Don’t start out by co-opting the subject’s pain.
Don’t continue by drawing minute and irrelevant distinctions in their facts; such as quibbling between 8 times out of 9 or 9 times out of 9.
Don’t victim blame.
Especially don’t victim blame children.
Don’t mischaracterize the subject’s personality in an effort to avoid responsibility.
After all of that, definitely don’t say “I apologize” like it’s supposed to mean something.
I remember the exact moment I closed the door on sentimentality. It’s funny because I don’t remember the date, or precisely how old I was, or too many of the relevant details that would make for a cohesive narrative, but I remember the exact moment. It was when I killed the unicorn.
Cohesive narrative notwithstanding, let’s see if I can at least provide some context. I collected unicorns as a girl. I adored them. My favorite bed sheets had unicorns, I had posters, a stuffed unicorn, I begged my parents to rent “The Last Unicorn” every weekend, and as gifts I received figurines that positively littered the top of my dresser. Particular favorites were little blown glass unicorns with gold manes and tails and horns. They were probably cheap, but to my 8 year old mind they were absolute treasures. I loved the way the light gleamed through the smooth glass, or struck the gold like sparks. They felt rich and special and like tiny portals to the high fantasy lands where I so desperately wanted to escape.
We escaped a lot when I was a kid. The grown-ups called it “moving”, but when you do it every year without fail, you’re running from something. It didn’t matter then; it was just a fact of life. The school year ends and the house gets packed. I learned early on how to pack my own room in musty boxes, wrapping my treasures in dry, gritty newspaper. Practice improved my technique. But no matter how careful I was, no matter how meticulous with my ration of coupon inserts, something invariably emerged broken from a box. Leaving was never a disappointment, but arriving always was.
One by one, my tiny blown glass unicorns became casualties of our nomadic life. A horn occasionally, but more commonly a leg or tail. The needle-like edges pricked my fingers as I unwrapped them, their jagged amputations pitiful and useless. They could no longer stand on three crystalline points, one leg raised artfully mid-prance. They couldn’t balance delicately on two hind legs and a tail, a rear forever ruined by the missing point. Somewhere between 9 years old and 11, the second-to-last unicorn broke. I think I remember crying a little as I unwrapped it, but that may have been out of habit because I don’t remember feeling sad for long. It was more like a flash of grief and then a wave of anger. Of course it broke. They always break. No sensible person can expect a child-wrapped glass figurine weighing 2 ounces to survive an interstate move in a U-Haul. Who does that??
I unwrapped the last whole unicorn along side the broken one and stared at it. We’d just arrived at our new house, but as I looked at it all the joy I’d derived from its charm and delicacy was blackened by the knowledge that in a year’s time it would be broken. The inevitability of moving was one of the few certain things in my life. The only constant was change. In that moment, I hated every person who’d ever given me anything breakable. Surely the adults – who created the change, who controlled the change, who knew the change was coming – surely they knew what my child mind grasped? Moves are inevitable. Tiny glass unicorns don’t survive moves. Broken unicorns make me cry. Why do the adults in my life want me to cry?
I threw away the broken unicorn and its intact companion with it. I can’t cry over it if it doesn’t exist. It was a conscious decision to choose relief from loss over whatever fleeting happiness material things could give me. I was somewhere between 9 years old and 11.
Yesterday, I signed the closing papers on the sale of the house my marriage ended in. I left feeling free in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time. Arriving was a disappointment. Leaving never is.
I’m not processing this very well right now, so I apologize in advance for sounding scattered.
This is my face from 20 minutes ago when I read that the government is asking the military to house immigrant detainees. This is my reckoning. 20 years from now when our grandchildren ask (accuse) us when our moment of realization was, I’ll show them this. For me, it’s right now. Right now is the moment I’ll never come back from. For me, right now is when I realized the promise of our nation is irrevocably broken.
I’m not even sure why. I keep seeing my memories of the memorial at Dachau, the bone deep cold I felt there, and the shame. Oh Christ, the shame.
This is our shame, yours and mine. Not in the abstract – not Democrats or Republicans or religious or secular – it’s our personal, individual shame. I have to live with it now. So do you.
