Want to know what it is that ails America? I think I may have found it.
I was a little bit drunk yesterday evening when it hit me. My wife and two kids and I were hosting her mother and husband (not the kids’ grandfather, though he treats them like his own) for a little Fourth of July barbecue. I’d spent most of the morning hiking alone in a local state park. The heat and humidity were grisly. Maybe it focused my mind, sweating up and down those hills and valleys in the July heat. They say the miserable heat is caused by global warming, though every other July I’ve spent in Alabama has been pretty much equally as miserable. Perhaps the insight came subconsciously on the hiking trail–extreme physical exertion occasionally has the wonderful capacity of clarifying the mind–only to come bubbling into cognition after having had a few pre-feast beers while I sweated even more over a hot grill finishing up the ribs.
Whatever was the source of my inspiration, it occurred when we all moved inside to stack our plates with ribs and beans and slaw. The kids (son, age eighteen; daughter, age fifteen) went first, which is the way I bet it was at picnics and barbecues all across the land. And that’s when it dawned on me. Two teenage kids, neither of whom did anything to secure the money that bought the meal, nor even bothered to help prepare it, got first crack at the food, feeling so eminently, unquestionably entitled that they thought nothing of taking their turn ahead of the people who had bought the food and prepared it, and even before the guests got their turn.
The kids ate first, which succinctly capsulizes the problem. Children may be the future, but they don’t produce anything in the here and now. And without people producing in the here and now, there won’t be any future for the children. Yet the putative owners of the future treat the people who sustain them today with utter contempt; as not much better than slaves. (Caveat: not much of this analysis applies to very young kids, say under school-age).
I asked my mother-in-law, one of seven children when she was growing up on a farm in Northeast Alabama, “Who went first when it came time for y’all to eat?” Her answer, “Daddy, always, then Billy and Bunk [the two oldest brothers]. By the time the plate of chicken got around to me, there usually wasn’t anything left except the neck.” (She was the sixth of the seven children. I didn’t ask what chicken pieces the youngest child might be left with). She went on to say how she hated chicken neck, and swore if she ever got off that farm and had kids of her own, they’d never have to eat chicken necks, or hoe cotton, or really do much of anything except be her child. She ended up having only the one child, her daughter, to whom I am married. Her daughter has never, to my knowledge eaten chicken necks, or hoed cotton, or done much of any sort of work except that was in an air-conditioned office for more money in a month than her granddad would have ever seen in a year. I suppose, in all, it represents progress that my wife had the world handed to her on a platter, but it also represents the first entitlement generation in her family. Now there are two.
My background is a bit different than my wife’s. My mother was a single mom, living in the inner-city projects (back when whites still did) until I was four years or so old, before marrying a medical student (she was quite beautiful when she was young, and he was quite the geek). He adopted me, undoubtedly as a condition of mom spreading her legs for him, but there was never any idea that he wanted to save me from hard work or eating poor chicken parts. He doled out just enough of his six figure salary on my behalf to assuage my mother’s guilt, and presumably, to occasionally pry her legs apart. I never felt entitled to anything. I sold my blood in college to keep from starving, while my future wife, whose dad was a truck driver and whose mother was in retail banking (branch manager), partied it up at the sorority house. But the future wife, whom I knew from high school, did make time to occasionally drop by my hovel on the outskirts of campus to share the food her mother had sent her. I think she felt sorry for me, though I only felt liberated. Borderline starvation was better than life as a red-headed stepchild. I was willing to pay whatever price was required to purchase my freedom.
But I don’t mean to imply our children’s entitlement mentality is solely my wife’s fault. It’s just that because of her rearing, she probably doesn’t see it as the perversion of social relationships that I do. She probably figures that kids eating first, and coming first in every other aspect, is just the way God intended. But which eats first in a lion pride—the cubs or the alpha male? How ‘bout in a wolf pack—the hunters or the pups? Nature understands the next generation is important. But it also understands there won’t be a next generation if the existing generation fails at its job, so the existing generation is considered pretty important, too.
I’m every bit at fault as my wife. I let this entitlement mentality, this cockeyed notion that children come before adults, arise without doing anything to stop it. In my defense, we had something of a unique situation. With one of the children (the boy) having had two bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia, it was nearly impossible to impart any sort of understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around him, because during the course of the two bone marrow transplants, the world naturally did revolve around him. A bone marrow transplant is so debilitating a procedure that no one could endure it without intensive round-the-clock care, a goodly portion of which was necessarily provided by his parents, and specifically for the second one, by mainly me.
