Breaking Kids

Don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?

— Marissa Ribisi as “Cynthia,” Dazed and Confused (Dir: Richard Linklater, 1993)


No sixteen or seventeen year old can have a “resume.”  Or should have one.  Resumes are things that adults submit when trying to get jobs in offices.

No college bound sixteen or seventeen year old should know what their major is going to be, let alone their “career path,” and if they do, it should be a wild, romantic, half-baked idea that will be revised several times or discarded altogether.

When I was in high school, between the (awesome) years of 1982 – 1986 – I was able to spend my summers working at a day camp as a counselor, hanging out with my friends at the beach or pool, going to parties, and chasing (and being chased by) girls throughout.  During the academic year, after school, beyond the obligatory homework, I was free to socialize with friends and girlfriends even more or work a part-time job, if I liked.  (A ton of socializing happened during the school day as well, as we enjoyed an open campus and free periods.) At the end of it all, if you had good grades and high enough standardized test scores, you would be admitted into a competitive college or university.  (Students who were not academically bound had any number of vocational post-high school options.) I left high school with an A-minus average and 1280 SAT score, which back then was good enough to get me into the University of Michigan, one of the nation’s top universities.

Nothing remotely like this is true today.  Having good grades and good test scores are not enough to get into any competitive institution of higher education, which pretty much means anything beyond one’s local community college or public four-year.  Applicants (who, remember, are seventeen or eighteen) must have deep, fleshed-out profiles.  They must already have decided what their greatest interests and talents are and what course their lives will take, and they have to fill every available moment outside of school (including the summer) with activities whose purpose is to demonstrate those interests and that course on a resume and in a college application essay.  That means no working as a counselor at the summer camp.  No going to the beach with friends.  No parties.  No hanging out after school.  No after school job. None of it.  Or at best, very little of it.

The kids who are put through this system often wind up neurotic and over-achieving or neurotic and self-destructive, and the line between the two is so thin as to be almost invisible. Teen suicide rates have tripled since the 1950’s.  Adolescent anxiety and depression are rampant. Inconceivable exercises in self-harming of one type or another are alarmingly common.  The youthful libido is the lowest it’s been in generations, which can only be described as a bizarre deformation of nature. This wretched state of affairs has become the new normal, as adolescents crack under the pressure to be fully developed careerists, before they even have become fully developed people.  It’s like we’ve plucked Alex P. Keaton out of the 1980’s – minus the Reaganism – and jacked him up on crack. (Watch the episode of Family Ties, where Alex does a bunch of speed to get through exams, and you’ll get a sense of the flavor of things now.)

Ironically, the best chance of having a normal childhood and adolescence today is to have as little ambition as possible, short of turning oneself into a lemur.  Don’t care about getting into a decent school?  Don’t care if you’re competitive across the country, as opposed to just a few miles around you?  Don’t care about your earning potential?  Don’t care about doing what you are interested in, as opposed to what just happens to be available in your immediate area which, in many places, including my own, is pretty much bupkis. Then you can do all the things that kids and teenagers were able to do from roughly the Second World War until the early 1990’s.  Or at least, you could, if we hadn’t also fucked up the youth experience in all the other ways I’ve been banging on about in my writing over the last few years. (1)

Childhood and adolescence are ends as well as means.  Indeed, the only way they can function properly as means, in the sense intended – i.e. laying the ground for a successful, healthy, happy adulthood – is if they are treated first-and-foremost, as ends.

This is the time when we come into ourselves, fully, as people, and when we learn how to have healthy relationships with others, personally, socially and professionally.  It’s when we learn how to have romances and suffer break-ups.  When we hesitatingly and awkwardly begin to explore sexual intimacy.  When we start to make friends.  When we develop the ability to work at a job.  And it is essential that we exercise these capacities and skills in this period of our lives, because the stakes and the price of failure are so low.  Wait to learn how to have a relationship until you’re already married and a parent, and the price of failure is your children’s childhood.  Wait to try and make friends until you are an adult, and the price of failure is a lifetime alone in cyberspace.  Postpone learning how to function in a work environment until you are already embarked on your career, and the price of failure is your livelihood.

Hence, the singular importance of those summer and after school jobs, beach excursions and parties, adolescent romances and terrifying, thrilling sexual encounters.  Our young people no longer experience them or do so only in the most diminished of ways, all for the sake of a stupid, merciless pre-professional grind, and the result is plain for everyone to see: broken kids; broken adults; broken families; and ultimately, broken every fucking thing.

Or put another way… Cynthia, you’re right.








