subject and married folks in the movies were still sleeping in twin beds. Today kids grow up seeing more blatant sex on television than was admitted to back in the early 1950s and before. This incidentally is not a value judgment, just an honest observation. Nevertheless, the general belief back then was that coitus was a privilege of marriage only. This does not mean that males and females did not break the rules but it does mean that most children grew up believing in them.
It was also in those early 50s that two enemies of contended family life emerged. Americans had endured a number of years of doing without. There was the depression of 1929, followed by the Dust Bowl of the 30s, followed by World War II when commodities like coffee, butter, meat and sugar were rationed. Indeed the national slogan became, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” After the war, however, when the country was in financial recovery and people were experiencing increased prosperity, they wanted more and more stuff. And, for the first time in American history credit became the cornerstone of consumerism—credit cards, revolving charge accounts and all those “easy payment plans” were becoming common place. Home and family security was falling through the cracks of old fashioned frugality and landing in a land of (unpaid for) abundance.
The second “enemy” to home life was that in the early 1950s television was creeping into the sanctity of family life. By 1957, 40 million sets were in use and many people had a set in the living room and in the kitchen. As a result kitchen table conversation and sharing most virtually went away—the “innovative” television tray was produced so people could eat without holding their plates on their laps while engrossed in their favorite shows.
The 1950s brought in the finally of Radio Days, when families would sit together and listen to music or some entertainment like The Shadow, The lone Ranger, The Jack Benny and The George Burns and Gracie Allan show, there were so many all beloved by most everyone. What was best about radio is that it joined the listeners together in a world of imagination so home life included a kind of collective consciousness working together through imagination that television simply can’t deliver. And, the other thing was that no one had to sit “glued” to the radio. Mom could sew or do the dishes while listening. Dad could busy himself if he wanted to as could the kids and still be entertained. Radio was not a demanding media, it was people friendly.
Radio shows were mostly left until after dark and after dinner or what was still called “supper” by a lot of folks. The reason is that weather permitting children played outside as said at the top of this article. In fact, the big unhappy maker for most kids was Mom calling out, “It’s getting dark, time to come in now.” **This is because children had a love affair with being outside and playing; running about in their games; jumping and romping about! Not today. In the first dozen years of the new millennium children between 8 and 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours using entertainment media such as video games, the computer, phone magic and so forth. 4.5 of those hours are typically spent in front of the television set. Those kids with working parents are most apt to eat a lot of junk food, too much sugar and so forth. It isn’t just weight problems that are resulting but more and more kids are developing diabetes and other diseases. I just read somewhere that this might be “the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than parents.”
The early 1950s were simply healthier, happier and more content than children (and adults) are today. There are definite reasons why.
*Between 1950 and 1960 unemployment was down consistently to around 5%.
**This broad statement does not include all children or children growing up in environments such as The Projects.
CHANGING TIMES and CHANGING MINDS
The Cold War was at its beginnings and everyone felt the pressure of living in a world that might, at any time, blow itself up. Nearly every federal building had posted signs reading: Fallout Shelter grim reminders that the world was in jeopardy. School children had practice drills of what to do in case of nuclear attack. This was basically the seeds that would later produce the so-called “Now Generation.”
We need to digress here for a moment to explain that what we often hear from older people is that, “Young people today want everything right now. They don’t want to work and save. They just want what they want when they want it.” This is not only a bias opinion but a wrong one. The population of the “now Generation” began with the kids of the early 1950s who, on one level of consciousness or another, realized that the future was in the hands of the two super powers, the Soviet Union and the U.S.A., that their lives and so their hopes and dreams could be taken away by the turning of a couple of keys. As a result, only the foreseeable future became important and this importance would be most blatantly demonstrated during the explosive years of the 1960s. We’ll be talking about the 60s a little later.
Early rock ‘n roll did not make kids feel aggressive and belligerent. It simply made them feel “cool.” It also gave them feelings of detachment from the adult world they lived in and were beginning not to trust.
Then in 1954 a movie was released with title, The Wild Bunch. The show starred Marlon Brando—and up an coming idol then—as a leader of a motorcycle gang that terrorized a small U.S. town. It was said to be based on a real incident and was actually banned in England.
In any case, young kids quickly identified with the defiance and began prancing about as young (cool) toughs. There were only a couple of real gangs at the time but a lot of teenage boys became gangs of one in the attitudes.
A year later a truly absurd, even stupid movie was released with a no-story-line and exaggerated characters—it was cornball at best but it was destined to be a tremendous influence on youth. The title was none other than, Rebel Without a Cause. (1955). Now “coolness” was taking on more aggression, it became defiant against adults and, for the matter, the adult world. In that same year, Black Board Jungle had been released and that movie romanticized students who were delinquents giving their teacher a difficult time.
And so for those who claim movies and so television has no influence on people—The Wild Bunch influenced men’s fashion world over. Levis suddenly became popular in cultures who never wore them before and as for the U.S., for the first time bikers began wearing leathers as a symbol of their potential “wild-bunchery.” Rebel Without a Cause without any doubt whatsoever gave most virtually countless youths a rebellion against parental authority and authority in general. Coolness had become defiance and real juvenile delinquency began to escalate. The Red Cross president offered that the real problem was absent parents and this no doubt contributed but there was a combination of causes starting with the constant threat of devastating nuclear war, the hypocrisies that young people were discovering at home—parents preaching the sanctity of marriage and family life but constantly arguing viciously with one another if not divorcing…parents that preached God and the importance of church but never or seldom ever attending a church themselves…Parents who preached the evils of hard liquor while gulping down their cocktails and parents who seemed to moralized everything but simply talked the talk without walking the walk. But something else occurred in 1955 that touched the young people’s own values. That is, that heroic lady, Rosa Parks, that refused to sit at the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Quite suddenly white middle-class America was reminded how the “Negro” was being treated and that treatment struck a great number of youths as more hypocrisy in their world. That is, the U.S. is predominately Christian and forever declaring itself good, pure and loving with the general attitude of doing onto others as one would have others do onto them so youth began wondering why that rule wasn’t applied to black folk. But this was not the only example of prejudice and cruel biases. There was also sexism and, in many instances, even repulsion of the very poor. A great many kids also saw their parents laughing at others and talking behind their backs; teaching them that honesty was the best policy and then bragging about such things as getting too much change at the super market. There was just so much social and private hypocrisy coming into view, on all levels of consciousness, that youth was changing and thus childhood was changing. The real awakening, however, would not arrive until the 1960s, however.
In 1962 the dark cloud over Americans and, for the matter, the rest of the world nearly exploded into a torrent storm that was unheard of and unimagined before the weapons race between the U.S.S.R and the U.S.A.
On October 22 of that year * “all American missile crews were placed on maximum alert. Some 800 B47s, 550 B52s, and seventy B58s were prepared with bomb-bays closed for immediate take-off from their dispersal positions. Over the Atlantic were ninety B52s carrying, multi-megaton bombs. Nuclear war-heads were activated on 100 Atlas, fifty Titans and twelve Minuteman missiles, and on American carriers, submarines and overseas basis. All commands were in a state of Defcon-2, the highest state of readiness next to war itself.”
This was the Cuban Crisis virtually coming within seconds of, in a term, blowing up the world or at least destroying it. Those two keys were not turned but, as it is said, they came within a hair of it and the most destructive war imaginable to any of us then or…now.
It was from this incident that the Now Generation was given birth. The unforeseeable future simply lost meaning to most youth. Why not enjoy the moment because that might be all there is?
And then there was the Vietnam War to think about, a war that no one ever clearly stated what it was about except the propaganda routine of stopping communism and delivering freedom to an oppressed people. There was probably some truth in the “stopping communism” motivation because there was fear that if North Vietnam won the war, there would be a domino effect and all of Asia might fall into the hands of communism. And so, when the French pulled out, *the U.S. moved in most virtually, creating South Vietnam according to the Pentagon Papers. The truth was, however, that we (the U.S.) had been supporting the war almost all along. **While it was illegal for the United State to have more than 685 military advisors in Southern Vietnam, Eisenhower secretly sent thousands and when Kennedy took over, he lifted the figure of so-called advisors to 16,000.
The first big story to hit the news was that a Buddhist monk had sat down in the public square in Saigon and burned himself to death to demonstrate his protest against the Catholic Diem regime that the U.S. was backing. After this more Buddhist monks began committing suicide to protest against Diem. Diem ordered his police to raid Buddhist pagodas and templeswounding thirty monks and arresting 1,400 of people. This had all occurred in 1963 and was of interest especially to students. As I recall it was the outrageous poet, Alan Ginsburg who made the call for “Flower Power” during a speech at Berkeley Campus and the term caught on. The hippy movement was launched first as thousands of teenagers and other youth either left or ran away from home and began congregating in the Haight-Ashbury district where less sincere advocates of the dropouts sold drugs to the kids who would eventually popularize “pot” as their daily dose of love and peace. And then Timothy Leary arrived with his national call to “Tune in, turn on, drop out,” slogan which the youngsters of the movement thought they had done anyway but, Leary was talking about what he called, Internal Freedom, of which offered a great escape into “psychedelica.” By now we’re talking around 1964/65.
