Raising children in an era of road rage

Essay by Martha Quillen

Modern Life – September 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

HERE’S a multiple choice question for September: How does the old song go?

“School days, school days, …” a) I’d rather be a fool days. b) I’d much rather play pool days. c) Take a gun and duel days. d) None of the above.

You’re right, it’s “d.” The real song goes “Dear old Golden Rule days.”

Yet — unless this Golden Rule happens to be a kind of ragweed I’ve never heard of — that verse doesn’t make much sense. From the days when small boys dipped little girls’ pigtails into inkwells until today, the Golden Rule has seldom prevailed in the classroom.

Instead, teasing, bullying, humiliation, and injustice seem to have been incorporated into the educational experience. And why not? Eventually every child must acquire some fortitude, endurance and tenacity.

Recently, however, it seems that children should also learn how to identify snipers and dodge bullets. Growing up was hard enough when the weapons of choice were tacks, rubber bands and spit wads. Now juvenile snipers add a whole new level of anxiety to the process.

But to make matters worse, in the aftermath of a surge of shooting sprees perpetrated by juvenile psychotics, children have also been assaulted by a barrage of media attention. And even at the best of times, a lot of the attention juveniles receive is absurdly unfair.

In our society, it’s pretty much de rigueur to discuss the failings of our younger generation. We routinely malign their manners, dress, morals, thoughts, and motives. And sometimes, adults reproach children so routinely and dispassionately, they probably don’t even realize they’re doing it.

Last year, for example, during the local campaigns, I went to a meeting where citizens were encouraged to discuss their views on resolving Salida’s problems. In attendance were several downtown merchants, numerous businessmen and three teenagers, so the talk predictably centered on Salida’s problems with young people.

For the most part, participants told the teenagers that kids had to do more about Salida’s youth problems. They suggested that the teens form Saturday morning clean-up crews, organize school clubs to clean streets and parking lots, and lobby at school for noise reduction. Adults then warned the juveniles that if they didn’t want an unpleasant crack-down on loitering, curfew and noise, they should immediately enlist their friends and get started on cleaning parking lots and promoting noise control.

At the time, I thought it was a pretty tall order for three kids. But the ideas didn’t faze me one way or another.

The next day, however, two people who had attended that same meeting told me that they were incensed about how rudely those teenagers were treated. And it didn’t take me long to understand their point.

FIRST, there was absolutely no reason to assume that the three teenagers (who were asked to attend that meeting) had ever hung out on the cited corners or littered so much as a hang-nail. But as usual, those kids were expected to explain, defend and ameliorate the actions of all young people. The meeting’s two critics succinctly informed me that no one but teenagers would have been treated that way.

And that’s no doubt true. When it’s obvious that tourists are leaving refuse at local campgrounds, no one proposes we round up tourists at random and put them to work. Yet we routinely make individual adolescents answer for all adolescents. Obviously, when it comes to dealing with young people, adults don’t live up to the Golden Rule any more than school children do. But even worse, when problems are ascribed to young people a lot of adults don’t even see a need for fairness.

Recently, Denver Post columnist Chuck Green reviled all modern young people. According to Green, modern kids are lazy, insolent, undisciplined, and nothing like he was back in the days when his father toiled for the postal service to give his large family a meager but upright existence. Furthermore, the children Green knows today are ostentatiously given everything from Nintendos to new cars.

Clearly, however, Green cannot be talking about all American youth — since more children are employed today than when he was young. Green should open his eyes. As like as not, children are flipping his burgers, cleaning his hotel rooms, and serving his dinners.

But Green, a former Denver Post editor, seems to have confused his own upward mobility with the position of children in our society. Because even if the kids Green knows are given everything and not expected to work at all, that certainly isn’t true for most of the kids I know.

In Salida, our kids share the commercial work of cooking, cleaning, manning counters, guiding tourists, and making beds. We probably couldn’t get along without them. Yet even so, our community seems to have more trouble than most getting along with them.

In the last few years, Salida’s generation gap seems to have grown into a canyon, but that’s not too surprising. Here, snowboarding, rafting and mountain biking are attracting more and more young people who thrive on music, thrills and adventure. While at the same time, historic homes, mountain views and galleries are attracting older people looking for a quieter, more serene existence.