11 responses to “Breaking Kids”

  1. Hi Dan,
    as usual you put your finger right on the nerve centres of compelling issues. Some quick observations.
    1) yes, it is deeply concerning
    2) it is much tougher for Chinese kids in their hyper competitive schooling system
    3) the average age of onset of clinical depression has shifted down from middle aged adulthood to 24 years.
    4) the transition into adulthood has been delayed to about the age of thirty.
    5) children today are being prepared for a much tougher, more competitive and more complex adult world.
    6) but parents are spending less time with their children and less time socialising than ever before.
    7) screen time is devastating maturation and education.

    Some interesting symptoms. Young adults are becoming increasingly hunched and short sighted.

    As you noted, children need more time for play. This is increasingly being recognised by researchers. But this must be robust, physical outdoor play that activates the full range of sensory systems. I am a great believer in organised school sport as a means to this end.

    Running is the best path to both psychological and physical health. It improves hardiness and cognitive ability. The best possible intervention to improve public health is to encourage widespread adoption of running from school onwards. Cross country running is terrific fun and children take to it naturally. It is a cheap, simple activity that comes to us naturally. For tens of thousands of years we evolved as runners because we were persistence hunters.

  2. There’s an idea in engineering called ‘Plan To Throw One Away’ from Fred Brooks – Mythical Man Month.

    “The management question, therefore, is not whether to build a pilot system and throw it away. You will do that. […] Hence plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow.”

    In a lot of ways our youth is like that. It is a time to fail, to arise again and be brilliant.

    Also many of us end up doing ‘Second System Effect’

    “The second-system effect (also known as second-system syndrome) is the tendency of small, elegant, and successful systems, to be succeeded by over-engineered, bloated systems, due to inflated expectations and overconfidence.”

  3. DAZED AND CONFUSED is still my favorite Linklater picture and I was overjoyed to see it cited here in a wonderful essay about how we live today and it’s worth.

  4. It’s one of my favorite pictures, period. I grew up at that time, and it also is extremely accurate. I don’t think people take nearly seriously enough the extent to which we have completely transformed the youth experience in just a few decades, and almost entirely for the worse.

  5. I just have to love this parody. It seems so apt to the subject of this post.
    You Gotta to Love Millennials

  6. That’s just brilliant.

  7. davidlduffy

    All this resonates with me, but at the same time makes me think how class and culture bound it is. Consider kids sent to boarding school. Were they being abused because they missed out on the family life I experienced at a critical age? Kids who are involved in high level sport, say swimming? At that age, I found the idea of that kind of discipline completely ridiculous, but not so much now.

    Looking at (some) younger kids today, my first impression is their lives are more regimented/organised than mine ever was. Then I consider that they live a life I associate with wealthy children of earlier generations eg filled with organised sports, ballet or music lessons, special tutoring, earlier and earlier preschooling There are just more of them experiencing that particular model of childhood.

  8. Dan

    I agree with the basic sentiments. Crazy that you can’t get into a good university by academic achievement alone.

    “No college bound sixteen or seventeen year old should know what their major is going to be, let alone their “career path,” and if they do, it should be a wild, romantic, half-baked idea that will be revised several times or discarded altogether.”

    Agreed. But I always envied that small minority who — through luck or self-knowledge or a wise mentor — somehow latched onto at an early stage a direction which fitted their aptitudes and personality.

  9. Seth,
    that was a fascinating article. I thought this(near the end) had a strong bearing, both on the article and this essay:

    Moreover, as American social institutions have withered, having a life partner has become a stronger predictor than ever of well-being.

    Robert Putnam has documented, in exquisite detail, the sharp decline in social capital. For wholeness and completeness we need other people. We are deeply social animals.

    But we are today becoming a society of Singles. By that I don’t only mean unmarried or without a partner. I mean someone that is singular in his social universe. That is people with fewer, shallower and briefer social contacts and this leads to greater narcissism.

    We are all the centre of our own universe but in earlier times the border of the universe was close at hand. Now the borders of our universe have moved outward, helped along by the electronic media. With that has come a disinclination to admit others deep into our own emotional universe.

  10. Kyle

    Check out this article below from the NY Times from a few weeks back. It’s about students’ efforts to self-fashion in an competitive admissions environment. But, what’s hilarious about it for me is how the writer, Kate Taylor, buys into the bs, describing one of these 18-year olds as an “accomplished composer” and gushing at another’s openly cynical military gambit. Outside of Mozart, there really is no such thing as an 18-year old “accomplished composer.” And, the fact that this writer and her editor at the NY Times can’t see that says a lot to me.

    My fear is not for their well-being but for everyone else’s. The amount of entitlement that is going to come along with all this self-glorification is going to be painful for the rest of us. Working with Harvard-types (no matter where they went to school) is already a problem. It is going to get worse.