Life with Gracie: Have we become a nation of kids? The trend of adults behaving badly


My daughters left school for the last time nearly a decade ago, but I can’t tell you how happy I am the school year is over.

I wish I could say I owe my sentiment to an easier traffic flow but I can’t. I’m just sick and tired of all the adults behaving badly — coaches having inappropriate relationships with their students, parents joining schoolhouse brawls, and teachers, dressed more like students than professionals, fighting each other. And get this. There’s an entire video library of parental misbehavior at youth sports events.

If you’ve had occasion this past year to ask what the world is coming to, I’ve got an answer. We’ve become a nation of little kids.

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Diana West first warned us about this more than a decade ago in her book, “The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization.”

You might remember it.

Gone were the days when parents knew the difference between right and wrong and taught it to their children. And in its place was a generation bent on raising children more interested in self-gratification, of creating their own culture of music and clothes than in emulating their parents.

West wrote: “The common compass of the past — the urge to grow up and into long pants; to be old enough to dance at the ball (amazingly enough, to the music adults danced to); to assume one’s rights and responsibilities — completely disappeared.”

It used to be moms and dads had sons and daughters. And teachers had students. Somewhere along the way, the lines of demarcation disappeared. Teachers dress like their students, and moms and dads dress like their sons and daughters. And they’re behaving like them, too.

It’s truly fascinating to watch. Grown men who’d rather play video games or troll the internet for little girls for sex than engage women. Women, taking their cues from reality TV, getting their jollies dissing other women.

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Deborah J. Cohan, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, says these sorts of scenarios all have one characteristic in common — a profound sense of entitlement on the part of the perpetrator.

“Adults doing all the things you mention are exerting a tremendous amount of power and control,” she said. “They feel entitled to be overbearing and domineering and act in terrorizing ways in order to get their own needs met.”

What’s worse, Cohan said, is such behavior creates webs of fear in children of these parents, for the students in these classrooms, and for other observers, and as a result, the behavior exerts a larger sense of threat and social control.

I’m 59 and Cohan is 47. We came of age when school, at least, was a pretty peaceful place to be. Neither of us remembers ever seeing so many grown-ups out of control.

“Media gives us a chance to see it unfold in real time, so it’s hard to know how much is newly unleashed,” Cohan said. “A lot of it is illogical response to the chaos we’re seeing, and when you see our president, who has gotten his way by bullying people, it gives people permission to do this.

“We have this odd exhibitionist culture where all of this pouncing on people and humiliating them in public seems par for the course. It’s like nothing is sacred anymore. There’s no sacred space.”

Sadly, none of this is new. As I said, West saw it coming decades ago, and it’s gotten worse.

“Those who have a ‘traditional’ sensibility become increasingly disconnected to what passes for the mainstream,” West said in response to emailed questions. “As time goes by, too, there are fewer of us!”

What’s driving this?

The short answer probably comes down to money and ideology, the mother of two said.

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For many reasons — laid out in “The Death of the Grown-Up” — West maintains that something profound happened in the middle of the last century. For the first time in human history, instead of children revolving around their parents, parents began revolving around their children.

“In a society as affluent as ours, the resulting flow of money into this new orientation around children and, also, the quest to remain ‘ever-young,’ has reoriented the culture, too,” she said. “Manners, behaviors, expectations, virtues of the ‘grown-up’ are no longer valued or modeled.

“With a revolution in education, and here is the ideological part, that no longer teaches facts but rather inculcates emotional responses and attitudes, we see more and more humans now attaining physical maturity without mastering their emotions and developing their capacities for logical thought. That’s why we see public tantrums brought on by feelings of being ‘offended,’ and also violent reactions sparked by really any kind of setback or limitation becoming increasingly the norm.”

For her part, this is hardly theoretical spinning. West’s kids were entering their teens when she wrote “The Death of the Grown-Up.” Many real-life examples helped shape her perspective.

As a mother of two grown daughters and a trained observer of life, I see it, too, and I wonder if we’re at a point of no return or if we grown-ups will wake up and fly right.

I’m just hoping. West believes we will, that the days when parents made mature decisions and children wanted to emulate them will surely return.

Lordy, mercy, I hope she’s right.



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