FOR MORE than half a century, however, Salida’s main drag has had a certain reputation. It has always been a cruising strip where local kids go to celebrate summer nights, weekends, and victorious football games. In the old days, the huge old homes on Salida’s F Street housed some of the city’s larger families. Ray Perschbacher, who has since moved to a quieter address, once told me that F Street was a great place to raise a family — since his kids could generally find teammates aplenty to play both sides of a football game without ever leaving their own block.

Over the years, there were numerous attempts to quell the traffic and noise on F Street, including quite notable campaigns in the late ’40s and early ’80s. But there was also a measure of tolerance — since this tendency to gather downtown meant numerous parents knew exactly where their children were. Plus, many of Salida’s parents and grandparents fondly remembered cruising that same boulevard themselves.

More to the point, downtown’s popularity has oft been credited with keeping kids off mountain roads and out of more serious trouble. And some Salidans even attribute F Street with decreasing our juvenile alcohol consumption.

But in the last decade, a lot of the stately old homes on and near Salida’s main drag have been bought up and renovated by newcomers who neither worry about, nor identify with, Salida’s young. They’ve demanded change, and gotten it. The city has responded with curfews, loitering laws, heightened policing, and tickets for everything from rollerblading to disturbing the peace.

Unfortunately, though, such measures haven’t necessarily targeted only trouble-makers. Instead, Salida’s young people, whether innocent or not, have rather routinely been stopped, questioned, lectured and urged to move on by both police and angry citizens. To complicate matters, by law (before it was declared unconstitutional), the loitering ordinance had to be applied to everyone — tourists, downtown residents and young people alike.

And even worse, this deluge of new ordinances has encouraged a proliferation of citizen complaints, police work, court cases, legal expenses, fines, punishments, verbal confrontations, false accusations, and personal wrangles.

Yet in spite of all this commotion, Salida’s quandary keeps growing. There are no shopping centers, malls or teen clubs to disperse the city’s youthful population. All of the attractions that lure the young — dance clubs, bike shops, record stores, basketball courts, festivals, and parks — are downtown.

The recent trend to convert hardware stores, sewing shops and offices into galleries and eateries has no doubt worsened the situation by making our downtown more pedestrian friendly. And now in the summer, Salida often presents live music and events, drawing in young people from near and far — while at the same time protesting their abundance.As tension escalates, a lot of anger gets displaced. Now irate citizens lambaste kids in general, and furious old-timers disparage “Californians” who come here and want everything run their way.

THESE DAYS, disgruntled citizens demand that the police do something about an inordinate number of rambunctious teens, barking dogs and suspicious persons. But because a small number of citizens make a large number of those complaints, many resentful kids and adults feel that they are at the mercy of surly, discontented cranks.

Whereas likewise, because nothing ever seems to get better, the complainants complain more stridently.

Although suggestions have been put forth to establish less disruptive places for the young to hang out, ride bikes, skateboard, rollerblade, talk, and play basketball, such plans have been hard to implement, with so many dissenting voices vying for attention. (Besides, given current sentiments, it seems a sure bet that when Salida does finally open a new skateboarding park, basketball court or teen center, it will also be reviled.)

Currently, citizens on both sides of the controversy seem to feel that the Salida City Council totally ignores them — and they may be right.

At this point, it would seem that our representative government has been converted into a constabulary agency — issuing edicts, ordinances and fines to efficiently monitor everything from skateboarding to sidewalk watering. In its new regulatory capacity, Salida’s government not only restricts teens, water usage, and what used to be perfectly legal public conduct, but it also garners additional fines, fees and court costs. All in all, Salidans now pay more, get less, and have more headaches than ever before.

Personally, though, I don’t blame either young people or newcomers for this impasse (although there are certainly a few meanly belligerent homeowners who seem determined to intensify such clashes into outright warfare, and a few rude, crude teens who seem equally bent on prison careers).

But on the whole, Salida’s generational battle merely seems commonplace these days. Right now, the whole nation is consumed by a corrosive, self-righteous anger. Media dramatists and parlor preachers decry the immoral, libertine values of our young. While judges, prosecutors and politicians try to impose respect for the law by making examples of youthful offenders.

IT DOESN’T MATTER that the very concept of making an example of anyone violates the tenet that the law should be equal and equitable to all. It doesn’t matter that there’s more than a touch of bigotry and spite in this whole mad movement.

