A news flash from Wall Street: Retail outlets for all things typically associated with the school year and the K-12 youth market still reported disappointing sales this past Christmas. Even school clothing - such as it is - has experienced a downturn.
Stephanie Woods of PBS' highly rated Nightly Business Report first alerted investors to expect bad news in a back-to-school segment way on August 1: "For the true back-to-school basics: pens, paper and notebooks … the average family spends about $75. [A]dd in electronics, clothes, and all those other extras and the National Retail Federation expects the average family to spend … only $10 more than families spent last year. Analysts say it's not just a slow economy that's keeping shoppers cautious, retailers say there are no really trendy items this year."
No trendy items?
As soon as I heard this news, I did some checking on the Web (am I ever going to pay for this in spam!). My findings surely will hearten "family life" educators, school counselors, and maybe even a few teachers worried about out-of-control kids and pupils with learning problems. But parents, administration officials and taxpayers already fretting over the last round of test scores, global competitiveness and the dwindling base of common knowledge among America's youth will find little to cheer about in the 2004 school spending department.
Here's what's trendy: Cell phone accessories (especially videophones); condoms (flavored and unflavored); the new generation of MP3s (advertisement: "rockin' to class" for $139-$299); Ortho Evra's "the Patch" (a long-lasting alternative to the once-daily pill); and a new generation of psychiatric drugs to cover everything from hyperactivity and attention "deficits" to impulsiveness and bullying.
NASDAQ and the Dow, still stuck in the values (if not the ethics) of the 1950's, may not have thought to categorize items on the above list as back-to-school, um, staples. But marketing moguls, being less backward, spent the whole summer hyping these wares in teen magazines, teen movie ads, over the Internet, and in other venues frequented by the typical unsupervised youngster.
Where are their parents? At work, of course, struggling to pay for these gadgets, both gross and frivolous, that will enable their little Jordan (daughter) or Jordan (son) - gender-specific names are out - to fit in, get by, and keep quiet.
Parents figure it's a lose-lose situation. They can pay now (i.e., purchase whatever their little darlings and/or teachers want) or pay later (i.e., to the psychiatrist once their offspring are sufficiently "stressed"). Rarely does it occur to these people that what's stressing children is not the demands of educators and parents, but the cruel expectations of other youngsters.
What do we make of the kiddie trends today? A few observations:
One hears that kids are maturing earlier. As a former teacher, I can assure you that yes, youngsters can draw more spectacular pornographic pictures on their desks. And no doubt children are exposed to more violence and debauchery than their Baby Boomer parents. And with increased immigration and mixed marriages, many American girls, statistically speaking, menstruate somewhat earlier and exhibit secondary sex characteristics a year or so sooner. But parents of Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian descent, for example, are quite accustomed to 10-year-olds wearing bras and having periods. For that reason, as late as the 1970's most of these parents were still making sure their daughters were chaperoned in their native countries whenever they ventured into activities where both sexes would be in attendance. Unlike the so-called enlightened parents of American extraction, these folks knew - not to put too fine a point on it - that an elevated bra size does not necessarily translate to "maturity" in higher parts of the anatomy. Twelve and 14-year-olds are still children in the head.
Scientists recently announced they have found the brain chemical responsible for the high-risk, daredevil behaviors so characteristic of youth. But didn't we already have thousands of years of experience admonishing us to expect excesses from youth's recklessness, hotheadedness and indiscretion?
Today, parenting strategies like chaperones are laughed at and condemned as "overprotective." School counselors are often the first to inform parents that "children must be allowed to make their own mistakes." Much better, I suppose, to go to court and take out a restraining order on a daughter's manipulative boyfriend or to play grandmother to a 13-year-old's illegitimate baby. That's right. Several such incidences were described in a July 30 segment on 60 Minutes II.
Instead of going to bed ready for a good night's sleep, today's kids are "revved up," as Jenny Crompton's murderous boyfriend, Mark Smith, now describes his actions of 17 years ago on the 60 Minutes II segment - from a jail cell, where he will spend the rest of his life. To hear him talk, he's had a change of heart - a.k.a. "maturity" - but that doesn't bring back 15-year-old Jenny, whom Smith stabbed to death right before homecoming in retaliation for her ending their year-long relationship, begun when she was only 14 and he, 17.
