My dad was born in Philadelphia in 1924. At home. Hospitals for delivering babies were a new concept and didn't cater to poor families of new immigrants. When my dad was a few months shy of his sixth birthday, his father--after whom I am named--was murdered. It wasn't until I was an adult that I put together all that had happened to my grandmother in late 1929. Her husband and sole economic support was killed while driving a beer truck during prohibition. A month later, the stock market crashed leaving most families in dire financial circumstances. With only an elementary school education and no training in any skill other than sewing, my grandmother went to work selling aprons door to door. Even by the low standards of the depression, this was a low paying, lousy job. I asked my dad about how his mom, my grandmother, had managed.
"Yeah, we had a bad year," he said.
There was talk of sending the children--my dad age six and my aunt age four--off to a state facility, but instead my grandmother moved in with relatives. There were 11 people in three rooms, the bathroom down the hall shared with even more families.
For his ninth birthday, my dad received an expensive sweater from a relative. His mom "bought" the sweater from him for a dollar. Then she sold the sweater to buy food for the family.
There's nothing extraordinary about the extraordinary hardships my family faced. Compared to many, they had it easy. Yes, my dad worked 40 hours a week while going to school, but at least he had a job. Yes, my grandmother had to steal a birthday gift from her son, but at least there were groceries as a result. Yes, my dad was drafted and trained as a ball turret gunner, but WWII ended before he was scheduled to go overseas. It could have been worse.
Let's leave my dad in the early 1950s--he's looking forward to meeting my mom and having a couple of kids--and consider an episode of "Leave it to Beaver," one of the first sit-coms. From 1957-1963, Beaver's mom, who didn't work outside the home, served meals with fresh vegetables. She wore pearls and immaculately pressed dresses to dinner. Here's a typical plot: Beaver and his friends break a neighbor's window with an errant baseball. They determine to lie about the incident to avoid punishment but subsequently come clean and fess up to dad who is stern but understanding. The boys get a job bagging groceries to earn money to reimburse the woman whose window they broke.
"Beaver" has been criticized for not being representative of our country at the time. There were no characters of color. Indeed, I don't remember a single Black, Hispanic or Asian face from any episode. But whether or not the show was indicative of our culture, consider what was unspoken: Boys with crew cuts sat down to dinner with their families and had conversations about morals, social conventions, and proper behavior.
A generation later, "Married with Children" was a popular sit-com. A loveless marriage, children obsessed with hook-ups lacking emotional intimacy merge with countless references to all things sexual. "Married with Children" is about as far from "Leave it to Beaver" as Botticelli's "Madonna and Child" is from Madonna.
Let's go back to my dad in the early 50's. Thanks to the GI Bill, he's almost through with law school by now. My dad and his family--the whole generation--knew who the enemy was: job loss, hunger, cold, starvation in the cities. Hunger, hail stones, crop failure, cattle disease, cold and privation in the country. The enemy was outside the home. As Mary Pipher points out in the best book I've read about families, the enemy today is seeping in under the door. In the Shelter of Each Other talks about how young people are faced with choices unheard of 50 years ago. Addictions of all kinds are attacking families: Internet pornography, drugs and alcohol, gambling, and sex. To this list of threats are added the ubiquitous screens--movie, television, and computer--modeling disrespectful behavior in adolescents. That which destroys families is inside the home.
"All my friends are allowed to drink." "All my friends drive their cars past curfew." "All my friends have girls sleep over." "Their parents don't mind, why should you?" Ignoring for the moment whether or not these first three allegations are accurate, the parents of the adolescent in this example are already at war. They have to have a conversation--"That's not the way we do things in the family"--that would have been unheard of half a century ago.
My special needs clients frequently tell their parents, "It's all your fault, you're so stupid, I hope you die. Why don't you just shut the f*** up, you f***ing bitch?"
I feel sorry for these kids and am eager to help them get the treatment they need. Can you imagine a child in the 1950s addressing his parents this way?
Our families are under attack by a toxic culture intent on selling them bad products and worse values. Fifteen year-olds today have to decide on a daily basis whether or not to become sexually active, to play violent video games, to smoke pot, to watch pornography on the Internet, to go on-line and gamble.
What's the answer? We no longer have to protect our children from privation and cold. The enemy today is in our homes rather than in the elements. I would suggest that we inoculate our kids against the "everyone is doing that" argument. Try to make your family the rock on which your morals are based. "Here's how we do things in our family" can be the start of many a conversation. "In our family, we only watch TV on the weekends;" "In our family, we don't play video games;" "In our family, children are not allowed to smoke marijuana or drink alcohol;" "In our family, we have dinner together every night." (Pearls and long dresses are, of course, optional.)
Don't you wish your kids only had to decide whether or not to fess up to having broken a neighbor's window?