In college, I took a class on The Iliad or The Odyssey. I can’t recall which one because of all the decades behind me, and let’s face it, memory doesn’t work as it used to as the years pass. But what I do clearly remember is the professor, when alluding to a particular scene in the book (whichever of the two Greek classics it was), saying, “See, even back then people were complaining about the youth.” Keep in mind that “back then” was more than 2,000 years ago.
Whatever gripes those Greek elders had about Greek kids and young people in general, they’re probably not much different than contemporary adults’ complaints about today’s youth. That’s because nothing really changes: No matter the decade or century, young people want to have their own identity; they want to break the rules they’re told not to break; they don’t want to grow up and become the boring adults that their parents have become; they want to mess around and be free and be silly and act stupid and try new things and not be told what they can and cannot do. That was unquestionably me and my buds many moons ago, and I turned out moderately well. More or less. Depends on who you ask, I suppose.
But sometimes I wonder: how did we survive?
In my day, we skirted all sorts of then-contemporary lines, embracing questionable practices that were dubious if not downright dangerous by today’s standards of behavior. We were boys possessed of a rascal gene, full of tomfoolery and daredevil energy, with adolescent minds seemingly dialed for fun misadventures.
- In gym class, when playing dodgeball, the ultimate act was to land a kill shot to a classmate’s face.
- During sleepovers, we’d wait for one of the guys to fall asleep and then think it funny — and perfectly okay — to vandalize his face with a marker.
- In the car, we’d never wear seatbelts and even, as small tykes, lie on the ledge under the back windshield and skootch around our backseat space, playing the entire trip. My recollection is that seatbelts were primarily used to hold the groceries in place.
- In the woods, we’d jump (and roll) out of high forts we built in the trees and fire sling-shot “artillery” (and, later, shoot BB guns) at each other, quite often connecting and, amazingly, never popping our buddies’ heads.
- In junior high school, a bunch of us guys synchronized our watches and flushed as many toilets as possible simultaneously, all with the hope of busting the pipes to close school for the day — ideally for several days.
- We’d get bored throwing darts at the dartboard and search for other targets to test our skill level, and if someone got stuck and drew blood, all the better for laughs and entertainment value.
- On dares, we’d touch an electric fence to see how it felt, and place our tongues on frozen light poles. The less impactful side of the dare ledger included silly stuff such as stuffing marshmallows in your mouth and singing “twinkle twinkle little star”; eating a spoonful of mustard, cocoa powder or hot sauce; mixing every (non-alcoholic) drink you can find in the fridge in one glass, and then taking a big drink of it; stacking as many Oreos on your forehead as possible (and consuming the resulting damage); and eating a piece of cake or a slice of pie without using your hands.
- We’d light bonfires in empty fields and do other pyro stuff, including using firecrackers to blow up G.I. Joes and Barbie dolls.
- We’d have group challenges to use whatever chemicals we could find in various dads’ garages, add them to rocks and whatever else we could get our hands on to attack from a safe distance, and attempt to “take down” massive beehives in barns.
- Near midnight one summer, a bunch of us guys snuck over to the neighbor’s yard and “replanted” all of the brush and plantings he had spent all day clearing. The tilled dirt in the cleared plot was good and soft, and my neighbor made the mistake of not disposing of the plants he pulled.
- The street was ours. We’d skateboard off crazy-high ramps we built, do down-and-out receiver routes between parked cars, zig-and-zag on our bikes between cars both parked and moving, and attempt all sorts of silly stunts on our bicycles, including wheelies, jumps, brake-slides, standing on the seat, and other scaled “X” tricks.
- Who doesn’t love to drop water balloons from floors above onto unsuspecting peeps? Or toilet papering a neighbor’s (or a teacher’s) house and bushes?
- I didn’t do this one, but I know boys who did … Place a paper bag filled with solid excrement (usually of the canine variety) on someone’s doorstep, light it on fire, and ring the doorbell. Yes, straight out of the movie Billy Madison. Once the unsuspecting homeowner notices the flaming bag, he/she will try to stomp it out, which, of course, is the culmination of this most unpleasant of pranks.
- Sneaking into multiple movies. Perhaps not high-level outlandish, but a couple of us guys got pretty good at paying for one movie and sneaking into multiple shows. Once, we made it a whole-day-and-evening event. The corollary to this was when we put extra bodies into the trunk of our car and snuck them into the Hillside Drive-in.
- And, of course, there are the numerous efforts tied to, “Let’s scare the heck out of the girls — now that’ll be fun!”
