Disruptive kids

There seems to be widespread agreement that in general “kids these days have no respect,” or at least less respect, compared to earlier times.

There are restaurants all over the world that have resorted to banning small children from their premises, either after a cut-off time in the evening, or entirely–and as a result, many have seen their businesses boom, despite angry reactions by some parents.

Oddly, this deficiency in children has been a fairly consistent complaint since ancient times. In 1907, Kenneth John Freeman summarized complaints, culled from ancient Greek manuscripts, in his Cambridge dissertation:

“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.”

Apparently, it wasn’t much better in the eras that followed, at least according to some contemporary observers; Mental Floss recently published a collection of quotes about the shortcomings of young people from the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries. Many of these complaints regard upper-class children, not just the urchins in the slums.

Of course, as famously depicted in the works of Charles Dickens and others, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a lot of children did run wild in urchin gangs. I have written more about them, and the origins of public schools during the Industrial Revolution, in an earlier post.

Is it really so much worse now? A lot of people think so, and not just older, curmudgeonly folk. I would submit that even the most disgruntled restaurant patrons are significantly better off than in the days of urban pickpockets and roving youth gangs that would assault and beat up passers-by in the streets without regard for police presence (except in places where that still happens).

But that doesn’t mean disrespectful children aren’t more defiant, outspoken and profane than they were a few decades ago in the US and other parts of the industrialized world. It seems clear they are, and the reasons cited range from poor parenting to exposure to unhelpful media messages–all of which may well share some blame.

But it troubles me when I find people blaming learning disabilities, ADHD or autism on a lack of good parenting (what a needless burden to place on parents and kids alike!). I also hear a lot of sentiments to this effect:

For me, this comment crosses a line. It implies that a parent would have “ended” the writer, and that the response would have been appropriate. In former years, when “children were seen but not heard,” that could all too often be because they feared what we would today call child abuse. Not in all cases, certainly. And even people whose parents were too reliant on corporal punishment don’t like to think their parents actually harmed them.

But if you listen to some people, all restless children need is some good, old-fashioned discipline to shape them up. This may be true in some cases, and it certainly is true that parents who neglectfully allow their children to be “brats” are setting them up for a lifetime of being despised by others.

But there’s a reason why not every restless or unhappy child is automatically at fault. Parents often take them places that are inappropriate (for example, fancy restaurants), at hours when they’d be healthier if they were in bed (have you seen small, fussy children in grocery stores after 10 or 11 p.m.? I sure have. In their place, I’d be cranky too), and place unreasonable demands on them by over-booking their time or pressuring them to perform beyond their capabilities or developmental stage.

Children are not small adults. Their needs are different, as are their understandings. Moreover, their growth cannot be hurried–no matter how much Mozart they hear while still in the womb.

A little common sense (and a good book on child development) can go a long way toward addressing disruptive children. But then, as Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common.”

IMAGES: Many thanks to Westword, for sharing the photo of the crying toddler in the restaurant booth (there, it illustrates an article titled “Five reasons to ban disruptive children from restaurants”). Thanks also to  Today’s Parent, for sharing the photo of the kid with his tongue out; it accompanies a pretty comprehensive article offering sound advice on the subject. The photo of “hoodlum boys” from an earlier time depicts a group from Knoxville in 1910; it illustrated an article on The Brownstone Detectives, “The Hoodlum Boys of Hancock S.” The “If I had spoken to my parents” graphic is attributed to Chris Tian on Facebook. Finally, thanks to HerLife Magazine (and Bigstock) for sharing the illustration for “Overcommitted Kids.”