I don’t know what to tell you about your moment. I can barely sit here in mine. The slow horror build up of the last several weeks – months – did nothing to prepare me. I’m shaking. I’m crying. I’m dying in my soul. We let this happen. We cried and we raved and we fucking posted on facebook and WE LET THIS HAPPEN. The kindest thing history will say about me was that I cried. I’m so disgusted I will throw up and it won’t come close to what I deserve. You, too.
When I can open my mouth without screaming, I’ll call my representatives. I’ll call and I’ll call and I’ll add it to the useless emails and the useless shame and I’ll die some more and it will all pile up on the trash heap that is the state of our government and clearly, our citizens.
This is my reckoning, my owning of the shame. Where’s yours?
It seems prescient that I re-posted my defense of “kids these days” just before the March For Our Lives this weekend. I’ve seen more than a few strong, passionate, erudite defenses since then. Way better than mine.
I’ve also been a weepy mess. Part of it is that I’m stuck in a depression spiral right now. The Nothing is kicking my ass, and it’s ugly. But the other part is that I simply can’t disengage from the crushing shame that these kids have to shoulder a burden like this. Not just that they have to, but that they’re so raw and honest and goddamn successful at it.
As a former parentified child, I have strong feelings about what kids should or shouldn’t be responsible for. And, if I do say so myself, I successfully protected my own child from that fate. She’s a marvelous adult, but she got there in her own time, and I’m relieved about that. But I still project all over these smart, engaged, determined kids and I have hours – no, years of film to unspool. There is a furious, resentful child within me still railing at the unfairness of having to save the grown-ups, only now she wears the armor of a full grown woman ready to slash and burn in her defense.
When we watched Emma Gonzalez stand in silence on the stage after her brief words, the silence of the crowd was deeply unsettling. You could see the steel of her straight spine, the resolve in her eyes as she forced everyone to wrestle with themselves in the barren sound field. I’ve always been a defender of common sense gun laws, so that’s not what I wrestled with. Instead, I had to fight the shame that I didn’t do more personally to protect her. That my generation, long accused of apathy and cynicism, absolutely earned those criticisms. That I, a parent and advocate for children, somehow failed to spare this girl, younger than my daughter, from having to watch her friends die, then make the adults around her sorry for it.
And maybe… maybe I’m a little jealous, too. Jealous that she has the strength to stand up to real power, while I quietly excused the adults who betrayed me for… my entire life, basically. So as tears streamed down her face while she shoved silence down the throat of the country, maybe I was being drawn and quartered by jealousy and shame. I don’t say that to garner sympathy. On the contrary, I deserve it. I’m mad that there are people out there celebrating her as a hero instead of wrestling with their own shame. Yet, at the same time, she is a hero and deserves to be celebrated. It’s complicated.
I remember reading about the 13th century Children’s Crusade as a young person. Though now considered largely apocryphal, the tale was nevertheless framed as a tragic tale of idealistic, courageous children and their proud and weeping parents. I never once thought to myself that those kids were brave and amazing. I thought, Where the fuck are their parents?? Who let them do this? Why isn’t every adult waving handkerchiefs as children march through the streets rushing out there to snatch them back? What the shit is wrong with these people?? Joan of Arc – same story. I thought, She’s fourteen you sorry motherfuckers! Why does she have to lead your pathetic, useless army?! Not that children are incapable of these things – I knew with a profound certainty that they absolutely were capable. But the injustice of adults watching, encouraging them to do it was nauseating.
This feels much the same. Except worse, because I know now what abnormal amounts of stress and responsibility do to immature brains. I know what sort of lifetime conditions these kids are going to have to battle that, on top of the PTSD they likely suffer, will snake into every aspect of their lives and create storms and struggles they didn’t earn. I know that some of them, statistically, won’t survive. It’s terrifying. If it doesn’t terrify you, you probably don’t get it. Lucky you, I guess.
I don’t know how to reconcile any of this. I thought maybe writing it out would help, but it doesn’t. I thought maybe I could find a way to escape the conclusion that I – even inadvertently – did to these kids what was done to me. All I can do is beg you, myself, anyone who listens, to not let them fight alone. Don’t wave handkerchiefs or have parades or share their pictures without standing in front of them first. They’re literally in the line of fire. We owe them the protection of whatever is left of our integrity.
