Sunday, September 19, 2004

Raising Adults

I wrote a book called Raising Adults the premise of which was a simple word play. North Americans spend anywhere from 18 to 24 years raising children. The problem is, when we’re done, that’s often what we end up with: children. They’re adult children to be sure, but adults who are painfully under-prepared for the real world.

Most of us nurturers, when we’re not feeling angry or afraid about this, end up unhappy because things didn’t work out the way we hoped. After all, we’ve come to believe that the real world requires skilled, mature adults. And, God help us, we look around and that’s not who we’ve been raising.

All this is, of course, a cliché—no more accurate than “The Me Decade” a generation ago. The Me Decade started life as a 1976 Tom Wolfe essay in New York magazine—his entertaining, insightful take on postwar America and the emergence of my generation. The popular press loved Wolfe’s characterization, American preachers jumped all over it and, after a few months, The Me Decade became The Me Generation by which they meant us Baby Boomers. They said we were self-centered and unreliable. They said we were sex-obsessed, drug-addled and undisciplined. All we cared about, they said, was feeling good. Which made our mothers blink back tears and our fathers shake their heads gravely wondering where they went wrong.

The preachers and the press were partly right about us. And partly wrong. America was, and is, a cultural soup. We stew on a back burner, every generation adding unique flavors to the blend. Generalizations seldom reflect anybody’s reality. Some of us went to Vietnam; some to Canada. Most stayed put. Some of us smoked dope, a few of us were Jesus Freaks, a lot of us went to college, most of us went to work. We did not end western civilization. We blended into the soup. There were lots of us—76 million. So, in time, the cultural soup took on some of the distinctive flavors we brought.

The generation just behind us will do, more or less, the same. Most of our children and grandchildren are, or soon will be, competent, capable, productive, fun human beings. Kids have a way of doing that. They turn adult on us, whether we raise them that way or not.

Still, if we’re paying attention, we can’t help noticing that a sizable number of our offspring couldn’t care less about the real world. “Real to whom?” they mutter. They are—lots of them—Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X:” People who don’t fit in because they won’t fit in.

Demon seed is how they’ve been characterized by many of my peers. Inconsiderate. Spoiled brats.

If we lost our ideals in The Big Chill, well our kids are sorry for us, but, frankly, it has nothing to do with them. They don’t hate us; they don’t hold us in contempt. But they don’t admire us either, or feel obliged to listen to us. Still, they’re watching. For what, we’re not sure. They play by a different set of rules and they won’t tell us what they are. Non-rules most likely. Meant to make us crazy so they can cash in on all the loot we’re about to inherit from their grandparents—our parents. Well you can keep your un-game to yourselves you wicked brood of . . . Oh. Did I say that out loud? Sorry.

A lot of our kids seem to be doing fine. They’re not in jail nor do they seem likely to go there. They get to school or work most days. They don’t carry concealed weapons, traffic in drugs or consort with prostitutes. They seem to be turning out OK. Perhaps it’s benign neglect: We managed to not screw them up. Or Providence. Providence was very popular with the founding fathers and mothers. It’s in all the early writings; I see no reason we can’t invoke it now.

And maybe we didn’t do such a bad job. Maybe the kids are alright.

Except that some aren’t doing so well. Some days it seems like most aren’t doing so well.

Look, we all know Generation X and Y and whatever’s next are clichés synthesized from something observable. That observable something is a disturbing level of aimlessness, sadness, anger, fear, violence, and hopelessness. Many of our offspring reach adulthood with a serious deficit of life skills. They enter their adult years emotionally impotent, unable to cope with pressure, socially unskilled, scholastically under-prepared, spiritually undernourished.

I wish I could say these problems belong to someone else. I wish I could say they are urban issues. I’d like to point to out-of-touch rural communities and say Look these folk aren’t raising adults! I wish these were the challenges of single mothers, people of color, the poor. It would give me great satisfaction to say these difficulties afflict only the rich. I wish. But it’s not true. We’re all in the same boat, I and everyone on my wish list.

The problems long associated with our economic underclass are epidemic in the suburbs too. As early as 1981, someone called it “affluenza,” the same behaviors and attitudes slightly up scaled—martinis instead of 40s.

And so, urban, suburban, small town, rural; we feel sad. We hate to see kids get off on the wrong foot. They are, after all, our children, one way or another.

There are more than 20 million adolescents in North America. Including their parents, teenagers have the (admittedly divided) attention of 36 million adults give or take—including around a million middle- and high- school teachers, instructors and coaches, half a million church-based youth workers, 3 million employers and 16 million retailers, marketers, officers of the court and, of course, demographers.

As long as we’re counting, let’s add that only a fraction of global teens live in North America. Before long, 2 billion teenagers will live on this planet. Let me repeat that so you don’t have to reread the sentence: In the years just ahead 2 billion teenagers will call this world their home.

Is it just me or is that an awful lot of kids hanging out at the mall? Or fighting wars . . . Or spreading disease . . . Or building and buying things . . . Or solving planetary problems . . .

