Deeds, Not Words

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Don't worry that your children never listen to you. Worry that they are always watching you. - Robert Fulghum

In a recent news article about high school students in Tokyo, the writer notes that though the stereotypical Japanese teen is obsessed with academic success, the reality is often quite different. "...In the last five years, freewheeling sex, heavy drinking and delinquency have exploded among the high-school set. In the place of the nose-to-the-grindstone ethic of long study hours and single-minded focus on exams and careers...the motto of the current crop of 15- to 18-year-olds seems to be that girls and boys just want to have fun."

While acknowledging the fact that some of the more outrageous claims he heard may be exaggerations - "We don't have any real serious boyfriends, just sex friends," a group of girls told him - the writer says that for many of the students he talked to, daily life really is an endless cycle of shopping, having sex, doing drugs, and visiting tanning salons. Tired of incessant lectures about the virtues of industriousness, alarming numbers are dropping out of high school altogether and opting instead for the "excitement" of urban nightlife.

"In an earlier generation, these children...might have chosen to run away," a youth worker told the reporter. "Nowadays, though, many parents avoid involvement in the emotional conflicts of their teenage children - and runaways are few because the household is so free...More and more, people are trying to enjoy their own lives, and they are gradually becoming indifferent to their children." (Interestingly enough, no parents are quoted in the article. Perhaps they weren't available for interviews, or wouldn't talk. Either way, their children made it clear that they are not a very important part of their lives.)

To anyone out of touch with today's teens - not just in Tokyo, but in any large "westernized" city - such an attitude might seem shocking. Yet it shouldn't be. In a way, it is the logical outcome of a cultural environment built on the idea that the only worthy goal is doing well enough to make money and "have fun." Why bother with all the work if you can party now, at your parents' expense?

Ask any mother and father what they think about a trend like the one I've just described, and you'll get blank stares or defiant replies. "What do I think? It's outrageous. I'd never let my daughter..." Even the most dysfunctional parent knows, deep down, what's good or bad for a child. Unfortunately, there's a gulf between knowing what you want for a child, and being able to ensure that he or she acts accordingly. And it's clear that in many homes the gulf is not being bridged. Despite all the talk and all the nicely formulated values, the basic message is not getting through.

In the case of Tokyo's trend-setting teens, for instance, I am sure that their parents and teachers have made numerous appeals on behalf of their future, their health, their ability to contribute to society in a positive way. But I am also sure that their children aren't dumb. And as far as they can tell, what their parents really care about is their grades, not them. So they rebel.

As conventional wisdom goes, teenage angst is "just a phase." Adolescents have always chafed under parental authority, and they always will. When rebellion becomes a way of life, however, we cannot brush it off. We need to look a little deeper. What is it that today's children are rebelling against so vigorously, and why?

To me, the answer is simple: hypocrisy. The word is admittedly a strong one; it may even seem cruel to suggest that there are parents who consciously raise their children to act one way while simultaneously doing the opposite. But the hard truth is that this does happen - in far too many ways. Consider this anguished outpouring from a student at Texas A&M who felt compelled to explain, after the Columbine massacre, why she thought things had "become so bad":

"...Let me tell you this: these questions don't represent only me but a whole generation that is struggling to grow up and make sense of this world. People may label us "Generation Next," but we are more appropriately "Generation Why?"

Why did most of you lie when you made the vow of 'til death do us part?

Why do you fool yourselves into believing that divorce really is better for the kids in the long run?

Why do so many of you divorced parents spend more time with your new boyfriend or girlfriend than with your own children?

Why did you ever fall victim to the notion that kids are just as well off being raised by a complete stranger at a day care center than by their own mother or father?

Why do you look down on parents who decide to quit work and stay home to raise their children?

Why do you allow us to watch violent movies but expect us to maintain some type of childlike innocence?

Why do you allow us to spend unlimited amounts of time on the Internet but still are shocked about our knowledge of how to build bombs?

Why are you so afraid to tell us "no" sometimes?

Call us what you want to, but you will be surprised how we will fail to fit into your neat little category...

Now is the time to reap what you have sown. You might not think so, but I can guarantee that Littleton will look like a drop in the bucket compared to what might occur when a neglected "Generation Why?" comes to power."