Originally published as a Facebook note on April 7, 2015. Possibly more relevant now.
Between family, acquaintances, coworkers and – of course – the internet, I seem to be bombarded with an onslaught of “What’s the world coming to??” comments lately. These comments – both unadulterated in statement form and pseudo-sly, in pithy meme format – enrage me like nothing else.
They started out just irritating me, but the more exposure I got the more psychotically angry I got until I very nearly had an epic facebook explosion in just exactly the wrong place and time. Luckily, extensive experience in regretting previous facebook explosions prevailed and I left the keyboard to cool off. But it did bring to a head the need to unpack my issues over this common viewpoint and the seemingly blind agreement it fosters.
First, let’s look at the types of comments I’m talking about:
“What kind of kids are we raising these days?” said by a coworker in reference to younger people who don’t subscribe to her version of respect.
Any number of “back in the old days we did things differently and we should’ve stuck with it!” memes, posted all over facebook by people I otherwise like.
“People (and/or kids) today just want to be famous,” applied universally to anyone receiving the lion’s share of attention for anything.
I’m sure you’ve seen your share of these types of comments, and perhaps have contributed a few of your own in what you thought was a tongue-in-cheek, yet still adroit, commentary on modern society. (I have some bad news for you, by the way: it was neither of those things.) So now that we know what I’m talking about, let’s get to unpacking.
1. These comments are supremely unoriginal.
In a quote wildly misattributed to Socrates, but still written by a student of classical Greek culture: “The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise. …Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves, of their households. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offences against Hellenic tastes, such as crossing their legs. They tyrannised over the paidagogoi and schoolmasters.” (Kenneth John Freeman, 1907)
Plato may not have quoted that directly from Socrates, but the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of both men having said something similar. In fact, I’ll lay odds that anyone reading this has made the joke that they “sound like their parent(s)” while chiding, reproaching, blaming or otherwise bemoaning the state of today’s youth. THAT SHOULD BE YOUR FIRST CLUE. Every generation thinks their elders’ reproving scolds are out-dated and old fashioned and have no practical place in modern society. This “tradition” has been going on for centuries – like head lice and other undesirable symptoms of large groups of people congregating together.
2. The implied insult.
“Repost if you agree the way we did things was the RIGHT way!” Which would make everything opposed to that agreement… what? The “wrong” way? We no longer put children in the back of open pickup trucks. That’s “wrong”? Tell you what – why don’t you argue your position from the open bed of a ¾ ton Chevy barreling down the highway at 75 miles an hour. No? Are you sure? Could it be that your position, when stripped of the bubble-wrapped safety of nostalgia, looks a lot like reckless endangerment?
But let’s leave aside obvious and logic-defying issues of mechanical safety. How about those childrearing techniques of ages past? Never mind what my personal opinion is on corporal punishment, let’s address how each of the statements made with regard to “we raised kids better in those days” implies that kids today having nothing of value to offer. And don’t give me that bullshit about “exceptions”. If you post that nonsense where I can see it, I am under no obligation to assume that you think my kid is an “exception”. I think my kid is extraordinary, but not exceptional.
As Elizabeth Gilbert pointed out in a remarkably satisfying rebuttal to the “kids these days” argument (it’s on her public fb, and I encourage you to seek it out):
“Today’s American teenagers are the most sensitive, least violent, least bullying, least racist, least homophobic, most globally-minded, most compassionate, most environmentally-conscious, least dogmatic, and overall kindest group of young people this country has ever known.
They were raised to be nice to each other. They have always been encouraged to be tolerant with each other. They weren’t allowed to hit each other in the sandbox while adults looked the other way and let them “work it out on their own”. They don’t smoke as much as my generation did, they don’t drink (or drink and drive) as much as my generation did, they don’t beat each other up as much as my generation did, and they aren’t as mean to each other as my generation was. They don’t even have as much sex as my generation did.”
