Son, he said, “nothing good happens after 11:00 PM.” Pithy and exacting and justifying, as that was my curfew.
He had a range of similar expressions aimed at keeping me in my teen hood from impregnating or drinking or using drugs. Fortunately for Dad the culture of our town mainly supported his insistence. Sure, drinking and promiscuity were around, but the teen culture didn’t demand it.
Guns, well I had a shotgun and my Dad took me hunting several times. Dad had served in the Army during WWII as had most of his peers. Guns to them were not playthings nor status symbols. They were the tools of war. Indeed, my Dad did not pursue status symbols. He took one step at a time. Status to him was earned and certainly not a self-promoted achievement.He was a good father, one of the best. And he married well—Mom was special.
But then, as I reflect, what does best mean? How is it defined? Does the definition endure?
I am a father of daughters. There were challenges, but I can’t imagine being the father of teenage sons in a culture that glorifies many of the things my Dad warned me against. And today there are way more sons than real fathers.
One of my natural inclinations is to follow news and newsmakers. One of the realities is how poor policy prescriptions work when the culture fights them. Where circumstances conspire against education, schools do not work well. If having a gun is cool, then legal prohibitions (weak as they are) are of limited efficacy. And in a highly sexualized culture, hormones do not wait but seek release. It is just the way it is.
Cultural formation is one of those damnable subjects. Where does it start? How is it changed? I sometimes simply say, “listen to the music”; especially the lyrics. Or watch the videos. Or play the games that are popular with kids. Or take in the social media vibe to become better acquainted with the peer pressure of the day.
And when considering cultural pressure, consider the law. In a country that guarantees free speech and easy access to guns there is little of any consequence that can be done to mute or circumvent the prevailing culture. Our culture is too often victimized by people who simply don’t care.
Which brings me to food and obesity. We live at a time when food is pleasure. We eat what is pleasing and beyond taste, advertising shapes our view. A hamburger patty is okay—layer it with cheese and bacon and call it a whopper and it becomes irresistible. And caloric.
People who write about food and economics note that back in the day calories were more expensive and an overwhelming majority worked in jobs requiring physical labor. Now calories are cheaper and most work behind a screen of some sort. And obesity and its consequences are a huge personal and public health risk.
So let me wrap up. There are not strong countervailing forces that push back—that save us from predatory influences. And the likelihood of laws sufficiently compensating for cultural imperatives is remote.
Thank you Dad and Mom because you set the standards. If standards are not clearly set and consistently followed in family settings, then our children are afloat on a toxic sea. We need schools and churches and youth organizations to have their back, but parenting is ground zero.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.