My friend blurted out her exasperation as soon as she sat down to lunch. She said she had invited a male friend over "to terrorize my children. But I don't think they heard him."
My friend is the single parent of two college-age young people whom she describes as "drifting." In seeking to analyze what went wrong, she began by acknowledging what went right: Her children are bright, articulate, intelligent.
But what my friend saw missing in her children was a certain rough edge. It would be an overstatement to say that her children were out of touch with reality, she said with a sigh, but they don't seem to understand what it takes to be an adult, they don't seem to understand the process involved in assuming adult responsibilities.
Over salads and coffee, we came up with a label for this era of American young--the Push-Button Generation. This is the generation that, when it gets bored, pushes the television button, and fantasy flashes into the living room. The conversation reminded me of one mother I know whose daughter asked her, "Why can't our family be more like the Brady Bunch?"
We asked ourselves whether, in making life more convenient, we have taken away the reality and challenge for some of our young.
Being a member of the Push-Button Generation carries an added danger for blacks. Many well-meaning parents have attempted to protect their children from the stings of white discrimination and black self-hatred. Some have sheltered them so much they have made them timid and cautious and afraid to take risks.
I remembered a report from another friend about two brothers who were extreme examples of over-protection. As a high school student, one was a science prize winner and was offered a scholarship to MIT to study engineering. His mother convinced him that it was too far from Washington and that he was too young. He went to school locally--and graduated from "preppy" to dreadlock hairstyles to drugs.
The second brother persuaded his mother to let him accept a tennis scholarship in another city, where she visited him every other week. She finally pulled him out and he went into the Army--and then went AWOL and subsequently in and out of psychiatric wards.
As my friend and I sat talking, I recalled that this was not a problem our parents seemed to have. My generation was steeled against the hostile world by church, family and community even before the liberating civil rights movement got under way. Our parents were not afraid to alienate us. They knew how to walk that fragile line between demanding that we perform and letting us know they would love us even if we didn't quite measure up to our potential. They taught us to play the cards we were dealt and to have the courage to design a whole new deck with brand new rules.
Another generation came of age during the movement in which a lot of brave people, black and white, were beaten, shot and killed. But many took the hard-won gains for granted. Many got caught up foolishly in the me-ism of the '70s and forgot that their personal decisions affected the larger community. They forgot where they had come from, and their parents, trying to be protective, neglected to remind them.
With integration, many young people lost touch with reality. Many lost a sense of connectedness with preceding generations. So they started worshiping designer clothes and going "first class." The members of the Push-Button Generation think they deserve the best just because they exist--not because they have paid any dues.
The Push-Button Generation is ill-prepared to deal with the new hard times of Reaganology. Another friend reports, "I'm most distraught at not having taught them to read a particular situation. When my son reads the newspaper, he doesn't understand they're talking about him--that the programs are gone, the supports are gone. I haven't taught him to make the connection that he might love the theater but he has to work at Roy Rogers to make sure his economic base is secure."
Our lunch draws to an end with my friend's sigh, "Had I thought there would be this problem I would have forced some more confrontations with reality."
We agree that it isn't too late, that she can teach her son the things her own mother taught her, that he can soar if he trains his intellect and disciplines his mind and spirit and learns to compete--not by pushing buttons, but by pushing himself.