Jewish World Review July 27, 2001 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5761

Lenoard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Consumer Reports

It's your responsibility to invade their privacy -- FOR weeks now, I've been watching this television commercial that speaks wise words in support of an important cause. And trying to understand why it annoys me.

Maybe you've seen the spot. It features a bunch of young people, voices crisscrossing one another as they address their parents in that tone of wounded petulance and righteous scorn so peculiar to adolescents:

"Mom? Dad? You were miserable parents. I snuck out, you caught me. I lied, you knew. I pushed and you pushed back. You invaded my privacy. My PRIVACY! I hated it. I hated YOU. Why couldn't you leave me alone? Just leave me alone. I thought you were the worst parents in the world."

And then, the kicker: "Thanks."

The commercial is one of the latest productions of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a nonprofit coalition of communications professionals that, for the last 15 years, has crusaded to change the nation's attitudes about, and tolerance for, illicit drug use.

Good group, great cause. And yet, a commercial that bothers me. You know why? Because of the very fact that it's necessary. What does it tell you about the times we're living in, that we need a media campaign to encourage parents to be, well ... parents?

That's essentially what the commercial does, after all. It reminds mothers and fathers that their job description includes snooping upon, policing and interrogating kids. Maybe it was different in your house but ... I don't remember MY mom requiring anybody's permission to do that stuff.

The absurdity of it is not lost on Tom Hedrick, vice chairman of the partnership. He says that these days, many parents mistakenly believe that peers and pop cultural heroes have more sway with a kid than mom or dad. "I know I do," says Hedrick. "I feel like a secondary influence in my son's life. And what we've found is that that's not true." Kids whose parents talk to them about drugs are, he says, about half as likely to try the stuff as kids whose parents don't. Because ultimately, the thing many teen-agers fear the most is disappointing mom and dad.

So how is it mom and dad don't seem to know this?

The answer, I think, is that something happened to parenting as the job shifted from the World War II generation to its children, the baby boomers. That something is encapsulated in a story Hedrick tells.

"I grew up," he says, "with an incredibly overbearing father and mother. I'll never forget saying to myself when I went to bed at night - particularly after a pitched two-hour battle - that I was never going to treat my kids the same way."

So he "went overboard in the other direction." As did an entire generation. They - we - swore we would do things differently. We put less emphasis on rules and more on "self-esteem." Where our folks were restrictive, we were permissive. Where they judged, we were "nonjudgmental." Where they gave orders, we negotiated.

Our mothers and fathers had been parents. We became, in essence, co-equals. Playmates.

And we're beginning to see the fruit of that approach. Some good kids, yes. But many, too, who seem disconnected, disaffected, materialistic, filled with a misplaced sense of entitlement and sometimes, just flat-out spoiled.

Which is why media are suddenly running public service spots reminding us that it's OK to make rules and lay down law, OK to "invade privacy" and demand answers, OK to occasionally be hated by your children. OK, in other words, to do and be all the things we swore we would not as we lay there on our beds, huffing and crying after some bruising exchange with our folks. OK to be grown-ups. OK to be parents.

Because if being a child means testing boundaries, being a parent has to mean setting them. It's an elemental, fundamental truth our mothers and fathers seemed to know. We, on the other hand, were too stubborn to learn. Until, perhaps, just now.

No, the men and women of the war generation were not perfect parents. But what we're discovering is that they were also not as bad as their children sometimes claim. It occurs to me that, if they earned our scorn, our impatience, our criticism, maybe we should admit that they also earned one thing we never truly gave.

Our gratitude.

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