My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 5, #39,
June 4, 2000


Last week I suggested that parents might have reason to fear the books kids love because those books did in fact call cherished adult values into question. The corollary parents need to understand is that children are not SUPPOSED to adopt all our values and beliefs, for the same reason that they are not clones of us, but a mixture of genes -- to replicate us exactly would keep them from adapting to a changing world.

Once when a pretty young friend of mine was moaning about having to choose between two boyfriends, I asked her why she had to choose -- why not date both of them? After all, my generation played the field until we were engaged. When she gave me a look of shocked horror, I realized, duh, she wasn't talking about just dating them. That was when I began to understand that I have absolutely nothing useful to say to young folks about sex -- relationships, yes, but not sex. The experiences of people taught to be virgins until they married are no longer terribly helpful.

When we realize we not only cannot but SHOULD NOT expect our children to accept all our values, we can pay closer attention to what our kids say, and notice when their most rebellious words and actions in fact support our beliefs in a way we don't perceive. Kids can see things that our assumptions blind us to. They may be wrong, of course, but they might also be right.

My much maligned generation overlooked some things our parents knew, but we also saw some truths our parents did not. Our parents believed our leaders wouldn't betray us, and didn't see the lies until the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate hearings made them impossible to ignore. Our parents didn't notice that buying things was being pushed as a cure for unhappiness. Since they had never known an unsegregated society, many of our parents never thought about how unfair that was until their own kids went south to register black voters.

That's not to say that all of our choices were good ones. It was logical that kids raised on commercials for legal drugs and who were suspicious of their government would fool around with drugs. It just didn't turn out to be a good idea. Sure, for many, it was never more than a fairly harmless recreation -- but it did turn them into lawbreakers. And some of us never recovered from the damage the dope did; the burned out casualties can still be seen shuffling down the streets, muttering and staring vacantly.

We cherished freedom and self-expression so much that some of us found marriage and commitment too bourgeois and stifling, and moved in and out of relationships freely. That turned out to be hard on their kids.

All our solutions have a way of becoming problems for the next generation, forcing our kids to undo the unanticipated consequences. You see it, for instance, in the new anti-sprawl movement, which regards our auto-based suburban lifestyle as not the American dream but the American nightmare.

You see it too in a new meanness, a rejection of our idea that we should make sure minorities are included in our schools and workplaces. Which is fine if they have better ideas on how to achieve equal opportunity, but less so if they only want to continue to benefit from the advantage of white skin and middle class background.

When our kids seem to be flirting with foreign ideas and values, we need to pay close attention. The books they love can help us understand their fears and worries. Books that challenge our assumptions can show us what our unacknowledged assumptions ARE, and allow us to examine them. They can help us discover which of our values matters most to us, what of our kids' offenses we could live with, and which would be dealbreakers.

Can we still love our kids if they reject our religion, or can we settle for them being decent loving people? What if they rejected the idea of marriage and children, but not the idea of having a sex life? What if they became mean-spirited bullies or betrayed people who trust them? What if they fell in love with someone of the wrong faith or race or gender, or if they violated the law -- and does it matter which law? What if they experimented with drugs, or abused alcohol perfectly legally? What if they chose to be a mechanic or carpenter rather than a professional? What if they believed so strongly what we said about injustice that they joined the freedom-fighters in Guatemala or Peru?

Once we know which values matter most to us, we can concentrate on instilling those and stop sweating the small stuff. We can realize how boring it would be if they were merely little replicas of ourselves, and enjoy them for their differences.

We could even -- gasp! -- learn from them.

Will they make mistakes? You bet. Will they learn from the mistakes? Yes, if we taught them not to just believe but to think; if we trained them to accept responsibility; if we taught them how to love; if we showed them how we surmount disappointment and loss. Then, even though they will live in a future we cannot begin to understand, we will have done our job -- teach them what we can and let them loose to change, as they must.

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NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.

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