Saving whales, judging people

Anna Quindlen

October 16, 1990|By Anna Quindlen

LIKE the chorus at a revival meeting, four children are sitting in the back seat of the car, swinging and swaying and singing along with Tom Chapin, longtime folkie and inveterate environmentalist: "Someone's gonna use it after you. Someone needs that water when you're through."

These are the adults of the 21st century, and they know all the shalt nots by heart. Here are the AnnaQuindlenbad things: Pollution. Litter. Smoking. Drugs. Drinking. Homelessness. Wasting water. Killing trees.

They save whales and rain forests with their allowance. They have donned their social consciences early, taking them from school projects and television.

"Be smart; don't start," they sing idly on the swings, "drinking hurts."

They are the children who come into the kitchen, look at an egg frying, and say with certainty, "That's your brain on drugs."

Except for the few precocious ones who have been known to remark, "There's lots of cholesterol in that thing."

We were the generation of people who were going to do better than pat solutions for our kids, who wanted to bequeath thoughtfulness, breadth, the long version of answers to life questions.

And then we found ourselves surrounded by social problems so acute that we turned them into television commercials and Madison Avenue slogans: Users are losers. Drinking and driving can kill a friendship. We've simplified that thing that is least simple: human frailty and vice.

Children are suggestible creatures. Let one boy on the playground say "doody" on Monday morning and by Friday night you're so doodied out that you are driven to threats: If I hear doody one more time, someone is never having a Happy Meal again as long as he lives.

Often this suggestibility works to advantage; it becomes learning. Sometimes it's insidious; that's one reason children's advocates want limits on the number of commercials on children's programming.

Quick as you can say "My Little Pony," the mind of a child is held hostage by a jingle, a description, a tag line.

This is the idea behind public service announcements and campaigns: that a generation of children will soak up social evils and civic responsibility. And mostly this is true.

They seem more evolved young citizens than we were, glum about global warming, ticked off about tuna nets. But they are also judgmental to a fault, as sure of the failings of human beings as they are that Rice Krispies go "Snap, crackle, pop."

It's the prerogative of kids to believe that they have all the answers, to be intolerant as a matter of maturation.

But what once characterized their judgments was a split between generations.

The young liked marijuana and absolute candor and disparaged martinis. The middle aged liked good grooming and manners, and disparaged bare feet and uncombed hair.

Fighting this battle was how one side grew up, the other calmed down.

The shortcomings our children learn today are not generationally distinct. Their disapproval is stamped with the imprimatur of all society.

They don't learn that kids hate cigarettes or drugs or drinking. They learn that these things are objectively wrong, at a time when they're too young to have learned a measure of empathy and understanding to shade the primary colors of censure.

We try to tell them it's not polite to make a citizen's arrest at the bus stop because someone is puffing away, that it's hard to stop smoking if you've been doing it since you were 16.

Clear and pure as only those unmarked by life can be, they answer, in the voice of an American Cancer Society message, "Smoking kills you."

What they're learning is that life is black and white. Life is often gray, a lesson only time teaches.

Some of our new truths are unassailable. Drunken driving kills people. Teen-age pregnancy is epidemic and problematic. Drugs can ruin your life.

It is hard to imagine them huddling in a dorm room 10 years from now, saying, "Yo, Benjamin -- all that stuff they told us about acid rain was lies!"

And some of the messages they parrot now they will surely reject.

Some will discover that people use drugs and booze because they seem to make you feel better when you are feeling bad. Some will discover that people have irresponsible and unprotected sex for reasons so primal that even writers can't find the words.

The danger is that they'll reject the messages but remember the permission -- even the invitation -- to be intolerant of human weakness.

It would be sad if all they retained from those slickly packaged childhood bromides was the idea that an important part of life is to judge other people and find them guilty without an explanation.

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