Respect for Authority (March-April, 2005

Dear Bob, Last summer we had a camper who refused to listen to his counselor. He would not help out during clean-up and consistently pushed his dirty clothes under his bed. Getting him out of his cabin to activities was always a challenge, as was getting him back to the cabin or to meals afterwards. He wandered and “visited” boys in other bunks and when confronted by most any counselor, the boy, a rising fifth grader, would retort, “You’re not the boss of me!” His own counselor was very patient, had several “chats” with him and tried many incentives, but the boy’s behavior did not change. When we called the parents, they suspected it was something at camp, like other boys secretly teasing him or counselors mistreating him. When we reassured them this was not the case, they continued to make excuses for him. Am I missing something? It seems to me parents find every reason to exempt their kids from responsibility, insisting always that there must be some problem we have as yet “not uncovered.” When we told them that camp was about helping their son grow up, their response was, “We don’t care about that, we just want him to be happy.” What do you say to this, Bob? And what, short of sending the boy home, can we do with such a rude and disrespectful camper? Frustrated Director
Dear Frustrated,
You have a lot of company. I hear from camp professionals and teachers around the country that children are increasingly rude, disrespectful and appropriate with adults. I truly believe we have a serious “epidemic of disrespect” among young people that is the result of three different, but related factors.
The first is the overselling of children. In her new book, Born to Buy (Scribner, 2004), Juliet Schor presents convincing evidence that youngsters who get caught up in the values of consumerism, expecting “the latest toy or gadget” to provide them with status and self-confidence that ultimately never materializes, become problem kids—restless, rude, miserable and lacking inner confidence. Marketing to children now involves focus groups with children that develop products that appeal directly to their whims, with advertisements that have infiltrated every aspect of daily life. Children wear their parents down (or buy the products themselves, without their parents’ participation or approval) to get what they think they want, only to discover that great feeling of owning the “newest, latest” doesn’t last. A cartoon in the December 13, 2004, New Yorker Magazine shows two children chasing after their mother in a store with one child carrying a box he presumably wants his mother to buy, saying to the other child, “She’ll buy it for us. We just have to stay on message.”
The problem, as Schor so well documents, is that increased consumption by children only leads to disappointment, distractibility and even depression. With so much concern on the part of parents about the threat of drugs, violence and bullies, it is ironic that one of the most menacing dangers to our young people may be the consumerism in which they are enmeshed. Consuming simply doesn’t instill in children the values of respect, grace and gratitude. Furthermore, it suggests that the sources of strength and meaning lie outside themselves rather than within.
The second factor is the influence of the media on children, including television, the Internet, video games and DVDs. The phrase your fifth grade camper shouted to his counselors, “You’re not the boss of me!” comes directly from a popular TV show. It has become the national refrain for rude children in camps and schools throughout the country. My answer, by the way, is, “And it’s clear that you are not the boss of you, either! Because you’re certainly not running you, your feelings are!”
Children are grossly over-stimulated. They see and hear so much sexually explicit, violent and inappropriate behavior they have come to regard as “normal,” that they carry it to school, camp and just about everywhere else they travel. One teacher at a school here in Boston told me that when she went to set a limit on some inappropriate classroom behavior by a third grader, the child mocked her in front of the other students, ran into the hallway and called back to her defiantly, “Who’s your daddy!” Phrased as a question, it is shouted as a statement asserting that, he, indeed, is her boss. Left uncorrected, what will this behavior look like at 16?
The Internet, though a blessing in many ways, has made its own contribution to the scene. One fifteen year-old young man that I see in therapy told me that IM-ing is a totally different way of communicating, where kids will say or ask provocative things to one another online that they would never dare say to one another face-to-face. Casual sexual “hookups” are frequently arranged through Instant Messages that could never be set up in person. (For more on this, see “Teen Romance,” in The New York Times Magazine, May 30, 2004). The overall effect is that the sense of what is appropriate and respectful is eroding.
The third and crowning factor in this flu of disrespect afflicting so many youngsters has to do with parents. Themselves skeptical of authority that may have been abusive, rigid, harsh or uninvolved, many parents have done a fantastic job of educating their children about feelings without providing any sense of valid authority. As the father of one of my patients once said to me, “I don’t want to be the boss!” His experience with his own alcoholic father had been so distasteful that he renounced authority in general, throwing out its essential positive effects in the process of abdicating his position as a head of the house. He and his wife replaced authority with involvement, becoming overly involved in their children’s lives. As a result, his children were unruly, demanding and miserable. They complained constantly, even to the point of being ungrateful. They were exquisitely in touch with their feelings and could recite numerous reasons why they should be able to do something or not be made to do something, having become “little lawyers.” To this complaining, resisting, demanding behavior this father and his wife tried talking, cajoling and persuading, all to little or no avail.
Sound familiar? In her recent book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Penguin Books, 2001), one of the best books I have read in the last year, Wendy Mogel, a psychologist from Los Angeles, describes how parents have instilled precious little valid authority in their children’s lives, resulting in chaos, lack of internal discipline and all the attendant problems that come with it—being self-absorbed; having low frustration tolerance; possessing little ability to rebound from a setback; and having difficulty in managing strong emotions, disappointment and so on. Written from a Jewish perspective this book is relevant to everyone who works with children, regardless of your religious views. Want to truly give your parents a gift? Tell them to read this book, or, better, read it yourself, publish a few ideas from it in your next camp newsletter and then recommend they buy it and read it.
To me the ultimate issue in the situation you describe is respect of authority—authority used in the broadest sense of the word. Because we as a culture have developed a suspicion of authority and have come to “question authority” (the famous slogan of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s), we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Authority can be nurturing, benevolent, caring and understanding—and still be firm! The problem is parents have developed an “either-or” outlook when it comes to authority, and have become vague and undependable, which has engendered disrespect and contempt in their own children. When someone who takes an active interest in you tells you to “stop” rude behavior, it can be a relief, even though children may at first resist and test that authority. Children will often test authority to see if they can truly count on it. When it fails, they become increasingly resentful, unruly and undisciplined. As Mogel says in her book, “You can spend hours trying to explain and rationalize every decision, ..but it is your word, not your reasoning (that) matters.”

I am glad that Camps are presenting themselves as strong allies in youth development, offering not just fun, but growth and life learning for children. Camp can truly be a powerful force in a child’s life. But without basic respect, we have no youth development. A camper who does not recognize or respect the authority of his or her counselor or director can not learn—take things in—from that adult. Indeed, certain principles of living are a kind of authority. Self-discipline, which can be thought of as the ability to say “no” to ones impulses, pays huge dividends to a child socially, academically and emotionally. (Without it we have no civilization!)
I believe we are seeing the effects of the lack of respect for authority in children today. The behavior you describe is a symptom of this lack. When parents say they “just want their kids to be happy,” assert your authority (your wisdom and experience) by saying you want them to be happy, too, and…that their child will always be miserable and unhappy if they fail to recognize the good in and have respect for the kind and generous people giving them that fun—here at camp or elsewhere. Without that respect, you have nothing to work with

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