Children were not always worshipped as the gods of the American family.
School vs. Work
In fact, for most of our nations history we didn’t keep track of children very much. We didn’t have things like compulsory public education in every state, or child protection agencies, or children’s hospitals, child psychologists, or even pediatricians.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that school became mandatory. And it wasn’t until the unions forced child labor laws through that high school became part of compulsory eduction. Unlike the European system of mandatory compulsory education, our public education system is built on the belief that:
- Children under 18, ideally, shouldn’t work at all.
- Everyone should go to college.
- Everyone, given the proper education, would want to go to college.
- Not going to college is somehow a failure of the American dream.
- The American dream can only be achieved through education.
The “all kids are meant for college” lie is very popular among educators. (Duh, maybe they have a vested interest?) Whereas, in Europe, students are given the choice to go on a college-prep course of study or a trades-oriented track, in the United States we don’t have such a system. While it exists, de facto, in almost every high school– it’s hardly celebrated.
If children have become our gods, achievement is our offering.
Labor laws amplified youth culture
The Great Depression gave the labor unions the ammunition they needed to finally get child labor laws passed in America. Believe it or not, not everyone was in favor of removing children from the workforce. With kids out of the workforce adolescent culture, as we know it today, took root. When children of the Great Depression and post-World War II baby boom hit their teen years and didn’t head off to work they began to hang out together and a sub-culture exploded.
The need for a college educated workforce
If you think about jobs in America over the past century you can see why culture has dictated the “all kids must go to college” mantra. Technology created the office job. A move from an industrial/agricultural economy to an economy based on white collar jobs (administration) required workers who were more polished and more highly educated. (Of course, many now see this as a trap. The debt required to enter the workforce puts you, fiscally speaking, decades behind a peer who goes into the trades.)
So society created the need for a college-bound student while those same students weren’t allowed to do much in their high school years. (Traditionally, people 14-18 worked!) Those post-puberty & pre-workforce years have really become a holding pattern. Too young to work but too old to be children. These kids, with all sorts of time on their hands, got creative with all that time. (Remember sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll) There wasn’t a massive youth culture prior to this because this age group was traditionally occupied with more adult endeavors. More on that for a different day.
What does this have to do with deifying children?
By the 1980s parents had come through youth culture and were appropriately afraid of it for their own children. In their boredom they smoked enough pot and had enough sex to realize that they probably didn’t benefit themselves in the long run. And with the college-lie now in full effect, and the further lie that if you went to the “right school” you could get ahead in life, parents just started to work backwards. It was a logical pendulum swing to protect kids from the damaging effects of youth culture by sheltering them and keeping them busy.
- For Rex to go to the right college, Rex had to do well on the SATs.
- For Rex to do well on the SATs, Rex had to go to the right school.
- For Rex to fit in at the right school, Rex had to act, dress, and do activities with the right kids.
- For Rex to fit in with the right kids, Rex’s parents both have to work, plus figure out how to get him to the right activities.
- For Rex to do this, mom and dad were going to have to give every waking minute thinking about Rex and his future. (Or earning the money to afford his future)
Through the 1980s this myth developed, it metastasized in the 1990s, and became parental law in the 2000s.
All kids are not meant for college
I know this is educational heresy but we all know it. Walk on any high school campus and you will see the vast majority of kids who are done with education and are stuck in a holding cell called high school. The college-prep kids segment themselves out while the vast majority ghost walk through the process and are culturally forced to head off to another holding cell– community college or state university.
Those who are going to excel, do. Just as they always have. (Just like those who invented standardized tests intended to identify those kids, not as a tool for choosing the minimum, but to find those who could do the maximum) Those who aren’t going to excel, aren’t. But now that high school graduation is a basic requirement that we all must legally achieve– college has become the new high school. And grad school has become the new undergrad.
Effects on the American family
Deifying Rex has come at a high cost of the American family. With more than 40% of children in America now born to single mothers, single parents are under incredible pressure. Even in more traditional homes, the need to put Rex on a college-bound path leads to all sorts of sacrifices.
- If Rex is going to go to Yale, he needs to be in the right pre-school. (Um, really?)
- If Rex is going to go to Michigan, he needs to be in football by age four. (Um, really?)
- If Rex is going to go to Penn State, we need to live in the right neighborhood because they have good schools. (Um, really?)
- Part of Rex getting into Berkeley is being well-rounded, so Rex needs to go to music camp. (Um, really?)
On and on. We never stop preparing our kids for something we don’t know if our kids will even want.
Even crazier, parents have convinced themselves that this is 100% their responsibility. Particularly in Christian circles– parents don’t even trust their own parents to invest in the lives of Rex. Parents are so insanely crazed by worshipping Rex that parents won’t hire a babysitter, won’t go on vacation, and won’t allow their child to socialize or do ANYTHING that won’t further a perceived resume.
In my opinion, today’s parenting norms would be considered a psychosis just a generation ago. Parents are addicted to parenting.
Parents feel this pressure. There are men and women in my life who don’t want to get married or have children because they feel the pressure. Just the thought of a marriage which has to perform to this level is not worth it– or at the very least, hard to imagine. Marriages crumble by the thousand under the pressure. Marriages struggle through unnecessary debt under the pressure to provide the “right kind” of lifestyle for their children. Parents, raised in a feminist society that tells them they are equals with men, are now making themselves subservient to their children. These “mommy-managers” are now an entire sub-culture to themselves!
Kids feel this pressure, too.
Have you been to a six-year-olds soccer game? The pressure is ridiculous. Parents don’t want the kids to have fun. They want them to learn skills and score goals. Why? So that they can get good and make it on the travel squad. Then what? Well, if they are good on the travel squad, they will play high school soccer. Then what? If they score a lot of goals in high school, maybe they will earn an athletic scholarship. Then what?
This is the pressure/expectations you hear on the sidelines of six-year old kids soccer games.
Have you ever been in a high school cafeteria? The pressure there is ridiculous. Besides all of the social pressure. Besides the horrible food offerings. There are kids studying. There are kids cramming. And then there are the little Rex’s who have given up. OK, that’s the majority of the kids.
With all the pressure to achieve (coupled by all the freedoms we’ve removed from teenagers over the last 40 years) there is little wonder you see so much deviant behavior. And depression. And drug abuse. And self-injury. And risky sexual behavior.
Teenagers disrespect adult authority, largely, because adults disrespect teenagers right to autonomy. And something within us says that when an adult is disrespected by someone we need to clamp down even tighter– having higher expectations and putting them higher on a pedestal they don’t want to be on.
By deifying our children we have put them on an pedestal they cannot stay on. No one can. We expect too much and we don’t give them enough space to grow.
Little Rex, worshipped since conception, will not become a god because he is not God.
Deifying Rex has trapped him. He is miserable. He is fighting for independence. While he is worshipped and deified he has no power.
We have the whole thing backwards.
Postscript: This New York Times article appeared after I published this piece, but does a good job explaining the ramifications of the myth that you have to go to the right school to get ahead in life.
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