Accusing as some of these questions may seem, I believe every one of them is valid, and vital for every parent to consider. Many of the issues they raise are too complex to answer in words alone, but they all touch on one central issue: the widespread perception of young adults that their elders are frauds.

Hypocrisy rears its head early in parenting, but it mostly appears in very subtle ways. Sometimes it is rooted in the confusion that arises when a child hears one thing at school and another at home; one direction from one parent, and a second from the other; one set of guidelines in one classroom, and an entirely different set in the next. In other instances, it stems from simple inconsistency: a child has just learned a lesson or a rule, only to find her parent breaking it, making an exception, or explaining it away. All this is usually harmless enough. It is part of life.

The real problem arises - and this is more widespread than one might think - when children are taught to "do as I say, not as I do." Told this half-jokingly in one situation after another, they gradually learn that there is never anything so black and white that is always good or bad, at least not until they make the wrong choice at the wrong time. When that happens, they get punished for their lapse of judgment. And they will always find the punishment unjust.

Being a father, I know how hard it is to be consistent - and conversely, how easy it is to send confusing signals without even realizing it. Having counseled hundreds of teenagers over the last three decades, I also know how sensitive young adults are to mixed messages and inconsistent boundaries, and how readily they will reject both as clear signs of parental hypocrisy. But I have also learned how quickly the worst family battle can be solved when parents are humble enough to admit that their expectations were unclear or unfair, and how quickly most children will respond and forgive.

Reflecting on the ways in which children so often mirror their parents - in actions, attitudes, behavioral characteristics, and personal traits - my grandfather writes that children are like barometers: that is, they visibly record whatever influences and pressures currently affect them, whether positive or negative. Happiness and security, generosity and optimism will often show themselves in children to the same degree that they are visible in their parents. It is the same with negative emotions. When children notice anger, fear, insecurity, or intolerance in an adult - especially if they are the target - it may not be long before they are acting out the same things.

In 'The Brothers Karamazov', Dostoyevsky's character Father Zossima reminds us that this sensitivity of children is so great that we may shape them without even knowing it, and he admonishes us to consider the effect of everything we say and do in their presence:

"Every day and hour...see that your image is a seemly one. You pass by a little child, you pass by spiteful, with ugly words, with wrathful heart; you may not have noticed the child, but he has seen you, and your image, unseemly and ignoble, may remain in his defenseless heart. You don't know it, but you may have sown an evil seed in him, and it may grow...all because you did not foster in yourself an active, actively benevolent love."

Unlike the innocents of Dostoyesvky's time, children today are exposed to a steady barrage of images and expressions whose combined effect may be far greater than that of the most caring adult in their immediate lives. I am speaking, of course, of the news media, the entertainment industry, and the Internet, and the way in which they have replaced parents as the ultimate source of authority in millions of "wired" homes around the globe.

Parents can work themselves ragged trying to instill ideas of commitment and compassion, but as family expert Mary Pipher warns, TV - which tends to capture a child's undivided attention every time it is turned on, for as long as it is on - is a far more powerful parent. And if there's a conflict, there's little question who'll win: "This is the first time in the history of the human race that kids are learning how to behave from watching TV rather than from watching real people."

There is no question that every parent "tries hard" to raise good children. Given the state of our culture, which undercuts parents at every twist and turn, it's impossible to bring up any family at all without trying hard. But there's also no question that despite all our efforts, we are far from the models we ought to be. And that is the fault of every parent, not of some vague, dark power called Hollywood.

Take violence. Everyone is concerned about it, and everyone agrees it is bad for children. But what is anyone really doing about it? From the hallowed halls of Congress on down, precious little. Writing of the horror of Columbine, for instance, novelist Barbara Kingsolver observes that instead of coming to terms with the real forces that endanger children, we often trivialize them:

"In the aftermath of the high school killings in Littleton, Colorado, we have the spectacle of a nation acting baffled. Why would any student, however frustrated with mean-spirited tormentors, believe that guns and bombs are the answer?

