The survey results were, as promised, sobering.
Before thousands of well-meaning delegates at the National Community Service Conference in a Manhattan hotel last week, the respected, bipartisan organization Public Agenda reported that American adults are not at all pleased with the younger generation.
Teenagers are considered rude, wild, irresponsible, spoiled, undisciplined, sometimes frightening. They are perceived as often behaving without values or civility, the delegates were told.
And children aged 5 through 12 aren’t seen as much better.
Even parents are critical of the job parents are doing. Adults in the survey said parents are giving up too easily on marriage, discipline and raising moral children.
To address all this, said Deborah Wadsworth, Public Agenda’s executive director, the public is riveted by one goal: To teach all children the values of integrity, ethical behavior, concern for others, respect, compassion and responsibility.
Government programs ranked low on the list of solutions. It’s up to parents and volunteers to address the moral vacuum, the survey said.
With all due respect to the American public, it’s crazy to think the volunteers in the Manhattan hotel and parents back home can tackle this monumental job alone. Government and the corporate sector have a role to play - and should not be let off the hook.
I’m not underestimating the growing potential of community service. And I embrace the critique running through the Public Agenda survey - parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s moral development. The children of the 1960s are the parents of today; no wonder many don’t know what to do with authority and accountability.
But the structural issues unearthed by Public Agenda are not going to be solved only by yammering at parents and recruiting more volunteers.
Consider one issue: Free time. The survey found 63 percent of black, 61 percent of Hispanic and 49 percent of white parents say teens commonly get into trouble because they have too much free time.
Kids themselves agree - 70 percent of the 12- to 17-year-olds surveyed said they usually hang out with friends without anything specific to do.
This should not be a surprise. Remember “The Music Man,” who charmed River City by pointing out that hanging out in pool halls was poison for idle youngsters?
Most juvenile delinquency occurs between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. That’s also when most babies of teen parents are conceived.
The solution? Public Agenda detected strong support for after-school programs and volunteer groups, such as Boy and Girl Scouts. All very important. Playing the trombone and big bass drum sure cured the troublemakers in “The Music Man.”
But I’d argue that’s dressing up the garden while ignoring the crack in the foundation.
Life isn’t like an old musical. The problem today is that the nation maintains an old-fashioned school day meant to serve adults, not children. Most teenagers don’t even wake up until midmorning, yet they start school at the crack of dawn - and end early enough to leave a yawning vacuum of time all afternoon. (Never mind the ridiculously long summer vacation that breeds only more mischief.)
True, many kids work after school. But that, too, is problematic because study after study shows that teenagers who spend hours behind the fast food counter turn out to be poor academic performers.
If Americans were really concerned about their children after school, they wouldn’t rely on unpaid volunteers to step in at a most crucial time. The school day (and year) should be adjusted and extended, teachers paid accordingly, academic expectations heightened, and safe, organized activities created for all children.
That, or expect that in every family, one parent will be home each afternoon. I’d say it’s easier to push ourselves forward than turn back the clock.
If Americans want better parents, we must become a society that nurtures parenting. It’s as simple as enlisting television as an ally and not an enemy. It’s as difficult as weaning ourselves of our selfish consumerism.
It’s as challenging as extending the Family and Medical Leave Act, and as costly as turning the nation’s public schools into bastions of learning and civic pride.
It requires a common effort by all sectors of society - profit, nonprofit and governmental - to express the value of parenting in real terms. Otherwise, we end up relying on the same people - parents willing to serve - to do more, for their own children and for others, while the rest of America grows ever more distrustful of the children we aren’t raising.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.