Dear Dr. Wes and Julia:
Do you think today's children are less civil or well mannered than generations past? And if so, to what do you attribute that change, and is it something parents should worry about?
- Chat participant
Julia: Yes and no. No, I don't think this generation of kids is lacking in manners, but yes, I think we certainly tend to ignore that manners exist and are important. What comes to mind when you say "manners" is the idea of napkin-in-the-lap-please-thank-you-yes-ma'am-no-sir sort of etiquette that nowadays is only associated with tea parties.
The fast pace of life and technological boom have, in part, fostered a disregard for manners. If you think about it, so much of today's socializing takes place in the blink of an eye. There's the five-second text message, the two-second protein bar and the occasional one-second "love you, bye" as your teen runs out the door. Since teens are given so many faster options, they aren't forced to converse with adults or sit down and eat a family dinner. Of course, avoiding technology won't increase manner-awareness, it's just easy to forgo time-taking etiquette in a fast-moving world.
Teens may ignore manners at times (myself included) but it doesn't mean they don't have them or don't know how to use them. It simply takes the right social settings to bring out the best in your teen, and you'll be surprised at the results. Even though teens may be slightly less aware of the role of manners, I think they are educated, well-meaning and good at talking with any age group. Perhaps it was the yes-sir-no-ma'am manners that caused obvious roles in authority and an ensuing adult-child relationship, but I think there is a significantly more companionable relationship between teens and adults today. If you can ignore the lessened manners, that kind of relationship is itself worthwhile.
Wes: I consider this a lot in my line of work and am constantly revising my thinking. Every generation is certain that their offspring are more unruly, dangerous and downright screwy than at any time before. We seem genetically predisposed to long for the "good old days" that probably never existed, forgetting that when our forebears were living in those old days they were longing for an even earlier time of peace, joy and good etiquette. This has become the great ongoing cliche of parenting. Imagine what our parents thought of us in the '60s and '70s. Simply consider the hairstyles of the '80s. Need I say more?
At the same time I think these wistful memories of our own days as teens - and the many generations that went before us - make it too easy to dismiss the idea posed by your question. We calm our anxiety as parents in a manner reminiscent of The Who's album "The Kids Are Alright." Weren't those rocking philosophers right in the end? Didn't we turn out OK despite our parents' concerns about our decreasing civility?
I've come to believe that kids probably aren't less civil or well-mannered nowadays - they just have less interest in hiding it. What would have embarrassed us 25 years ago does not faze young people today. What we would have kept secret; they do openly and without much censor. As but one example, marijuana is not an experiment for the present teen society or the cultural icon of the hippie class. It's a way of life for a surprising number of kids. And that MJ is a great deal more potent and easier to access than it was back in the days of yore. This way-of-life issue is also true for sex - though it's exactly as potent as it ever was. Unfortunately, as I've pointed out many times before, I don't think this says nearly as much about changing teen culture as it does about adult society. Teens are like the moon: reflected light. They become what we are. If we are uncivil, careless or self-harming, they tend to be also.
Extending Julia's point, I think the real threat to teenagers is the unbelievable and ever-increasing number of risk factors that they can so easily access in combination with the manic and sometimes dysfunctional lifestyle we require for daily survival and advancement. In responding to this state of affairs, I'd suggest that parents be careful when weighing their own teen-foolishness too heavily at times and letting the fear of hypocrisy stop them from setting down ground rules for their own kids in how they treat others and themselves. Remember, kids will do kid things. It's what they do and have always done. Parents have to do parent things, and sometimes that means being a hypocrite because you were not so perfect as a teen.
Next week: We'll extend this discussion by examining whether kids are becoming less ethical in their treatment of others?
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.