Yeah. Kids these days are also kind of glued to their electronic screens, which can be annoying when they run into you headlong on the sidewalk (speaking from experience), but do you know what they’re looking at? No, you don’t, so quit being so judgey, McJudgeFace.
3. Direct insult.
I am morally and intellectually opposed to many of the attitudes embraced in these romanticized notions of the past. The past wasn’t a very nice place to live, especially if you belonged (or were forced into) a marginalized group.
Fun fact: women were only granted the privilege of carrying consumer credit in their own name in… 1975! That’s right. While you’re waxing nostalgic about how great baby blue eye shadow was, your mom was buying that with cash because she WASN’T ALLOWED TO HAVE A CREDIT CARD in her own name. You know who got her the right to have her own credit? Loudmouth and militant feminists who definitely DID NOT sit down and be quiet in the presence of their elders.
Because I’m on a roll with quotes, let’s revisit this one from George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” If you honestly believe that the world was a better place when one class of humans exercised the power to keep another class silent, please just practice that silence yourself. You are an anachronistic albatross around the neck of human dignity.
4. Appeal to antiquity/tradition.
Just don’t even go here. I can’t say this better than Wikipedia, so here ya go:
“Appeal to tradition (also known as argumentum ad antiquitatem, appeal to antiquity, or appeal to common practice) is a common fallacy in which a thesis is deemed correct on the basis that it is correlated with some past or present tradition.
The appeal takes the form of ‘this is right because we’ve always done it this way.’
An appeal to tradition essentially makes two assumptions that are not necessarily true:The old way of thinking was proven correct when introduced, i.e. since the old way of thinking was prevalent, it was necessarily correct. In actuality this may be false—the tradition might be entirely based on incorrect grounds.
The past justifications for the tradition are still valid at present. In actuality, the circumstances may have changed; this assumption may also therefore be untrue.”
Note that the opposite of this is to appeal to novelty (“it’s better because it’s new!”), and that is NOT what I’m doing here. Just because something is new doesn’t make it better. Making it better means identifying the inherent problems in the old system and weeding them out. Homeopathy is not better because it’s “new”, but that doesn’t make the medieval practice of bleeding someone less wrong.
5. When we know better, we do better.
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I first heard this statement from Oprah, but I still embrace it whole heartedly. As referenced above, sometimes past justifications were valid for the time and place. It’s okay to kiss a child’s boo-boo, it makes them feel better. But, if I may be so bold, grow the fuck up.
We now know that many human behaviors and identities exist on a spectrum; it’s not okay to label people based on ignorance. “Back in the day” we may have been somewhat justified in raising our kids in a culture of fear, but I’m going to take a leap here and say that era died out with the saber-toothed tiger.
If you, personally, still equate respect with fear, then you have my sincerest sympathy. I don’t know what happened to you to make you think that (though I suspect it was the generation before you going “IT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME AT THAT AGE!”), but I implore you to get to a library and look up virtually anything written after 1991 on the subject of early childhood education. Please. Just go. You’ll come out with a profoundly more empathetic value system, and not just a little resentment for your parents’ and grandparents’ generations. It’s a feature, not a bug.
In case I haven’t made myself clear, I think that clinging to unexamined notions of the inherent “rightness” of past habits and traditions is not just immoral, it’s dangerous. Not only am I happy to live in a time and place where knowledge, discourse, and scientific discovery are made available to the vast majority of people, I am actively looking forward to more of the same in the future. And yeah, I’m personally offended when you express regressive attitudes.
I know you think you’re cherishing your past, but there has GOT to be a better way of doing that than by parroting the exact same complaints your parents, grandparents, and other ancestors voiced going back at least to classical times (see #1).
I was going to close this out by apologizing for offending anyone, buuuut, let’s be honest: I’m not sorry, really. It wasn’t my intent to offend, but if that’s the outcome, I can only hope you’ll take a closer look at why you hold those ideas in such high regard. Why does it make you feel better to hold yourself up as an example of a good and moral upbringing while tearing down everyone who doesn’t agree? If you don’t mean “everyone”, then maybe examine who the hell you think is listening to you when you say such things. Either way, you should know that I am listening.