If we're really interested in this question, we might have started asking it a while ago. Why does a nation persist in celebrating violence as an honorable expression of disapproval? In, oh let's say, Yugoslavia. Iraq. The Sudan. Waco - anywhere we get fed up with mean-spirited tormentors - why do we believe guns and bombs are the answer?

Let's not trivialize a horrible tragedy by pretending we can't make sense of it. "Senseless" sounds like "without cause," and requires no action. After an appropriate interval of dismayed hand-wringing, we can go back to business as usual. What takes guts is to own up: This event made perfect sense.

Children model the behavior of adults, on whatever scale is available to them. Ours are growing up in a nation whose most important, influential men - from presidents to film heroes - solve problems by killing people. It's utterly predictable that some boys who are desperate for admiration and influence will reach for guns and bombs. And it's not surprising that it happened in a middle-class neighborhood; institutional violence is right at home in the suburbs. Don't point too hard at the gangsta rap in your brother's house until you've examined the Pentagon in your own. The tragedy in Littleton grew straight out of a culture that is loudly and proudly rooting for the global shootout. That culture is us.

It may be perfectly clear to you that Nazis, the Marines, "the Terminator," and the N.Y.P.D. all kill for different reasons. But as every parent knows, children are good at ignoring or seeing straight through subtleties we spin.

Here's what they see: Killing is an exalted tool for punishment and control. Americans who won't support it are ridiculed. Let's face it, though, most Americans believe bloodshed is necessary for preserving our way of life, even though this means we risk the occasional misfire - the civilians strafed, the innocent man wrongly condemned to death row.

If this is your position, I wonder if you'd be willing to go to Littleton and explain to some mothers about acceptable risk. In a society that embraces violence, this is what "our way of life" has come to mean. We have taught our children in a thousand ways, sometimes with flag-waving and sometimes with a laugh track, that the bad guy deserves to die...

Sound extreme? Don't kid yourself. Death is extreme, and the children are paying attention."

Clearly, the twisted way in which we deal with violence is not just a social or political phenomenon, but something that has roots in every living room. The issue here isn't just violence. No matter the vice or virtue, it is utterly futile to try to educate a child about it as long as our deeds and words remain at odds with each other.

Sex is another sphere where even the most well-meaning parents confuse children - if not with hypocrisy, then at very least with conflicting messages and confusing ideas. As with violence, so with sex: it's one of every parent's biggest concerns, and one of the most talked about. But amid all the worry about what to say to our sons and daughters, how to say it, and when, many of us are forgetting the most important thing: the power of our actions. Until we start living our convictions - until we demand of ourselves the same things we demand of our children - all our strenuous efforts at modeling integrity will fall flat.

Commenting on the age-old riddle of how to pass on one's values to the next generation, Blumhardt, the nineteenth-century pastor, admonishes religious parents for their tendency to moralize and preach, and criticizes their "illusions" about the value of rushing children to church. "As long as Christ lives only in your bibles...and not in your hearts," he says, "every effort to bring him to your children will fail." Regardless of one's faith, or whether one has a faith at all, the point is well made. Veteran civil-rights activist Assata Shakur writes:

"Your values must be real if you want to pass them down. It's too easy to engage in macho talk...and to forget about the ego and its contradictions. But I've seen it over and over: people say one thing on the podium and then go home and do the opposite. They're for freedom and justice in public, but at home they're the oppressor - the bourgeoisie."

Ryan, a young acquaintance behind bars whose picture-perfect upbringing in a "religious" family was only a façade, knows exactly what Shakur is talking about. A popular student at the private Catholic school he attended from first grade on, Ryan always had friends and enjoyed his reputation as class clown. A promising athlete, he played baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey; a model Christian, he attended church and even became an altar boy. Yet his life was anything but happy:

"Everything in our home revolved around money and what "the neighbors" might think. And everything looked good on the outside. Our family had achieved what most people deem "success." But behind the front door there were scenes of mental and emotional murder.

