Whatever happened to being seen but not heard? Diana West asks that question in a recent essay, noting that there has been a massive shift in Western culture away from adult authority and toward the “wise child.” All around us are signs that authority and wisdom are now to be recognized in the young, rather than the old. This is nothing less than a reversal of what previous generations had believed and assumed.
As Diana West explains:
When your average doting adult today murmurs the expression, “Out of the mouths of babes,” it is less an expression of wonder than a validation of the widely held assumption that children — babes, tweens, and teens — are innately wiser than their elders. They know better (sexual and fashion choices). They are discerning (music). They feel, therefore they understand (politics). Or so we have come to think due to a stunning if under-appreciated cultural reversal. Once upon a time, we believed wisdom was an expression of experience and maturity. Today, we believe the exact opposite.
Indeed, it is the exact opposite. Marketers target children because they know that the young drive many consumer choices. On the television screen, it is the kids on the sitcoms who are wise. The parents and other authority figures are routinely corrected by the wisdom of the young. The bumbling adults learn to laugh at their foolishness and follow the direction of the children and adolescents on screen.
Teachers and others who work with youth and children often receive the same message, not only from the kids but from their parents. “How dare you correct my child? His opinion is as valid as yours.”
West traces the development of this trend through the 1950s and 1960s. As long ago as 1958, Dwight Macdonald had noted the rise of the adolescent, with a flood of books on parenting teens emerging from a host of “experts.” As Macdonald saw, “The list goes on and on, and it includes many titles that would have been puzzling even in fairly recent times, because their subject matter is not the duty of children toward their parents, but precisely the opposite.”
The shift from the duty of children to parents to the duty of parents to children was not subtle. All of a sudden, the young became the instructors of the old, on everything from the morality of war and peace to the issues of sex and the meaning of life.
As West observes, “It is hard to overstate the significance of this change more than half a century ago. It is this fundamental rearrangement of life’s building blocks that put successive decades on an entirely new footing from all that had come before. To say the tide had turned is to imply a temporary, cyclical shift. What had occurred — replacing the child’s duty to his parent with the parent’s duty to his child — has so far turned out to be permanent.”
A quick review of contemporary entertainment, educational philosophies, and cultural influences would suggest that this shift is not only thus far permanent, but may be virtually irreversible. Diana West underscores the fact that this great shift was only possible because adults forfeited their authority and responsibility. The kids did not seize power in a coup. They were handed authority on a silver platter.
West has referred to this phenomenon as “the death of the grown-up.” Reaching adulthood ceased to be the great goal of the young. Instead, adults now attempt to present themselves as adolescents. The perpetual adolescent is the aspirational role model of today’s youth — and a tragic percentage of the nation’s adults.
From a Christian perspective, Diana West’s essay, as well as her book, The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization, serves to alert parents and others to the challenge of raising children in such a culture. The goal of Christian parents must be to raise children to adulthood — a genuine adulthood. The Bible honors children, but the biblical worldview establishes parents as the authority figures and adults as the figures of wisdom.
“Seen but not heard” is not the best model for parenting children. On the other hand, it is infinitely superior to the abdication of adult authority that marks the current age. Once again, Christian parents are reminded that raising godly children in this age requires the courage of a counter-revolutionary.
Diana West, “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” In Character, Fall 2009.
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