In 1963 my high school senior class staged “Bye, Bye Birdie,” the 1960 Broadway musical that parodies Elvis Presley after he received his draft notice in 1957.
To the utter amazement of my classmates, I was cast as the Elvis character, Conrad Birdie, and got to swivel my hips while singing such rockabilly songs as “Honestly Sincere” to the swoons of teenage fans. One of them was Ursula Merkle, who ecstatically leapt into my arms at the end of a number. Today, the young woman who played Ursula is my lovely wife. That’s how life works sometimes.
The show has numerous “bring down the house” songs whose lyrics still resonate today. One is “The Telephone Hour” and it features a chorus of teens on the stage with dial phones gossiping about two of their own, Kim and Hugo, now going steady. If the show was produced today, the lyrics might roughly stay the same but the kids would have smartphones and be FaceTiming, texting and Instagramming.
A second boffo song features Kim’s father, Harry MacAfee, a World War II vet and strong conservative who is mystified and disappointed by the teenage generation. Harry commiserates with his wife and other adults when he finds out that his daughter, Kim has gone off to the after-hours and chaperone-free ice house for a liaison with the much older Conrad. The parents respond by singing the iconic “Kids!”
You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
But they still just do what they want to do!
Why can't they be like we were,
Perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?
These lyrics often occurred to me when we had some minor difficulties raising our now-grown kids, and the song came roaring back this past holiday season when some of the grandkids acted up. Because this is a public record, I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that they behaved in ways not respectful of their parents and grandparents.
I really don’t have a gauzy view of the past and I certainly wasn’t “perfect in every way,” but I do know that I automatically showed a level of high respect for my grandparents, two of whom were rather stern products of their tradition-bound, Eastern European countries. I was also very respectful of my parents, though still remember my mom smashing a cantaloupe on the floor when I wouldn’t stop nagging her about some probably trivial issue — one no doubt prefaced by, “But why can’t I?”
However, my grandkids don’t evince what I believe to be an acceptable level of respect for their elders. They do and say things that I, my sisters and brother, and my own kids would never have tried to get away with. Even my kids admit to this, and it became a topic of serious discussion some weeks ago.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of “The Good News about Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined than Ever — And What to Do about It,” believes there’s an epidemic of misbehavior afoot and offers some recommendations.
She first blames the lack of free-time play that we all once enjoyed in childhood. Today’s kids are overscheduled with activities and sports. These are so controlled and supervised by adults that kids aren’t given the chance to learn to manage their own behavior.
Another factor is one of my favorite bugaboos — the media barrage that assaults kids’ senses via TVs, computer screens and smartphones. I find many sitcoms and movies to be awash with irreverent behavior and smart aleck responses, thus presenting poor role models. Reynolds believes the seemingly constant exposure to media also robs children of the necessary time to daydream and figure out what they should be and want for themselves. Too, clinical research reports that too much contact with these flickering screens can lead to anxiety and depression.
Lastly, many kids are no longer given chores like caring for a younger sibling or taking out the trash. Parents today are satisfied if their kids get good grades or excel at sports, so they don’t encourage a real sense of family and mutual cooperation. This results in children missing out on the immediate feedback and positive reinforcement from such tasks as helping with dinner or washing dishes.
I guiltily note that at the end of our family meals, my grandkids traditionally retreat to the living room to languidly check their phones while the adults clean up. I’m not going to let this happen again.