More counting: Depending on who’s numbers you like (if you like anybody’s numbers), there are somewhere around 45 million Generation X Americans, followed by about 70 million younger siblings—the ones some people refer to as Generation Y, for reasons that escape me. This assumes you’re willing to accept a purely demographic definition, which I’m not. I’m no happier with demographic definitions of Generations X and Y than I was with merely statistical descriptions of The Me Generation. Douglas Coupland was pretty unhappy about it too (his novel, Generation X, inadvertently ignited this silliness much as, back in the day, Tom Wolfe’s New Yorker article launched the Me Decade). More on that later.

Back to the counting. Included among all these youngish Americans is an emergent population of young adults living in extended adolescence. These young men and women are, in many ways, more like old boys and girls. They remain semi dependent on their parents or on public welfare systems. They may or may not be students, may or may not work. They don’t pay significant taxes because they don’t have significant incomes—at least on the table.

Men in this extended boyhood are inordinately responsible for teenage pregnancies—legally adult but functionally adolescent males making babies with underage women The time-honored American custom of senior boys dating freshman girls now extends into the decade of those boys’ twenties. The girls are still likely to be 15. One American president called it child abuse. Who can argue with that?

What we can argue is that those men—many of them—are products of parenting in a larger system that raises children.

That’s no excuse. But it may help us interpret otherwise baffling behavior. At the risk of being obvious, how surprised should we be when someone raised without a sense of responsibility, without an appreciation for cause and effect, acts irresponsibly and causes regrettable effects?

But enough already! The question is what are we to do about this, you and me? We feel sad and guilty for raising children when the assignment was to raise adults. Or we feel sad and guilty and pretty damn angry about being raised that way. More than sad. We feel embarrassed; we feel afraid of the consequences of this cultural (and perhaps personal) failure; we’re trying—hoping—to do better.

Fair enough. It’s a start.

What if we could begin—from right where we are—to raise adults or to finish the work our own parents started but didn’t complete? What if we moved beyond blame and beating each other up? What if all of us in the conversation declared a general amnesty; what if we agree to pick back up from where we are (not where we’re supposed to be) and get on with it?

I happen to believe we got where we are more or less by accident. This is not a theological declaration; I just don’t think anybody set out to screw up. I don’t think my parents or grandparents were particularly bad people. Broken, sure. But not bad.

My mother grew up in a family of displaced farm people. My grandfather left his job as a traveling sales agent to work the land my grandmother inherited when she was widowed. They lost the farm. Then, when they moved to depression-era Jacksonville, Florida, they simply lost their way. I know my grandfather worked hard but he never found a way back to where he knew which way was up. They were off balance and they never recovered, financially or otherwise. My grandmother was frustrated to death by the whole thing. Literally. She died too young. Afraid, angry, disappointed; she lost heart.

My father’s parents died before he was two years old and his older sisters and brothers raised him. They did the best they could.

Tell me. In what perfect world of yesterday did my parents learn parenting? Why would my father know the first thing about being a good father? At whose knee could my mother have learned the nurturing arts?

A psychologist might have predicted the adults my parents would become.

My dad was out of control. An attractive, intelligent, undisciplined, spendthrift, compulsive dreamer. He shot himself in the foot over and over until he didn’t have a leg to stand on. He neglected his children for the sake of his work. He neglected his wife for adventures with women he barely knew.

My mom grew up to live the life of a charming control freak. A lovely, personable, competent, hardworking, frightened, pragmatist. At a time when most women in her social set stayed at home, my mom worked to assure the mortgage and car payments. She wanted more time with her children, but she was busy ensuring our physical well-being. I don’t have a clue what kind of income my parents had. I’m pretty clear my father spent everything both of them made—and then some.

After a shocking divorce (no one knew anything was wrong), they remarried, my father and mother. Some people marry the “same person” again and again. Not my parents. The second time around, they married people who couldn’t have been more different.

When I was 19, my mother married an older man and built a lasting, respectful marriage. My father had already remarried because he had to. The young woman was pregnant.

My parents were ordinary folk: broken, needy, imperfect, human. Could they have tried harder? I have no idea. They gave it their best shot. My sister turned out well. The jury is still out in my case.

I can’t find the bad guys in my family. The inept, unskilled, foolish, shattered guys, yes—in abundance. That’s what I am. I suspect it’s what you are, too, (though you’ll have to vote for yourself). Eugene O’Neill wrote somewhere, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” I think that’s the starting point. From that baseline we can generate new perceptions and aptitudes, build new skills, mend the brokenness.

That’s what all this is about: Building and rebuilding relationships that nourish and nurture each other to full adulthood. It’s fired by the conviction that we can retrofit our relationships with deeper understanding and higher love. This is not purely theoretical; I believe I’m doing it bit by bit, and I’m certainly no prize. I’m grateful to Susan, my partner in marriage since 1972, and Kate, our daughter since 1976. They love me as if I were as good as the image I’ve projected outside our household. In fact I’m a bit cynical, a bit crass, a bit irreverent; plus I’m working my way through more than a little anger, more than a little fear and a whole lot of failure.

