Bill Muehlenberg

Kids gone wild

It seems there is not a day that goes by lately in which some headline informs us of yet another case of children and young people going off the rails. Violence, drugs, criminal involvement, gangs, and even murder are becoming increasingly common amongst our young people.

While plenty of explanations for this can be offered, surely the breakdown in discipline and boundary-setting is a big part of this. Indeed, family breakdown is a contributing factor. Many single-parent families (most of which are headed by mothers) are struggling as is, and the absent father increases the tendency to see discipline reduced.

Even where parental discipline is on offer, increasingly the state is taking options away from parents. Many nations have barred parents from the right to use corporal punishment. And as I noted elsewhere, some nations are now seeking to ban “psychological violence” in the home.

All of this contributes to a generation of kids raised with few boundaries and little discipline. Of interest here, a recent news story from the UK reported that the British Schools Secretary has refused to ban smacking at Islamic schools, even though it is banned in all State and private schools. The secretary claims he wants to avoid ‘upsetting Muslim sensitivities’.

But leaving the physical punishment debate aside for now, many of our “experts” want to effectively ban all discipline. Many are not only against any corporal punishment, but are increasingly against any sort of discipline which might scar little Johnny’s fragile psyche, or in any way harm little Sarah’s wobbly self-esteem.

Consider this incredible suggestion from one such Australian “expert”. Here is how a recent news report carried the story: “A Melbourne expert says naughty corners and time out in bedrooms are inappropriate because they shame and humiliate. The same goes for smacking, which education and parenting consultant Kathy Walker says makes children feel resentful.”

So our authority on children says we must not “shame or humiliate” our children. Sorry, wait one minute here. It seems to me that simply telling a child “no” in dozens of circumstances could be potentially shameful or humiliating. Will she next say that parents should be banned from telling their kids they cannot do things?

An even more urgent question I would have for this expert is this: Do you have any children? So often these bureaucrats and experts who wax eloquent on family matters and the welfare of children do not even have a family of their own.

But wait, it gets even worse. In today’s press was a story about a lunatic proposal to reduce bullying in schools. The plan? To not punish bullies, but rather, ‘empower” them! I kid you not. “Rather than being accused, suspected bullies are merely spoken to and encouraged to think of ways to help a bullied student cope.” Well, that should certainly make the bullies think twice, shouldn’t it?

Indeed, why haven’t we thought of this for other anti-social behaviours? Instead of accusing rapists, we could “empower” them. They could be encouraged to offer their victims help in coping. Instead of punishing arsonists, we should just speak to them and “empower” them. Let’s also empower thieves, racists and murderers. Puh-leeese!
The truth is, children grow up in only one direction, and that direction is toward self. Self-centeredness comes naturally to all children. Indeed, everyone is essentially selfish and focused on number one. That is why we all need boundaries and we all need rewards and punishments.

In a perfect world there would be no need of discipline or ensuring that appropriate consequences flow from our choices. But this is not a perfect world, and we all tend to gravitate toward self. Turning what are basically selfish little brats into socially adaptable and civilised human beings is the stuff of years of careful parenting, helped out by the surrounding community.

In fact, there are only two major ways to ensure that we all don’t become a nation of savages: conscience and cops. We have an inward sense of right and wrong (a conscience) which needs to be trained and exercised. If we cannot lead socially acceptable lives by this inward moral compass, then society comes along with outward restraint: police, courts, laws and the like.

The more we dampen that inward moral voice, the more we have to depend on outward forces to maintain orderly, civilised behaviour. As the very idea of morality comes more and more to be seen as an out-dated concept, and as parental authority and discipline are being increasingly undermined, then we are simply left with the state taking on more of the role of boundary-setting and enforcement.

But there will never be enough laws or enough police to keep people – both young and old – in check, if we keep insisting that children can effectively run wild, and that parents cannot interfere with their development, for fear of wounding their sense of worth, or of humiliating them.

The truth is, things like shame and guilt are wonderful components of our inner moral life. They are essential features to keep the gravitational pull toward self in some sort of acceptable bounds. Without these inner checks and balances, we are much more prone to run amok, and even the most thorough police state will have trouble keeping the populace in control in those circumstances. 

As a parent I do not at all have a problem with a bit of shame and guilt doing their work in my children’s lives. The aim is to turn them into polite, respectful and humane individuals, not little terrorists who respect nothing and no one. As one professor of psychology put it:

When it comes to rearing children, every society is only 20 years away from barbarism. Twenty years is all we have to accomplish the task of civilizing the infants who are born into our midst each year. These people know nothing of our language, our culture, our religion, our values, or our customs of interpersonal relations. The infant is totally ignorant about communism, fascism, democracy, civil liberties, and the rights of the minority as contrasted with the prerogatives of the majority, respect, decency, honesty, customs conventions, and manners. The barbarian must be tamed if civilization is to survive.

And these little barbarians will not be tamed if we get to the place where we are afraid to say no to our own children. When the forces of political correctness degenerate that far, then we might as well write off civilisation.

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