Rude, Rude, Rude: The Trouble with Egalitarianism

I’m tired of sarcastic second graders. My son is not the only culprit. But we’re now working mightily in our house to stifle nasty sarcasm, not to mention other forms of rudeness. So far, the results have been unimpressive.

I’m certainly not the first to complain about increasing rudeness in society or the way American culture promotes snappy answers and disrespect of adults. What’s changed for me is my response to the disrespect. I’m a ’70s kid; I grew up with “Question Authority.” Now I’m the mom in the remake of The Karate Kid, snarling at her son about dropping his jacket on the floor.

I worship Jackie Chan’s Mr. Han, secret kung-fu master, who silently assesses the boy’s bad attitude. How do I describe the thrill of Teacher Han putting the boy through his first lessons, making him take off his jacket, hang it up, then put it back on—over and over, in heat and pouring rain?

I love those scenes.

What my son got out of the movie is less inspirational, although he’s been attending martial arts classes since he was four. When the boy’s mom (a flighty character, no doubt) was burbling on about how wonderful Chinese ice cream is—and the boy spat back that she’s always saying how great everything is—my son turned to me and hissed, “See? You’re just like her.”

Ouch. Guilty as charged. Except probably all parents end up in this uncomfortable spot, if they’re being parents, trying to teach their kids to make the best of things, to manage disappointment, to cope.

It will take more then a movie or a weekly kung-fu lesson to change the social tide. My son is surrounded by superhero teens who talk back to bad-guy adults. He banters with his friends this way; many of those friends banter with their parents as if the adults are peers.

And that’s the problem. In one of my favorite books about kids and discipline, The Parents We Mean to Be, Harvard lecturer and psychologist Richard Weissbourd argues eloquently that when Mom and Dad act like friends rather than parents, it not only fosters disrespect; it leaves their children feeling unmoored, as if no one is in charge.

A recent piece in the Boston Globe, “Out of Line” by staff writer Drake Bennett, asserts an even more basic need for social order. Subtitled “Why hierachy matters, even in an egalitarian world,” the provocative article examines why there has been so little outcry against (1) President Obama cutting loose General Stanley McChrystal after his disrespectful quotes in Rolling Stone; and (2) the French soccer team’s “strike” against its coaches.

Bennett argues, backed by a number of social scientists, that such rebellion against the people in charge makes us acutely uncomfortable. “Deference to the social hierarchy” is quite possibly hardwired (or at least the social nature of human beings is). One research finding cited has to do with how accurate most people are at judging their own social status. As Bennett writes,

“This is notable because they tend to be poor judges of just about everything else about themselves. Study after study has shown that people are incorrigible self-inflaters, wildly overestimating their own intelligence, sexual attractiveness, driving skills, income rank, and the like. But not social status, that they turn out to be coldly impartial about.”

If this is the case—and it makes a lot of sense to me—then I’d take the argument a step farther. While the French World Cup team’s behavior was just plain silly-bad (as Bennett also notes), McChrystal’s comments in “The Runaway General” were something else. For me, it seemed ominous that this particular president was being so rudely undermined.

Writer Michael Hastings, who’s still reporting from Kandahar, sees it as his journalistic duty to out McChrystal. In a Huffington Post interview with Harris, he says the “trash talking” isn’t the real issue; it’s that McChrystal didn’t have control of his command; the troops were glad to see him go.

Yet the trash talking symbolizes disrespect, too. A lead like “How’d I get screwed into going to this dinner?” from the general (about a state dinner in Paris meant to appease the French) reflects a generational shift, towards a kind of snappy-answers-to-stupid-questions mentality that permeates everything from The Daily Show to Shrek.

Which means we’ve reached an interesting pass as parents. I struggle with my own sarcasm; I laugh at Jon Stewart; I don’t want everything to be nicey-nice. I am complicit, as are many of us boomer/slacker, academic professional, “cool” parents, we “X people” of Paul Fussell’s 1983 mock field guide Class.

Psychologist Weissbourd is well aware of this challenge. He speaks of the benefits of sharing far more with our kids than parents of the past. Yet we need to assert clear disciplinary boundaries and to let our children rage when we hang tough. In his 2009 book, subtitled “How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development,” he writes,

“[M]any parents have difficulty tolerating their children’s flaws and troubling feelings—anxieties, angers, disappointments, even sadness. One sees parents on playgrounds, disturbed by any sign of anxiety or letdown in their child, leap up to try to ‘fix’ it. There are clearly panicked parents these days who rush their children to therapists at the first stirring of trouble.”

In an interview with me last year for Adoptive Families, Weissbourd talked wistfully of the respect shown elders in traditional Asian societies. During heated moments with my son, I also long for Confucianism.

But only for a moment. There are myriad reasons why my eight-year-old has started pushing back. He’s been dealing with ill and dying grandparents, and parents who are stressed out by that. Transitions are hard for many kids, and the end of a school year is a big one. He’s a boy, and he’s beginning to separate from Mom. He’s an adoptee, and that’s always complicated.

And we do talk. Just this morning, I said something like, “Wow, I love feeling lousy when I wake up. It builds character.”

My son looked at me. I put my hand over my mouth and said, “Oops. That was sarcastic. But do you think it was a mean kind of sarcasm?”

He considered. Then he shook his head. “You were saying it about yourself. I wasn’t even sure you were joking.”

I’m still modeling the snappy answer, of course. Yet my son rarely flips back a disrespectful sarcastic response. When he’s angry, he’s just angry. I sit with him while he’s raging; sometimes I get mad back. I’m not his therapist or a sympathetic friend. I’m Mom.

God help us when he’s thirteen.