But more generally, to have instilled in the children the idea that parents come first—at the dinner table and everywhere else—would have required swimming hard against the social tides. The whole of society has bought into the idea that parents exist to serve their children. Having had the children more or less thrust upon me well before I was financially ready for them, I was in no shape to battle the currents. All I could do was float along with them, hoping to occasionally point out to the kids where they took a queer turn.
This idea that children are so important (they’re our future!) until they usurp and negate the importance of their parents is more an effect than a cause, arising as the coalesced expression of a number of social trends. The idea would have encountered great difficulty gaining purchase in the patriarchal world of my mother-in-law, as it arises from the ever-present maternal instinct to favor one’s offspring over and above all other people, spouses included, which is tempered and tamped in societies where men, who generally don’t possess the instinct, have a greater say. Likewise, a passel of seven or eight kids as was often the norm a hundred years ago, would necessitate a clear delineation between the parents and the children if some sort of reasonable order and cohesion in the family were to be maintained. Nowadays, woman have only one or two children, and at worst, share equally in familial power and authority with men, allowing them to indulge their instinct to exalt their one or two children. The Chinese, even have a name for the characteristic lone child in a family (a product of their one-child policy) who is doted upon and indulged to riotous excess by six or more adults: The Little Emperor. Men today who object that children are not adults (nor certainly, emperors), and don’t have any adult responsibilities, and therefore should not be afforded all the benefits of adulthood, like being the first to be fed at the dinner table, come off looking boorish and archaic.
Half a century ago, on a farm up on the “Mountain” (as the locals refer to the Sand Mountain region of Northeast Alabama where the mother-in-law grew up), it took Dad’s sweating brow and aching muscles to ensure there was enough to eat. Of course Dad ate first, if that’s what he wanted. The rest of the family wouldn’t have eaten at all had it not been for him. He busted his ass, and worked his boys hard as soon as they were able, to make sure there was enough for everyone. Thus a crude hierarchy was established: The ones who were the most responsible for bringing in the harvest—the men and older boys–were the ones that got to eat first. They got the drumsticks and breasts. The girls got the wings, thighs and necks.
People who keep to the old hierarchies today do so out of cultural habit instead of economic rationale. As work has become no more strenuous than streaming pixels here and there with the tap of a finger, men have lost their old economic basis of power in marriage. And in marriage, without an economic base of power, men have no power at all. They don’t have wombs. The effect of male and female economic equality in society is men that are all but completely impotent in the marriage. So, while dad might have a good point that kids shouldn’t be afforded the hierarchical status of adulthood until they actually reach adulthood and take on its responsibilities, no one has any compelling reason to care what dad thinks.
You see disregard for dads all the time these days. Just watch a few commercials or sit-coms, and it is plain the contempt with which society views fatherhood. Dads are typically portrayed as awkward and stupid social galumphs, while moms are smart and sexy social dynamos. There are exceptions. The Jay Pritchett character on Modern Family comes to mind. He’s the father played by Ed O’Neill, but he’s really more of a grandfather figure in the show (with a voluptuous trophy wife played by Sofia Vergara) who is allowed the occasional wise insight. The other dad in the show, Phil Dunphy, the husband of Jay’s daughter, Claire, and the father of three teen/pre-teens, is every bit the dolt as television fathers are routinely portrayed.
The long-term social implication of exalting children and marginalizing parents, particularly dads, is not clear, but it’s apt to be huge. The Industrial and Information Revolutions have radically altered the social environment much more quickly than the human genome could possibly have adapted.
Kids who have been raised to think themselves automatically entitled to whatever share of the world’s resources they want might make good imperialists, but the American Empire needs only so many imperialists. A vast number will likely find themselves forlorn and confused when they find that world doesn’t share in the sense that they are entitled to whatever they want. But the sense of entitlement will surely aid and abet the government’s expansionist proclivities. Politicians tell people what they want to hear, and if what they’ve heard all their lives is that they should get without giving, it will surely yield a flurry of expanded promises the government can’t possibly hope to keep. Everyone can’t just get without which some have to give.
As for me personally, I think my son actually considers that his exalted status is the natural state of affairs, that he is entitled to be more highly ranked in the family hierarchy than are his parents, particularly me. I think he believes, all the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that he is superior to me and that I owe him something just because he is. This is an understanding unlikely to enhance his survival and propagation prospects, at least so far as I’m concerned. Male lions do sometimes kill and eat their young. If he proceeds too far with his sense that I exist to serve him, he might consider himself lucky to be afforded the opportunity of eating chicken necks.