I’m just a reasonably capable man figuring out that—since it turns out the universe doesn’t revolve around me—maybe I can learn something about doing my job in the universe.

I was a youth worker for a long time—more than two decades all told. In the beginning when hurting, at-risk kids and parents came to me for help, I wanted to know—the “judge” in me wanted to know—Did she jump or was she pushed? Things like that matter to the judge. But after a while, broken and battered myself, compassion posed a new question: Does it matter? She’s broken. What now?

That’s my hope every day now: That I’ll be able to see things as they are and ask, What Now?

[Raising Adults is going out of print this month. I’m planning to revisit what’s worth remembering from those pages and post it in this space.]

Friday, September 10, 2004

Why Not Bush?

A dear friend of deep evangelical persuasion asked a sincere and sincerely interesting question the other day:

"Since our last conversation," he said, "i have thought about you a lot. Mainly because I am ...uhhh...intrigued...or curious. I am always interested when intelligent thoughtful, and insightful people think so differently in some areas than I do. And I am certainly not interested in big time political debate with friends, but was curious as to why...or maybe... if would share your thoughts as to why you would consider voting for Mr. Kerry."

I have two answers.

The first answer is my vote for John Kerry and John Edwards is a vote of no confidence in President Bush and Vice President Cheney (and Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Wolfowitz, Gen. Powell (regrettably), Dr. Rice, Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Rove, and the rest).

I have no confidence in the worldview they promote. I think of them as political fundamentalists lacking the capacity to see anything that’s not visible from the hill where they live. I bear witness to their zeal but I don’t believe it is informed by the world as I know it.

I have no confidence in their economic doctrine (which has contributed to turning a 4 trillion dollar surplus to a 4 trillion dollar deficit and which has accommodated an annual growth rate in the federal government three times greater than the growth rate of the eight years prior to their return to the White House (with less to show for that growth in terms of deliverables to the American people). Forget about the quality of the jobs created in the last four years; going into this fall we are still down nearly a million jobs, net, since they took office. Then add the quality of the new jobs as measured by pay and benefits and it’s not a pretty picture.

I have no confidence in their military doctrine which is the very definition of hubris and by which they have dragged America out of the circle of international law. Their actions in Iraq have exposed how thin our military strength is in fact. They have destabilized the world.

I have no confidence in their foreign doctrine. They have increased fear and diminished respect in the world, turning an amazing surplus of international good will on the fall of 2001 into an amazing deficit of good will in the fall of 2004.

I have no confidence in their domestic doctrine. Official government figures are clear that the benefit of the Bush tax cuts goes disproportionately to the wealthy and the burden of paying for those cuts falls disproportionately on small business owners and the working class. This administration has shifted the burden of paying for the results of federal environmental crimes away from the criminals and onto the backs of taxpayers. They have dismantled environmental protections on water, air and chemical ground waste. They have de-clawed law enforcement. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban will expire next Monday after proving its worth over ten years. Mr. Bush has shown zero leadership in calling for the extension of the ban on weapons needed by no one except soldiers. On Tuesday the National Rifle Association will endorse Bush/Cheney 04. I will hold Mr. Bush responsible for every assault-weapon death from Tuesday on.

I have no confidence in their legal doctrine. I see the Patriot Act as an assault on the Constitution of the United States that exposes any citizen to unlawful search and seizure and imprisonment without trial by Executive whim. No American is protected by law today and I pray that Congress will have the wisdom to reverse itself on this. I believe this administration has done more to attack and damage the Constitutional separation of powers than any in my lifetime.

I have no confidence in their commitment to truth telling. I’ve never seen an administration more secretive or more intolerant of honest questions, let alone open debate. Their actions against journalists, critics and the loyal opposition ranges from small minded (disenfranchising senior White House correspondent Helen Thomas because she asked objectionable questions at press briefings) to misguided (refusing to respond to questions from members of Congress unless they are Committee Chairs—all of whom currently are party loyalists) to criminal (leaking the name of an active CIA field agent after her husband debunked a key element in the case for the Iraq invasion—thus illegally placing her and her network in harms way and compromising a difficult-to-replace stream of intelligence). I would give them points for sneakiness if that were a virtue. Also foolishness.

I have no confidence in their integrity. They claim to be honest but I think they are merely blunt. They are quick to shift blame and slow to accept responsibility. Dr. Rice was on the Today program this morning to support the Vice President’s representation that what he meant when he said last Monday that, if we make a mistake at the polls in November we will more open to attack—what he meant was: whoever is elected in November faces the danger of further attacks. Katie Couric pushed back ever so gently saying those phrases don’t mean the same thing, to which Dr. Rice—demonstrating loyalty but not integrity—replied that the Vice President was clear about what he meant by those words. This makes my brain hurt. I think Dr. Rice believes we’re all stupid. I don’t understand why the Vice President didn’t say, “I misspoke. What I should have said is…” I think that’s the least that can be expected of him. This is the most recent example of this administration’s practice of calling green red and daring anyone to say different.

So. My first answer is my vote for Kerry/Edwards is a vote of no confidence in Bush/Cheney. I'll post my second answer shortly.