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Jewish World Review Dec. 1, 2003 / 6 Kislev, 5764

Tom Purcell

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Joyless, selfish children | Robert Shaw would love my parents.

Shaw is a psychiatrist and a critic of the way many children are being raised these days. He shares his concerns in his book, "The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

Shaw says that teachers and grandparents have been complaining for years that today's children are out of control. Why are kids out of control? Because too many parents are training them to be so.

Remember the two fellows who killed and wounded their fellow students at Columbine high school? They had all the advantages money could buy, but they completely lacked empathy for others.

And what of the terrorists who so willingly killed thousands on 911? Their "cause" was far more important than their concern for the thousands of innocent people they would inflict great horrors on.

"If we as parents don't 'train' our children in constructive, safe, and expressive ways of operating in our society, their natural drive to connect with someone or some idea may well lead them toward some of the most destructive behavioral manifestations," writes Shaw. "They'll be 'trained' all right, but perhaps by wayward peers, gangs, the media, or radical religious cults."

So what is the solution? Some might suggest expensive studies to analyze the challenge. Others might suggest costly new government programs. But Shaw says the solution is much simpler than that. More parents need to be like parents of old - like my parents raised me.

My parents knew long ago it was a bad idea for them to be our best friend. No, their job was to watch over us and nurture us with a firm hand. Sure, there would be friction, but friction is how you turn rough stones into polished gems.

My parents knew that kids long for a set of moral boundaries - and they want to face the consequences when they step outside of those boundaries. They knew that kids really want chores. They want set times for family dinner, for bedtime, for waking in the morning and preparing for school. They want structure.

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We weren't allowed to watch much television, and that was long before so much garbage polluted the airwaves. We were taught to be polite and treat others with respect. We were taught to be good citizens.

And we didn't have many toys at all. Shaw says the piles of toys we give our children don't bring them much happiness anyhow. It's much better to play catch in the back yard, as I spent hours doing with my father as a kid.

I was at a family outing last summer and the discussion of childhood came up. The people in their late 60's and 70's were in agreement about one thing: they feel sorry for kids today.

These people grew up in the city. They had no money, but they had no idea they were poor. They didn't have many toys or clothes or scheduled activities to go to, but goodness did they have fun. They had parents who loved them and they had their imaginations.

They played stickball, jumped rope and invited dozens of other activities. They sat on porch stoops with their parents and grandparents in the evenings. There were lots of colorful people in the neighborhood who watched out for them, and a good conversation could break out at any moment.

They were unaware of it then, just as I was unaware of the many blessings I had growing up as a child, but they had an abundance of everything the human heart longs for - love and friendship and lots of laughter and fun - and a scarcity of the superficial things so many of us are chasing now - newer, bigger, shinier things.

It's amazing that we have to read books to remember to relearn common sense that was so clear to people in prior generations. It makes me all the more thankful I was raised by two people who got it so right.

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© 2002, Tom Purcell