MAXWELL:  Mr. and Ms. Bad Example

5/26/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Today’s newspaper headlines and lead stories on nightly news about the troubles of young people shock me, and I often find myself becoming smug about how “different” kids were in “my day.”

Last week, for example, after reading of a Florida high school student who punched his science teacher in the face and of an elementary school student who insisted on wearing a T-shirt bearing a banned logo, I recalled my own high school days. Would I or any of my classmates have punched a teacher or insisted on wearing contraband apparel?

Absolutely not.

Let me state right now that I do not believe that children of my generation were better humans than youngsters are today. I do believe, however, that the society in which we lived was less complex and, perhaps, wiser than that of today.

Why? A major reason is that the lines of authority were clearly drawn, and I do not romanticize the past when I say that children were children and adults were adults. Many of today’s readers will be offended by such blunt talk, but the fact is that the adults of my childhood _ especially our teachers _ enjoyed far greater control over their young charges.

In my elementary school, the wishes of our teachers and principal were the law. We were not permitted, for example, to wear certain clothes on campus, and boys could not wear hats or caps inside a building under any circumstances. On the rare occasion when a girl wore revealing clothing, grown-ups dealt with her firmly and promptly.

Few of us thought twice about accepting adult authority. We naturally knew that our teachers were smarter than us, that they were more experienced and more educated, that they could navigate the perilous realms of uncertainty and make sense of the world for us.

I recall, for instance, when my 9-year-old sister was killed by a drunken driver. In addition to my mother’s nurturing, my homeroom teacher, Constance Howard, set aside a few minutes each day to console me and to let me talk about my loss. How wise Mrs. Howard was. How she impressed me, a mere 14-year-old who had seen his sister die, whose sadness was unbearable at times. Even at that young age, I respected Mrs. Howard’s ability to measure my grief and to literally give me the will to face each new day. No peer could have helped me. I needed the guiding hand of an adult, one who set good examples in her own life.

In his 1923 book, The Challenge of Youth, Alfred E. Stearns, then-principal of Phillips-Andover Academy, warned future generations of adults and teachers who would, unthinkingly, denigrate the young: “(O)ur criticisms have seldom been constructive and our complaints have not always been fair. And youth, responding normally to the conditions with which it finds itself surrounded, as youth has always done, has sensed the injustice of our self-righteous attitude, has resented our interference, and has left us more helpless than before. For youth did not create these conditions. Youth found them ready-made. The responsibility for their existence rests squarely upon us of older and supposedly wiser years.”

At the risk of over-generalizing, I must say that too many adults, especially parents, fail to understand the principles outlined above. Each day, parents and their children undercut the authority of their schools by challenging the rules that students should follow while others are responsible for their welfare.

Each time a child who wants to preach on campus is supported by his or her parent and prevails, society at large loses because the authority of the school is compromised. Each time a child wins the right to wear a banned T-shirt, society loses. Sensible rules are necessary in a sober society.

When I was a reporter in Fort Lauderdale, I watched a parent slap a principal because the principal had disciplined the child. Every student witnessing the incident clapped and cheered. From that day on, the principal was ineffective as a leader. Eventually, she was replaced. Why? Because she did not have the support of other adults.

And how often does the American Civil Liberties Union defend the right of a student newspaper editor to print articles that the publisher, usually the principal, forbids? These are bitter victories because they teach budding journalists the wrong lessons. In the real world, publishers and editors give the orders and the writers either obey or join the unemployment line. Do student journalists have First Amendment rights? For sure. But, if they seek successful careers, they had better learn to respect the rules of the profession.

In my day, most parents supported and respected the authority of teachers and other adults in the schools. Our parents did not want to hear our complaints about school. In fact, they conspired with our teachers against us.

Today, though, many parents view schools as hostile places that take away the rights of their children. Today, many parents think nothing of suing their schools in the name of their children. In my day, such litigiousness was unthinkable. Adults trusted other adults to do the right thing, to make the right decisions.

In truth, today’s children, like those of my generation, want to be children. And they want adults to be adults. They want guidance. They need it. The problem is that too many adults are too irresponsible to be adults, thereby relinquishing their natural authority.