Like southerners who once lynched the nearest black man — rather than the guilty man — we denounce all youngsters without regard to their behavior or character. Like city gangsters bellowing “he disrespected me,” everybody wants respect, and no one wants to give it. In such a crazed climate, it doesn’t take much to get our anger smoldering.

Last month, a Missouri woman wrote to the Salida paper complaining about graffiti on Tenderfoot Mountain and the smelter stack, and about noisy kids. According to Judy McGrew of Gravois Mills, Missouri, “It is a shame and disgrace what your town’s young people have done to that place… In our little town, we do not have that kind of thing… We feel the parents of these children should be made to fix and clean it up…

The truth is, McGrew’s letter was really pretty silly. Just how were we supposed to identify those kids? And why should the parents be held accountable for allowing their kids to have writing utensils — when parents generally aren’t held responsible when their kids brandish automatic pistols? (Besides, are we really supposed to believe that kids in rural Missouri never write on walls?)

But in short order, our local paper jumped on McGrew’s bandwagon with an editorial. The article was mild — merely suggesting that high school kids make a project of painting the gazebo and being quiet. But indignation about the piece spread like chicken pox.

Unquestionably, right about now, we don’t need any more denunciations or lectures. Contrary to what Editor Baranczyk contends, Salidans know about both the graffiti and the noise — and they don’t need a visitor “to see things” that we “take for granted.” Or to castigate our children or their parents.

“Where are the parents?” McGrew asked.

Well, I’ll tell her. In our moderately priced resort community, the parents are probably working night and day to feed those kids. As for those kids, if they’re over thirteen, when they’re not being rowdy, they’re probably working, too.

Moreover, the longer you live in Salida, the more you realize that a considerable number of our young people are basically independent. They feed, clothe, house, and fend for themselves. Like many resort communities, Chaffee County houses not only its own fledglings, but also a multitude of young people who come to work on the river, or ski, or snowboard, or wait tables.

Sure, we have problems. Most of our businesses cater to tourists, and that tends to leave a scarcity of entertainment for the young. In order to make our town vacation-friendly and attractive to retirees, we restrict even healthy activities like bicycling and rollerblading. It’s hard to find daycare for kids over six, and a lot of hard-working parents can’t afford medical care. Wages are low, and a lot of work is seasonal.

But even so, berating all of our children and their parents — and in conjunction punishing all of our children and all of their parents for acts committed by a few — hardly sounds like a viable solution.

Right now, we don’t need more oil on the fire; we need some soothing balm. Our beleaguered newcomers could use some peace. And our hard-working young people could stand a little appreciation.

But neither group is likely to grant comfort to the other in the face of mounting hostilities. Thus, it seems doubtful that more accusations and retribution will help matters. But nevertheless, McGrew’s suggestions do seem to go along with the tenor of the times.

The modern solution to every problem seems to be to get tough, get even, lock ’em up, and throw away the key — and if you don’t know who did something, punish anyone who might have. After all, (especially when it comes to kids) you don’t have to be fair.

With so many single and working parents, American kids are in sad need of structure and discipline (of sports’ teams, academic clubs, supervised recreation, tutoring, and afterschool programs). But instead, our country has boosted childish hi-jinks into felony convictions, and embraced a contemptuous attitude that clearly alienates our kids into never wanting to join adult society.

Although it’s not easy to redeem disobedient minors, if we strip them of their futures, they will always be our problem. Besides, focusing all of our energy on crime and punishment, strikes me as a bad idea — since it dooms us to more crime and punishment.

Obviously, we should try to prevent crime before it happens. And presumably we can do that by alleviating some of the factors that lead to crime.

SO PERHAPS, if Salidans attack the problems that children have — with just a tenth as much vigor as we expend on the problems that children cause — we’ll be able to eliminate some of our problems.

Actually, however, I think Salidans have been pretty lucky. People here have their share of headaches, but it’s still a pretty traditional place. For the most part, Salida’s rebellious youths are still driving around in circles and making too much noise. (And apparently, a few of them are even writing on the same walls their fathers wrote on.)

In Salida, people still forget to lock their doors, and they still feel safe walking around at all hours of the night. Under the circumstances, a few more basketball courts, a place to skateboard, a place to make noise, some afterschool programs, some creative daycare options, and a little paint could probably resolve most of the dilemma.

–Martha Quillen