George Will’s column in the current issue of Newsweek asks, “What are today’s ‘basement boys’ doing down there? Perhaps watching Friends and Seinfeld reruns about a culture of extended youth utterly unlike the world of young adults in previous generations.” He looks at a new book by Penn State historian Gary Cross:
Permissive parenting, Cross says, made children less submissive, and the decline of deference coincided with the rise of consumer and media cultures celebrating the indefinite retention of the tastes and habits of childhood. The opening of careers to talented women has coincided with the attenuation of male role models in popular culture: In 1959, there were 27 Westerns on prime-time television glamorizing male responsibility.
Cross says the large-scale entry of women into the workforce made many men feel marginalized, especially when men were simultaneously bombarded by new parenting theories, which cast fathers as their children’s pals, or worse: In 1945, Parents magazine said a father should “keep yourself huggable” but show a son the “respect” owed a “business associate.”
All this led to “ambiguity and confusion about what fathers were to do in the postwar home and, even more, about what it meant to grow up male.” …
I see this as two sides of a single issue – respect. Young men are allowed if not encouraged to view authorities without respect, at home, in the classroom, around town. Police are not The Long Arm of The Law, they’re “community helpers.” Teachers are cast as “facilitators.” Parents are–well, you know how parents and especially fathers are portrayed in the media.
And in a world without defined pathways of respect and place, some young men lose their vision and ambition. If you reach a position of responsibility (parent, teacher, leader of any sort) and all you have to expect is the same kind of trouble and backtalk you were allowed to toss around when you were a pimply kid, then why bother? Why not just sponge, veg, live the adolescent dream until it can’t be sustained any longer?
We can fix this. Boys want someone to look up to, and they respond well to situations where they know their role in the scheme of things. It will take parents willing to be the parents, though, who both expect respect from their children and demonstrate it themselves in their relationships. We’re caught in the same trap, you know, and if we want our sons to grow up differently, we may have to change our own attitudes about God-given, properly constituted authority.
Which reminds me – April 15 is coming, isn’t it?