Kids, Talk to Your Grownups

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“Talk to your kids about” drugs, violence and sex, urge various advertisements featuring West Wing celebrities, drug czars and other panacea-types. But what should grownups say to the kids?

How about, “Don’t act like us!”

American adults practice and abet the Western world’s worst tally of adult drug abuse, murder, gun carnage, imprisonment, homelessness, poverty, AIDS, unplanned pregnancy, drunkenness, obesity, voter apathy, avaricious consumerism, family breakup, murders of children and child hunger – by far. We tell pollsters in massive numbers that our goal is to pile up as much wealth as our richest 1 percent and that it’s fine to kill thousands of innocent people to avenge terrorism.

We benefited from well-funded schools and social services when we were growing up, then greedily cut our taxes and denied today’s youth similar opportunities. We spend twice as much on gambling as on education. We menace motorways in gas-swilling sports utility tanks, blow billions on medically useless cosmetic vanities, and panic like stampeded sheep at every bray by alarmist politicians and the news at 11.

What lessons should youths learn from the latest abysmal moral example set by American adults who, previously doubtful about war against Iraq, tamely backed it after President Bush barged ahead? Squelch your conscience, kids, and go along with the dominant crowd even if you think it’s wrong? Forget laws and rules, because bullying works? Only attack weaklings who can’t fight back? Winning is everything, especially if it’s easy? Spout lofty principles but seize the loot?

Horrified by youngsters picking up our real attitudes and behaviors (which experts comically label “adolescent rebellion”), we spend billions funding prevention programs whose unadmitted mission is to prevent kids from acting like adults.

“My school was telling us not to call names or beat people up,” one puzzled Maryland youth told The Washington Post (“What We Learned in School Today,” March 31) about his school’s conflict resolution classes. “Now we see the government bombing Iraq. It seems it’s, ‘Do as we say, not as we do.’ ”

Yet those who administer nonviolence programs must wonder if their old ways – letting or even helping popular kids bully the losers – better prepared students for a cold new America in which naked self-interest and cruelty define how elites use power against the disadvantaged.

For example, teens contemplating military careers should watch how the troops – the self-sacrificing young men and women loudly “supported” by righteous flag-wavers – are treated now that the war’s over. Note that the ultra-patriotic House of Representatives slashed $25 billion from Bush’s already paltry Veterans Affairs funding proposal over the next decade. Axed were $10 billion from veterans’ medical care, $15 billion from disability services and $200 million for educating veterans’ children.

These cuts come as 1.7 million veterans with war-related injuries and illnesses lack promised services, as 200,000 with immediate traumas wait six months for hospital treatment, and as 270,000 veterans live homeless. Federal studies show that Vietnam veterans suffer especially high rates of drug abuse, suicide, violent death, imprisonment and war-related illness.

Wake up, young would-be soldiers: After you fight and suffer for the United States, you’re expendable trash. Your schools’ cheery military recruiting propaganda doesn’t mention that while Washington’s favored contractors reap billions in profits to wreck and rebuild a ravaged Iraq, thousands of servicemen and women subsist on food stamps.

Pay heed to your elders’ true message: Sacrificing for your country is for suckers. Ask instead what your country can do for you. Look at who America most richly rewards: the war-whooping politicians, pundits and corporate executives who dodged military duty to line their own pockets and now bask in adulation, affluence and tax cuts.

Reversing America’s bankrupt values requires true adolescent rebellion. Young people: Talk to grownups about adult violence, drug abuse, selfishness, materialism, killing innocent people for political and business profit, and what you’ve learned in “conflict resolution” classes – that is, fundamental moral ideals.

Here’s an ice-breaker: “Mom, Dad (Stepmom, Absentee Dad, Newest Significant Other), when you were growing up back in the ’60s ...”

Mike Males is a senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Contact: