Changing the world, one child at a time

April 22, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

I told George, the second-grader who lives two doors up, that I would get out the baseball and glove and play catch with him the other day. But I got busy and didn't deliver as promised. "That's OK," the forgiving 7-year-old said. "There's always tomorrow."

That's right, George.

When it comes to kids -- our own, or someone else's -- we always seem to be putting off until tomorrow something we should be doing today. I owe George a toss with a baseball, or a Wiffle Ball game. More than that, I need to tell him a funny story, and slip him a dollar now and then. I need to take an interest in him.

A little bit of that goes a long way with kids.

More than we realize.

This has been a miserable week in America, with a staggering tragedy involving young people -- one who was so profoundly mentally ill that he killed 32 others and then himself on the campus of a university.

Many readers of Thursday's column wrote or called to say they shared my feelings about this -- a lack of shock that such a thing could happen in a country bristling with guns and drenched in violence, and a kind of guilt that we have not done more to foster a peaceful society and world for our children. Many readers wondered what they could do toward this end, if it's not too late.

Actually, there's a lot you could do, and, despite the pessimism I expressed the other day, it's not too late.

You could call time-out on violent video games, pick up a baseball and glove, and play toss with your kids. You could swear off Quentin Tarantino films. You could shout "Stop!" next time you see someone spanking a child.

You could ask President Bush why, in announcing on Friday a task force to recommend ways to avoid a repeat of the shootings at Virginia Tech, he never once mentioned the word "guns." You could call radio talk shows and let them know that not all their listeners support all-guns-all-the-time.

You could ask the people who represent you in Congress and the state legislature if they think there's sufficient funding for accessible mental health services in your community.

You could find a nonprofit group that supports children -- to keep them safe, teach them to read or provide them with a sport -- and volunteer some time. There's a lot you could do.

Baby boomers are now starting to line up for retirement. Many have raised families, worked hard, built up their assets and provided for their children. They feel complete, as if parenthood was an 18-years-and-out deal. We like to believe that, by a certain age, most kids -- our own, or someone else's -- really don't want anything to do with us. They're not interested in our opinions, and they view their parents and their parents' peers as meddlesome and moralizing old bores.

We tend to believe that young people seek neither our attention nor our approval, and that they're interested in neither our stories nor our lessons. And I think that's one of the all-time great copouts.

I don't know that there was ever an idyllic time in America. But certainly there was a time when older people -- the elders -- thought their paternal/maternal duties extended beyond 18 years, and beyond their own children, and they felt completely empowered to inject their wisdom and authority where they felt it necessary.

Maybe it was so when people lived in small, cozy towns or in bustling city neighborhoods, before television and air-conditioning, and people sat on porches, or met at the corner coffee shop or tavern or hardware store, and there was generally more face-to-face contact, and children and adults shared more time and space. The Apprentice wasn't reality television but reality: young people learning from their elders, and the elders embracing their responsibility to take an interest in the young.

Things are different now. Everybody's busy.

One of the wise old owls of America, the poet and author Robert Bly, believes we baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are in a state of protracted, self-centered adolescence. Bly, who turned 80 in December, believes the United States has a "sibling society," a shortage of genuine grown-ups, and that our generation has generally shirked its responsibility to care and nurture its young.

Virginia Tech might have brought people of my generation, who grew up in a time of assassination and escalating urban violence, to the realization that our kids do not have it better than we did. They do not live in an America more peaceful than the one we inherited from our parents, and that's not how things are supposed to be.

The young gunman is to blame for the killings in Blacksburg. But the blame for the violence in our culture goes to a whole generation that fostered acceptance of it -- from politicians to film directors to the creators of television shows and video games to the manufacturers of guns, and to those of us who have stood by and let so much go without challenge.

"I feel like there should be hundreds of thousands of Americans demonstrating daily in Washington," a reader wrote the other day. "But where are we?"

Demonstrations have their time and place. But for most of us, there are simple, daily things we can do to diminish violence or the threat of it in our midst, and leave something that approaches a better, more peaceful world for our kids. You can start by taking an interest in a child and making him or her feel special. It's not too late. As George, my little neighbor, says: "There's always tomorrow."

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