As said the original members (there was never a formal membership) of the movement began with a peace and love motivation. The idea was to let loose of your materialism and get in touch with your feelings and so the young people, barefooted and clad like gypsies, would stop strangers on the street, give them a flower and say, I love you.
Why the kids had left home was to reject the status quo as being phony and pretentious, of loving their belongings more than other people; and the apparent social-Darwinism that ran through business and the whole of society. Their theme became if it feels good do it a blatant rejection of the social mores they had been raised with. Unconditional love became the cohesive factor to literally thousands and thousands of young people joining together to bring peace into the world.
Soon enough, however, the movement became politicalized, drug orientated and over crowded with war protestors. The Flower Child was consumed by hippy-ism. The actual hippies had a different agenda than the agenda that started the movement. Flower Power had quickly turned into parades of protest, the interruption of political meetings with chants of protests and demands for change. The Vietnam war had, by then, become the major focus and so draft card burning became the main event and flag burning the attraction, or was it the other way around?
In spite of it all, the “kids” were winning. They changed fashion, they changed the traditional view of homosexuality, they changed hair style, they changed the national norms of sexism, they changed the belief that sex and sin are synonymous; they changed the norms of racism, and they made these changes along with many others not only in the U.S. but around the world. And so it can be absolutely said that the kids of the 60s, changed the world and nearly all those changes were positive—unproductive perhaps, but positive nevertheless.
The idea was to simply love…unconditionally. To live the Jesus/Buddha reality since the hippies of those times merged East and West into one spirituality. After all, for the average hippy there was no segregation, only congregation; God could be found in candle light and goodness in a helping hand.
There was only one true hypocrisy that evolved out of those years of protest against…well, hypocrisy. When the war ended the hippies retreated back into mainstream society, and to the very life they had been discrediting for years: in effect, those who accused bankers of stark materialism became bankers, those who accused business of game playing entered business, joining the very games that they had been protesting against for years. In short, the “hippies” retreated back into the mainstream to become ever as much the hypocrites that they blamed so many others as being. There were a handful who remained hippies but, by and large, the movement ended as quickly as it had begun. By 1972, life had returned to normal and most people were more concerned with a gas crunch than social changes.
Nevertheless, there was one more national movement right around the corner.
*The Cuban Crisis occurred after Fidel Castro announced his allegiance to communism and began receiving a missile buildup on his small off-American Shore Island; missiles that could easily deliver nuclear warheads on our own shores. President Kennedy warned the Soviets to stop the deliveries and return their ships to their own harbors. They did but only virtual moments before World War III was to be launched.
*Howard Zinn * A People’s History of the United States
AS WE WERE AS OUR CHILDREN MIGHT BE
During the 1970s there was a religious revival—probably in opposition for the new non-morality that seemed to be spreading across the nation. Churches and cults were attracting people with magnetic force and some 70 million folks claimed to be “born-again” Christians. It was the evangelists who suddenly spread like a virus of good news across the land. Quite suddenly the evangelists owned their own newspapers, radio and TV stations and were making impact on at least a widespread portion of the American mind. Plus, *they soon enough were taking a political interest calling themselves the “Christian Right” with a major politically minded minister, Jerry Farwell, creating a culture of his own named the “Silent Majority.”
So the country was in a kind of psychological tug-of-war between the fundamentalists and modernists which included the feminists necessarily.
While there were plenty of exceptions a great many children were growing up with either no one at home with them or with strangers who were paid to look after them. This was not only in one parent families where a single mom or dad had to work, this was families where mom had chosen to work outside the home or had to because the family had fallen through the credit gap and were forced into becoming a two-income family. National economics played an invisible role in this also with the rise of taxes hidden and otherwise, the escalating cost of living but, truth be told, the average citizen was buying more and mostly living beyond their means. All in all the security that children need was being neglected because parents wanted more stuff or divorced leaving only one spouse to raise the kids on his or her own…mostly her!
Then in 1980 another influential movie came out with title, The Urban Cowboy. The show starred John Travolta, Debra Winger and Scott Glen and took place at an actual Texas honkey tonk, Gilleys, where would-be cowboys dress in western attire, drink and whoop it up and compete in riding the mechanical bull. I bring this up for a very special reason. As a result of the movie, a massive movement evolved during which western wear—boots and cowboy hats—became the rage. Not just out west but East, even top Wall Street executives were dressed in pseudo-cowboy-ism. Western music became the rage and the old two-step returned as most virtually Americas favorite dance. During this period nearly all the disco and sexuality had been abandoned for some old time, home spun fun.
For a solid year and a few months everywhere you looked you saw, “Urban Cowboys” and “Urban Cowgirls” and Urban Cowboy kids, parents were even dressing their smallest tots in western wear. And people actually became friendly again; there was something socially cohesive in the Urban Cowboy movement; the freedom to say “howdy” to passerby’s and sometimes even get into friendly conversations with them; even marriage and family life had a rekindling—for a moment in time, it was like the “good old days” had returned.
I believe what made the movement so immediately popular is that movie struck a deep, heartwarming cord in the American heart. It represented a little of all of us—rich, poor, educated, uneducated, male or female—in our yearning for the simple and neighborly! In this, I am fully convinced it was our country’s last hurrah with its connection to our country’s past; a movement of the collective unconscious saying a last goodbye to the aspects of our Norman Rockwellian history and our turning toward the Computer Age and all the changes technology would make for all of us in the unfolding future; the future we are living today.
The Urban Cowboy went away about as rapidly as it arrived. Ronald Reagan won the presidency and with the aid of a Republican senate made numerous changes not excluding being strongly intrinsic to the tearing down the wall between East and West and creating a new national economics that would be called, Reaganomics. Actually in 1982 there was a recession that began to look much like the recession of the 1930s but in only a year the economy was flourishing with unemployment down to a little over 8% and an impressive financial recovery with inflation lower than it had been for decades. The cost was devastating however for the poor and poorer of the country—there was a reduction in food stamps, a cut in federal subsidies for low-income housing and cuts in student loans and even school lunches and finally ridged new rules and cuts in medical care. The result of it all was a sudden new population of the homeless, street people which is still growing today.
As a result of it all, today’s American children are growing up in a world that is growing a deeper and wider gap between the haves and have-nots. It is said that 1out of every 5 children is going to bed hungry every night—not very prideful for a country that is known to be the most powerful and wealthiest on the planet. In view of it all, little kids who are growing up today will be facing a world that lacks feeling and compassion as most adults know it from their own childhood experiences and a “Mr. Spock” intellectualism creeping into culture. I am not trying to be a soothsayer here only sharing my thoughts of what seems to me to be a trend as more and more children are becoming more and more informed because of computerization and far more aloofly independent than any generation before them. Perhaps they are the **Indigo Children as some people believe, a new breed of human being born with greater knowledge and understanding of life and others or…perhaps they are simply products of a basically none caring and materialistic world who are learning to bury the humanism in themselves in the quest to survive and struggle against the currents of that world?
Adults today are the products of the decades that we’ve covered in this material, the children today have been produced by them; the world they live in and grow up in are the world they’ve created for them. In this view, I have become a firm believer in the following:
ONE: Children need to know and be reassured that they are not only lovable but loving.
TWO: Children need to be taught kindness through words and demonstration.
THREE: Children need the security of knowing that there is always someone there for them
who will put on the Band Aids and kiss away the pain.
FOUR: Children need to be taught to look inside and not outside for their happiness.
FIVE: Children need to be inspired to think and to feel and not merely follow.
SIX: Children need someone who will applaud them for their accomplishments and
encourage them past their failures.
SEVEN: Children need to grow up with enough love to take love into the world with them,
with enough empathy to take tolerance and understanding into the world with them; children need to grow up with enough self-esteem to take confidence into the world with them, with enough caring to make the world a better, safer and kinder place to live.
If parents only give this much to their children, they will have done their job as parents either in the light of their own childhood experiences or in the shadow of those experiences. Remember, while it is pretty well a given that none of us can change society, much less the world, but by changing ourselves we can surely grow our children so that they can make the changes they desire.
*The Christian Right still exists but there has been so many scandals that it has lost much of its political punch and devoted following.
**Atwater, P.M.H. * Beyond the Indigo Children* Bear & Co.
Historical facts taken from:
Patterson, James T. * Grand Expectations *Oxford University Press
Johnson, Paul * Modern Times *Perenial Library
Brinkley, Alan * The Unfinished Nation *Knope