A Thought for Today
by Terrell Tebbetts
A recent article about American childrearing ended with a question worth answering.
First the writer described the nation’s childrearing in the 1800s. Back then, we reared our kids to be independent, even rebellious. We expected them to challenge authority, to break rules, to set their own courses.
The writer said that kind of childhood reflected our democratic spirit. Craven Europeans bowed to kings and princes. Subjected Asians kowtowed to warlords and emperors. We Americans were free and equal before the law. So we taught our kids to stand up for themselves and “to take nothin’ from nobody.”
This democratic spirit prepared kids for the
work they’d do as adults. Most Americans were
small farmers, working independently to raise cattle and grow tobacco, cotton, corn, and wheat. They were on their own in their work and on their own as they fought for the best prices they could get for their products.
Those who weren’t farmers were merchants and skilled tradesmen. Mom and Pop rather than Walmart ran our general stores, and locals rather than Chinese factories provided our dresses, shirts, and shoes.
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is such a boy. Orphaned, he leaves home on a raft, sets a slave free, and lights out for the West at the end of the novel. He was an independent nation’s boy-hero.
Then the writer said new expectations for children arose at the end of the 1800s. We wanted kids to stay in school longer, join groups like the Boy Scouts, and to get jobs carrying newspapers or jerking sodas. We wanted them to be industrious.
We were preparing our kids to succeed in urban settings where they’d be working for others in factories and offices. They no longer needed independent spirits. They needed to meet and exceed others’ expectations if they were to make a decent living.
Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches stories provided perfect role models. Alger’s “Ragged Dick,” an orphaned shoeshine boy, is an example. He’s a go-getter who rises early to capture the morning foot traffic, earns the attention of a successful businessman, gets a low-level job at his firm, rises through hard work, and ends up heading the firm. He’s an industrious nation’s boy-hero.
Finally the writer described today’s childhood. Parents cater to kids, filling their free time with activities adults organize, while filling their bedrooms with TVs, Xboxes, and PlayStations. When they get in trouble, parents fight their battles for them. The writer asked what kind of adulthood such childrearing, with all its constant provision, prepares kids for. But he didn’t have an answer.
My daughter, however, has a scary one-word answer: Entitlement.
Maybe so. The wild popularity of Britain’s Harry Potter shows our kids still need boy-heroes as smart, brave, self-sacrificing, and independent as Harry, who’s anything but “entitled.” Will America’s entitled kids follow Harry? Or are we preparing them to become entitled adults, incapable of producing heroes?
Terrell Tebbetts is the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in American Literature at Lyon College. He can be reached at email@example.com.