The Decline of Civilization in America


August 25, 1993|By MARILYN GEEWAX

ATLANTA — Atlanta.--Sitting in a McDonald's sipping coffee and reading a newspaper, I should have been enjoying some quiet moments before a hectic day of running errands. But my respite was ruined by three boys, maybe 13 years old.

They sat down near me and started laughing, shoving and throwing food at one other. They made a mess at their table and on the floor. Their loud, profane conversation disturbed everyone.

They didn't seem to be genuinely bad kids -- just boys showing off because no adult was at their table to quiet them down.

But wait. There were adults nearby. Plenty of them.

The restaurant must have had nearly a dozen workers behind the counter. A manager was on duty. Grown men sat at other tables. I was there.

I wanted to go over and say: ''Hey, kids, enough already. Clean up your mess or go outside. You boys are too old to be acting like this.''

But I didn't say a word. I live in a country that has become so saturated with guns that a prudent adult doesn't dare challenge a 13-year-old stranger. It's too dangerous to anger three boys when you're not sure what kinds of weapons they may be packing.

This unwillingness to discipline children, even in busy restaurants, is one of the reasons so many kids are turning into impulsive, violent teen-agers. They are not accustomed to having limits set on their outbursts.

This isn't entirely the fault of parents and teachers. Even the most conscientious parents can't be with their children every minute; they should be able to count on getting some backup from other adults.

As a youth, I always felt someone would check me if I started acting up. At the public swimming pool, lifeguards didn't hesitate to throw out unruly kids. In stores, clerks scolded children who knocked over displays.

Many times when I played in the park, a stranger's voice would warn us kids not to run with bottles in our hands, not to poke sticks at each other, not to shove smaller children. Adults weren't afraid to take responsibility for laying down rules.

The message was consistent and clear: Just because your parents aren't around doesn't mean you can run wild.

This constant pressure to behave helped me learn self-control. Even when I did get the occasional urge to fling french fries across a table, I knew I had to stop myself. Adults weren't going to let me act on my every impulse.

I appreciate the guidance those strangers gave me when I was young. They helped me learn the rules for civilized behavior.

But I fail teen-agers today. I fail to live up to my social responsibility to help set limits because I am afraid of violence. By the time a kid is old enough to cause disruptions in a mall or restaurant, he is big enough to be dangerous.

The newspapers are filled with stories of 13-year-olds who fire bullets with as much thought as they give to throwing pickles in McDonald's. That youths have no trouble obtaining lethal firearms is a national disgrace.

And still the crazy gun lobbyists are pouring their millions into Washington to make sure nothing slows the flow of powerful weapons into the hands of kooks and children. The zealots say guns don't kill people. No, guns are doing something even worse -- they are killing civilization.

Marilyn Geewax is an editorial writer for The Atlanta Constitution.

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