I walk away from "infotainment" like 60 Minutes with less outrage toward the miscreants than at a society that deliberately puts vulnerable children in harm's way. What is a 14-year-old girl doing dating a 17-year-old boy? Thanks to the plethora of child experts that have been spouting nonsense since the mid-1950's, parents and other authority figures continue to let their young charges down, promoting activities that encourage early dating and age-inappropriate intimacies. In effect, they have spent 40 years subsidizing the Lord-of-the-Flies subculture we have today. Our best response to this mess is, like Jenny Crompton's mother, to go around "raising awareness" about teen violence - i.e., substituting useless social programs for genuine instruction, and endless talk for serious limit-setting.
Meanwhile, today's truly responsible parents try, as best they can, to "get involved." They attend meetings and volunteer till they're blue in the face, but there doesn't seem to be a thing they can do to change the school's - or society's - sorry approach to child guidance.
Of course, schools have long undercut parents' better judgment about such things starting in the 1950s, when they promoted dances for pre-teens. Never mind the thousands of "late bloomers" who really weren't interested in "hooking up." Today, the outrages have come full circle. Health and physical education teachers, under the auspices of "sex education," shower elementary students with a panoply of sex toys and surveys, birth control devices, HIV campaigns, even bringing in "reformed" prostitutes and drug addicts to "raise the awareness" of children who, in their innocence, still equate sex with love. School policymakers legitimize grade-school-age girls coming to school dressed like streetwalkers. They let boys roam the hallways looking like something out of "Nightmare on Elm Street." Even government-sponsored anti-drug ads depict ghoulish, body-pierced teens as merely demonstrating their identity.
Television programs were into selling false realities long before "Survivor," with young people repeatedly thrust into adult-like situations - always pressured to do things that, in real life, carry long-term dangers.
Pity the poor parent who tries to shield a youngster from the combined effects of media excess, violent games and toys, and schools that put sex above grammar, and race-and-gender issues over substantive learning. Parents will circumvent these offensives only by dedicating roughly 100 percent of the time to childrearing. Never has there been a worse time for Mom and Dad to consume themselves with career advancement, "self-actualizing," and upward mobility. Yet, paradoxically, never has there been a time when parents required such elevated incomes - to shield their youngsters from the ravages of a public school system and media industry that stand determined to undermine decency, propriety and virtue.
Today, unsupervised children are assumed to be lazing around, getting into trouble. We call them "latchkey kids." But most home-alone kids, circa pre-1060s, had something to do called "chores." They fixed meals, did laundry, cleaned house, set the table. To earn extra money, they mowed lawns, babysat, raked leaves and shoveled sidewalks - and then did hours of homework.
Nowadays, we call that "exploitation."
In pre-sixties America there were no medications for "learning disabilities," either. Youngsters were expected to pay attention, concentrate and control themselves. Ditto for colds, headaches, menstrual cramps and all the rest of life's transient physical discomforts.
How could such things be "better"? some may ask.
Well, there was an irritating little expression back then called "building character," which none of us Boomers appreciated at the time. But those of our elders who took their adult roles seriously used it with maddening frequency. Today, every little ache and pain is treated as a cataclysmic event. Children grow up with the expectation that adulthood is cushy. They resent suggestions about applying self-discipline or tempering wants. Of course, when grown-up children wind up jobless, divorced and depressed, they move back in with their parents.
There's a term for these overgrown adolescents, too - "boomerang kids." And they're making their parents' golden years miserable.
So, just what are their financial
planners making of this past Christmas season's "gloomy" back-to-school
economy (not to mention back-to school time in September)? Apparently,
economists are taking it in the same spirit that retailers themselves
have reserved for Christmas, Easter and other solemn traditions. They
simply reduce all to the ultimate reductio ad absurdum: "Show
me the money."
© 2004 Beverly Eakman - All Rights Reserved
Beverly Eakman is an Educator, 9 years: 1968-1974, 1979-1981. Specialties: English and Literature.
Science Editor, Technical Writer and Editor-in-Chief of official newspaper, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1974-1979. Technical piece, "David, the Bubble Baby," picked up by popular press and turned into a movie starring John Travolta.
Chief speech writer, National Council for Better Education, 1984-1986; for the late Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Commission on the Bicentennial of the US Constitution, 1986-1987; for the Voice of America Director, 1987-1989; and for U.S. Department of Justice, Gerald R. Regier, 1991-1993.
Author: 3 books on education and data-trafficking
since 1991, including the internationally acclaimed Cloning
of the American Mind: Eradicating Morality Through Education. Executive
Director, National Education Consortium. Website: BeverlyE.com
"As a former teacher, I can assure you that yes, youngsters can draw more spectacular pornographic pictures on their desks. And no doubt children are exposed to more violence and debauchery than their Baby Boomer parents."