Norman Rockwell – the classic American painter painted simple family life, picturesque settings, quaint little communities with happy people. Most included families sitting someplace, and the iconic one is ‘Freedom from Want’ (1943), where a family gathers around a full dinner table at Thanksgiving. We all unconsciously wish for that life – a freedom from ‘want’.
Most parents who I know, work night and day, wanting to diligently provide for their children, give them the best they can do, the best their paychecks can buy, the choicest education, the best possible opportunities and so on. A leg up in the world – for their careers and personal lives. Admirable. Noble.
But what if I told you, that whatever they are working towards, slogging, meeting deadlines, and working on their own performance evaluations for their next bonus – that it was was not good enough? No matter what they did or how much income they pulled in? Or how many homes owned or culturally enriching vacations taken, or how the frequency of visits to religious institutions of choice?
This possibly unpopular perspective comes from spending 8 hours at a time in local high schools, in one suburban metro in the United States, on and off, over the last few years, a sampling, if you will. This is not a deliberately undertaken or scientific exercise or experiment, but a byproduct of observations and interactions.
If you were a fly on the wall in a local high school, in an on-level class, this is what you’d hear most teenagers (15-18) say, specifically to a female substitute teacher.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with how schools operate nowadays, ‘on level’ means that this is the average student population. These kids fall in a space where they are taking classes to complete required credits so they can graduate out from school.
And, mind-you: this is just one classroom, over the course of one ordinary sunny Fall Thursday.
Why can’t I use my phone (in a no phones classroom).
No I won’t turn it in my phone, you can’t force me. You can’t make me!
(After 3 requests to put the phone away, the kid has to be sent to the front office).
So, yea? You want to send me to the office? Really? You really want to do that? Just you watch, I’ll be back in 5 minutes.
So, you are just going to ask the TA to take me? You aren’t coming with me?
I’m going to tell on you. Just you wait.
(class snickers, dissent continues)
Do you speak Spanish? (they are in a food-sciences class). It looks like you can. Maybe you can? Can you read this?
Will you help me study for Spanish? I think I’m going to fail.
If I fail Spanish what if I drop out of HS? Do you want to be responsible for that? Do you?
I am going to cry- you are making me sad. (proceeds to fake-cry)
That chair has a mind of its own. I may need to take chemistry to figure out why it keeps falling.
(Sub corrects- ‘more like Physics’)
Physics! I take physics! I mean, I’m smart and all, you know.
So, I mean, are you qualified to teach? How long have you taught?
How long have you taught high school?
How many years?
This is stupid, why do I have to do this work?
Student #5 (distracted young lady who has the fits of laughter)
You are making me nervous.
Have your parents never taught you that it is rude to stare?
Why are you here?
(Loud whispering: Omg, why IS she here?)
Omg, she’s making me nervous.
Stop looking over my shoulder.
I am stressed.
I have dyslexia. (claim refuted by another student at the same table)
What is a thesaurus?
Gosh this is SO boring.
I know what I am doing.
So, if I don’t do the work I don’t get a grade, right?
My grade is my responsibility, right? So why are you here?
5 Students talking among themselves:
Everything depends on how much money the parents have, right? Hahaha.
Teacher #1: Hey, I’m checking in. So, how’s your day been? The kids behaving?
Sub: (relates details of class environment)
Teacher: Why am I not surprised!? I graduated from here and used to teach at a different HS but came back here to teach. It was a lot different in my time. The kids nowadays have no respect for their parents, their peers, their own teachers or themselves. So, the sub is even lower than that. I don’t know what to expect anymore. And I’ve been here ___ years.
Teacher #2: So, did they behave?
Teacher #2: Oh, I know the coach for student #__. He can run, I’m going to ask Coach to give him an extra couple of laps around the field.
Sub (reflecting: how does a physical reprimand, away from said incident, register in the students’ mind that disrespectful behavior should never have happened to begin with?)
Do (parenting) adults think this normal? Would adults like to be spoken to like this?
Would this behavior work in an office environment?
Despite a parents’ earnest desire to give them the best, doesn’t anyone see anything missing?
Mind you, these are seemingly well-fed, well dressed kids, with the latest gear: phones, watches, sweatshirts and fashions. Some have the newest backpack, the perfectly manicured nails and often, very often, the one with the shortest skirt or the class jock/student-athlete is most likely to back-talk other unfamiliar adults. The text in bold was that student's punchline, and elicited laughter and snickering from other students.
I have heard every excuse from parenting adults – most High Schoolers don’t know how to speak to other adults… they are awkward, they are well, kids.
If parents would pause, and instead put themselves in the shoes of the person who is in that room, instructing their children, watching them, possibly even taking care of them in (heavens forbid), a dangerous situation. How would they feel? Do they think their ward will respond appropriately?
Enabling rude behavior by making an excuse gives them permission to continue, makes it OK.
I for one, don’t think it is OK.
Parents may pride themselves in their Sunday-school dressed children, with perfect manners reserved for loved ones. But often, when familiar eyes are away, many young adults feel entitled to climate-controlled facilities, an education, to a teacher who will quite literally baby-sit them through class, that they have the right to graduate from high school because they showed up.
Schools are not government sanctioned daycare facility for young adults. I wish parents would stop treating it like one. And, showing up at high-school does not amount to success in life – it just means that their time is accounted. In the way I see it, it is often a chunk of wasted opportunities.
These young people will vote soon. Imagine how their opinions translate in the next presidential election.
They already have their biases, and are quick to make assumptions and discrimination's towards gender, race, class, entitlement and financial standing – often questioning authority. What does that mean if for instance, they are stuck in an elevator or on the subway, or in the midst of a humanitarian crisis: can parents trust them to be kind to strangers?
They will be / are / already have jobs, and are part of the greater workforce. Will their behavior mean fair working conditions when they have jobs of their own?
They drive and are on the roads with vehicles. Some are driving their friends around. Will they be able to make quick, split second smart decisions on the road?
They are someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Are they able to offer respect, understanding, compassion or empathy – to another human being when they don’t know them just yet?
They are athletes on a field. Can they play fair or obey rules of the sport?
They are close to the legal age to drink. Will they be able to make good decisions if they or their friends are drunk?
If a parent assumes that such a young person has the maturity to manage a car, a game, a job, money, or a relationship, their careers or the future of the country - I wish they would take the time to teach them a far easier and more basic skill set: being respectful of another human being.
We don’t aim for a Norman Rockwell society, or can’t even wish for the basic Please and Thank You. Is hoping for a society that is composed of respectful, empathic humans the impossible dream?