My father worked very hard at making his company successful, so I saw very little of him. He worked sixteen-hour days. My mother, on the other hand, was out of control - violent as a wild cat, and extremely selfish. She had a tongue like a bomb, but never used it to talk. She screamed. Even when she wasn't having a temper tantrum she was never warm, never said, "I love you," or "I'm sorry." She downright resented being a mother! And the words she used stung - they really stung: "You're just a guest in my house," she'd snarl. "Why don't you just get out of my hair. Go do something for your brain." By the time I was a teen I felt crushed and awkward and had no self-esteem or self-worth.

As far as religion went, we attended church as a family at Christmas and Easter (the rest of the time I went by myself), but the only time I heard my mother talk about God at home was to justify a rule or a punishment. There wasn't a bible in the house. Picture this: you send all your kids to a Catholic school, but you yourself don't even believe...

In high school I fell in with the "wrong" crowd and started to experiment with drugs and alcohol; I guess I did it to "fit in." Then I started stealing to support my habit. By the time I was eighteen I had attempted suicide and been arrested for assault with a weapon. I wound up in drug rehab. Later I joined the Navy, though I was kicked out after testing positive for cocaine...

Relationships? The only positive thing I can think of is that I never got a woman pregnant. But I've lied, cheated, and stole my way through my whole adult life. I've never paid a loan, never paid taxes, never held a bank account for more than six months. I've lived in cars, on park benches and stranger's couches, and in hospitals.

I'm very uncomfortable saying all this, because I have always hid behind a very favorable mask: my intellect, my charm, my good looks. God might still be able to love me, but I always worry that if people knew about my past, they'd run. And the last thing I need is the pain of rejection...

Nobody has a hard time accepting that evil exists like a plague. But at the same time everyone pretends it can be overcome with that old religious hocus-pocus: say your prayers, stay in school, and take your vitamins. Like that is all we need!"

Cindi, a youth worker currently living in Boston, did not grow up in a religious home. Neither of her parents abused her. Still, the gulf between her father's promises of love and his abandonment of the family when she was five has left indelible scars. As in Ryan's case she knows that no matter the cause of a frayed family relationship, it often ends with a child who is sidelined to make room for other, more important adult priorities. And she also knows that sometimes it is impossible to lie to a child:

"They sat all four of us down on the couch. I was five. They used that word - divorce - and I had no idea what it meant, but I looked up and saw my older brother start bawling. Then I knew something was wrong so I started crying. We all went up to bed and Mom asked each one of us who we wanted to live with. Of course, we really didn't understand the question, but I remember, when she left for the boys' room, the fear that they were going to be divided from us girls. It was such a relief that they weren't.

Later that night I went downstairs to get a glass of water. I saw Dad walking out with a suitcase in hand, and his alarm clock with the cord wrapped around it. He looked at me and said "Honey, remember, Daddy loves you," and then he walked out. That memory is so vivid. He really did just walk out..."

Today, as an adult, Cindi shows no sign of the brokenness that crushed her as a child and haunted her as a suicidal teen. Helping dozens of young women on a daily basis, she has turned her experience to a positive end; the same pain that once threatened to destroy her now enables her to offer guidance of a sort that adults with happy childhoods might never be able to give. But she still wonders at times about the meaning of love:

"What does it mean when a father tells his little girl, "I love you," but then walks out on you? It's even hard to trust that my husband really loves me...

What I remember most as a child is this terrible void.

I did everything I could to try and fill it. But because I couldn't fill it up with my father's love, I sought it elsewhere.

I was fourteen when I lost my virginity. It was with an older guy I had started dating. It was like I was looking for someone to control me or to be above me. Later he became abusive, and my mom found out about it, so she ended it immediately. The guy ended up stalking me for two years after that, but in a way I didn't mind: I actually fed off his attention. It made me feel like someone really cared about me.

In high school I was bulimic and battled other problems too. I hated being alone. Whenever I was, I'd just drink to a frenzy, and when I was drunk I would write and write in my journal. I always felt that my fears and insecurities had something to do with my father not being there. I cried and cried to him, and asked him why he couldn't just come home...Even now, it's like I'm still waiting for him to come home."

Statistically, separation and divorce have long been the most likely outcomes of marriage. But they are never the one-time legal incidents they appear. And that is why - no matter how "necessary" the divorce - it is always good to be reminded what it looks like through the eyes of a child, especially one who senses that it may define her, emotionally and psychologically, for the rest of her life.