The rules were different back then
While we weren’t the greatest collection of misfits since the bar scene in Star Wars, we dared each other to do nutso things and came up with dozens of harebrained schemes and ideas to cause mayhem and havoc or just things to try and see if we could get away with. We often operated under the mores of, “I wonder what would happen if we did this?” It’s rather amazing that we lived past 16 years old, not only due to the beating we gave each other and our bodies, but also that we didn’t kill ourselves with all of these adventurous — and some actually really stupid — acts.
It’s also remarkable that we didn’t get arrested. Okay, I get it — nine-year-old boys don’t get thrown in the slammer for mischief, even if the said act breaks a friend’s arm or causes minor property damage.
We might have been punished with a belt on the behind or locked in our bedroom all weekend while hearing the neighborhood kids playing in the sprinklers on a hot summer day. We might have had to apologize to a friend’s parents about destroying their recently planted bed of flowers. We might have gotten to know on a personal level the vice-principal charged with discipline at school.
Essentially, whatever trouble we got into — generally in the name of having fun — was temporary and life quickly returned to normal. Which meant getting into trouble again at some point.
Do kids today have any idea what I’m talking about?
Blame the parents
I’m probably older than the old geezer in The Iliad or The Odyssey who complained about the youth of his day. People didn’t live as long 2,000 years ago as we do now. I imagine you were lucky in B.C. times if you got to 50.
But being old is being old no matter where you sit on the timeline in history, and I have to admit, sometimes I feel the same way as those old Greeks: Kids today just don’t understand how different it used to be in prior generations for youngsters. They’re a bit sheltered. And it’s not really their fault.
Society is so different now, for better or worse. There’s so much more emphasis on safety and responsibility these days. Now this example has nothing to do with kids, but to illustrate how much the world has changed in terms of acceptable behavior: In the 1950s, your parents might be leaving a dinner party, and the host — without thinking twice — would hand them a vodka on the rocks for the road. How nuts is that?
And even if they got pulled over by the police due to a bit of swerving on the road — unless they came across like a flat-out maniac — he’d tell them to scram and say, “Now go home now mister, will ya? And be careful.”
And don’t get me started on our parents puffing away on their cigs with the windows closed and us kids in the back seat.
Yeah, social norms are a lot different.
I’m not advocating that we go back to the days of driving drunk without a seat belt while blasting Chuck Berry through the stereo at 3am on a country road. Nor recreating the smoke chambers in the family auto. I’m not suggesting that we should allow our children to stay out on the ballfield and negotiate the streets alone as darkness descends, as was the case when I grew up. It’s an unquestionably unpredictable — and too often unsafe — world out there, and we must be cautious.
It’s just that now everything is about the complete protection of children, teens, and even those in their early twenties — physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Now, the prevailing thinking among parents is, the slightest parental mistake could impede proper brain development. The slightest mental disturbance could cause severe trauma, leading the child to an unhappy, miserable life as an underachieving loser.
Everything’s about creating a hermetically sealed world where nothing bad could or should ever happen to our youth. Playgrounds are designed to ensure that it’s virtually impossible for kids to be injured — use plastic and rubber instead of concrete and steel. In college, there is now the concept of “safe spaces” and “content warnings” to prevent young adults from being “triggered” if they get exposed to a topic that might cause even the tiniest amount of emotional turmoil.
And kids now have smartphones with them all the time. Which means they can always contact mom and dad if necessary. They can immediately access vital information (like if they get lost) and capture important images. This is a good development — every parent’s priority should be the safety of their children. But I believe, sadly, that device and its dog-and-bone seducement has to have at least somewhat hindered the development of young people’s independence and sense of seeking adventure.
Again, we can’t blame the kids. Blame the adults — they’re the ones who raise the kids. The youth of today can’t get away with the things I did simply because their parents are extremely protective, and there are too many things kids would rather do solo in the comfort of their homes with their electronic devices.
What my pals and I did would never be tolerated in today’s society. We’d be given medication or put into counseling, perhaps labeled with “attention deficit disorder” or some such thing. The time-honored notion of “kids just being kids” doesn’t seem to be honored anymore. Today, when a kid does something outside of the zone of acceptable behavior, it must have something to do with how they were raised or perhaps their brain chemistry is out of balance.
Just like in The Iliad. Or maybe it was The Odyssey.
Yeah, kids in 2023 just can’t get away with the same shenanigans of my generation. Of course, the people from a generation before me said the same thing about me and my friends. Nothing changes.
I believe in the adage that to be old and wise, you must first be young and stupid. With that in mind, when you notice yourself about to judge a young person, be kind. We’re all victims of our particular generation’s code of conduct. We don’t choose when we’re born. Let kids be kids.