America's uninspired children

Childhood exuberance has been replaced with apathy, and innocence with a cynical weariness.

high teens 298 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
high teens 298
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
America today is filled with a landscape of depressed and broken men. Immersed as they are in a culture that makes them feel useless unless they make a lot of money, most end up feeling like failures. They come home and vegetate in front of the TV to numb their pain. And the ones that suffer the most are their children. Bereft of inspiration, the broken American male fails to inspire his children. He does not parent his children so much as admonish them. He does not connect with them so much as police them. He loves his children, but neglects them. After a while, they no longer turn to him for play or talk. The company of their friends soon becomes far more satisfying, further compounding the American male's feelings of isolation and bitterness. The mother, meanwhile, is haggard, psychologically raw, and physically and emotionally exhausted. After giving so much of herself to her job and then coming home to a host of domestic responsibilities, she looks in vain to be rejuvenated and resuscitated by the affection of her husband. Since he cannot offer it, she slowly withers and is unable to inspire her children either. TO LOOK AT American youth today is to witness squandered potential and promise. Our kids are lost. They waste their time with an endless array of inane pursuits. They live for movies, video games, impulse purchases at the mall, and an unending stream of unsatisfying male-female relationships. Their youth is squandered on garbage. And they seem lifeless even as they go about their everyday responsibilities and chores. They are dead in the house and come to life only when they leave the stultifying air of an uninspired home. The numbness exhibited by today's youth, especially teenagers, is more redolent of those who have been through wars than those who ostensibly are innocent and have never suffered trauma. With their ears stuffed with iPod earphones, and the culture pumping incessant decadence straight into their cerebral cortex, they are cut off from all that is natural and most of what is healthy. Passivity, born of endless hours of sitting in front of a television, has become a habit, idleness, second nature. Childhood exuberance has been replaced with apathy, youthful innocence with a cynical weariness. Even if they are not on Ritalin - and one out of seven American kids is prescribed a stimulant drug - they are still addicts, with movies, video games and shopping being the drugs of choice. They need constant stimulation just to feel alive. Noise becomes a substitute for conversation. Hollywood heroes have replaced parents as objects of admiration, and friends have become the new family. The teenagers I meet on Shalom in the Home are deeply ashamed of showing affection to their parents. In one of our TV episodes, a mother turned with tears in her eyes to her estranged teenage son, kissed him, and told him that he was the best thing that ever happened to her. Utterly unmoved and with a blank expression on his face, he responded, "Come on Mom. This is getting corny." I was astonished at how any expression of love between parent and teenager has become something to be ridiculed. When, off-camera, I politely admonished the boy for being so cold to his mother, he told me that in reality he loved his mother, but was conscious of the fact that his friends would be watching the reconciliation on TV. CAN WE really blame our kids for being ashamed to show us affection when they themselves feel so neglected and unloved? Parents simply don't appreciate their children as much as they once did. We don't talk to them as much, interact with them as much, or guide them enough. We don't even have them as much; we have tiny families so that kids can't drain our financial resources. So unappreciated are kids in America that the birthrate is plummeting. In a sense, we need not worry that we are screwing up our kids, seeing as there are precious few left to screw up in the first place. In the US, the birthrate of the more affluent white population is 1.83 babies per family, well below both the replacement rate of at least 2.1, while black and Hispanic birth rates are 2.2 and 3.0 respectively. What this means that within a few generations America's white majority will diminish and disappear. Whiteness is inconsequential and meaningless. But as an indicator of how prosperity in America has led us to value big cars over cute infants and plasma TV screens over baby pictures, our own soullessness is exposed. And let's not think for a moment that our kids are unaware of the fact that, in our estimation, they are of secondary importance. They are placed behind work, career and material objects. The numbness that children today exhibit - especially once they become teenagers - is really silent rage. They rage against the neglect, storm against the disregard, and seethe against the desertion. And they silently mirror their parent's contempt. Every time you try and speak to your teenager and they respond with iPod buds in their ears and a rolling of their eyes, they're telling you something. They're telling you to go to hell. NOW, SINCE kids are innocent, where did they learn such contempt? Perhaps their iPod is a miniature version of your TV. Perhaps their friends are the equivalent of your colleagues at work. And perhaps their school has become like your office. All are escapes by which to supplant the home. Many of the parents who come to me for counseling tell me, in response to my questions, that the family does a lot of things together. When I ask them for an example, watching TV together is often at the top of the list. It's astonishing. Sitting and barely interacting with one another as the entire family is transported to a Hollywood fantasy passes for a shared family activity. The American family as it is currently constituted cannot continue. Something's got to change. Time was when parents were the centerpieces of their families and everything revolved around them. The children coalesced around the sturdy relationship of two loving adults who inspired and guided them. Once the fathers and mothers in America become whole again, it will be possible to illuminate the home and inspire the child. Let the healing begin. The writer is a rabbi, author and television host (