Still, it is heartless (and useless) to condemn couples who divorce; as Anne, an English friend whose father left the house when she was a child, puts it, "Adults in crisis are desperate and do what they must." And though Anne concedes that children usually pay the brunt of the consequences, she notes that adults pay too. Further, she pleads that the pain caused by divorce must not be the end of every story:

"I had a very good mother, and even after she made the choice for divorce (the only option she saw), she was faithful to me. She sacrificed the joys of motherhood and worked full-time to support me, and her loyalty pulled me through. She gave me her best years - twenty-one of them.

Yes, divorce always scars both partners, and if they have children, it scars them as well. But from my own life I know that my mother's decision to put my needs before hers saved me. It offered me the chance of recovery. I'm still "on the road," but I know full healing and wholeness will come."

Without women like Cindi and Anne - that is, without the resilience shown by every child who overcomes the obstacles of adult hypocrisies and failings - parenting would indeed be a bleak challenge. With them we can see that no matter how tempting it may be to despair over past mistakes, even the worst father or mother has a right to hope.

Addressing the question of parental shortcomings, and reminding us in a more general way of the source of that hope, Malcolm X once wrote:

"Children teach us a lesson adults should learn: to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so "safe" and therefore so shrinking and rigid... That it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure."

Of all the parents I know who have been tempted to give up, none has as much reason for resignation as Kareem, a "lifer" whose case I have followed for several years.

A native of Brooklyn who grew up in the city's worst projects, Kareem attended what was at the time the deadliest high school in the country in terms of homicides. His childhood ended when he was six, he says, the night he found his mother hanging from the ceiling of her bedroom. Later, as the father of a three-year-old who could already tell the difference between the sound of firecrackers, automobile back-fires, and gunshots, he decided to move to our semi-rural county. He was sick of the streets, and desperate to put an end to the cycle of crime and poverty that had plagued his family generation after generation.

When I first heard of Kareem, he was making headlines for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a local eight-year-old. Kareem lived only a twenty-minute drive from my home, and in the months following his arrest, I visited him in the county prison. We have since stayed in touch, though he is now serving a life sentence without parole, hundreds of miles away.

Given the unspeakable evil of the crimes he admits having committed, Kareem may always feel burdened by his guilt, even though his remorse has given him some sense of peace. (In the last year, he has changed so completely that fellow inmates have begun calling him "Reverend" and turn to him for advice.) But aside from his guilt, he carries another, even heavier burden: the knowledge that he is not only a convicted murderer, but also a father whose failure has robbed him for good of the chance to bring up his children in the way he once dreamed.

But the story doesn't end there. Two years ago, Kareem's son entered the third grade in my church's parochial school; since then, he has blossomed socially, academically, and in every other way. Best of all, the boy's progress has given his father such hope that he has stopped torturing himself over his family's fate and started trying to make up for lost time - despite the fact that his fathering is limited to letters and rare visits, even though he knows that the deepest change of heart cannot release him from his bars.

Just weeks ago Kareem Jr.'s teacher showed me a poem the boy had written about his father, which I would like to include here:

My dad is the man. Do you understand?
He gives me all the love he can...
My dad wants me to learn in school:
He thinks that learning is real cool.
For my birthday he gave me a bike,
He knew just what I would like.
Every week he sends me mail.
My love for dad will never fail...
One day my dad and I will see
the Rocky Mountain snow.
We'll find some gold,
more than we can ever hold.
We'll take it home to mom:
"Look, mom, at this gold!"
We'll trade all this gold to get my dad home...
Even though I may not see my dad again,
My dad will always be my best friend.

It is said that dreamers, not realists, change the world. If that sounds like a threadbare cliché, it is only because we have made it one. Through their eyes of hope, children really do have power to transform reality. True, their naiveté may need to be eased away as they grow up, but we must never rob them of their optimism or dampen their joy. It is no small thing to affirm the importance of a child's longings. No matter how unrealistic they may seem to our adult minds, the world desperately needs their dreams.

Johann Christoph Arnold is a family counselor, author, and pastor with the Bruderhof Communities ( ).

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