The scene on the corner played out thousands of times last week: A gaggle of parents swirled around elementary-school children, taking photos to forever immortalize the First Day of School. When the bus came, the tots dutifully hauled themselves aboard and sorted themselves into the seats. The parents, meanwhile, began to wave wildly. You would have thought they were bidding bon voyage to an ocean liner, not saying sayonara to someone they would be seeing again in seven hours.
The parents wave every day. (Confession: So do I.) This is one of those subtle changes you notice as the years draw on. (Here is another: The music enjoyed by The Youth of Today is pure noise. Also, They Don't Make Things Like They Used To. Just sayin'.) One doesn't point this out censoriously. The parents are all very nice people who live in a very nice neighborhood. It's the sort of neighborhood where the juvenile delinquents still deface property with graffiti—but they do it in chalk, so it washes right off.
Going to the bus stop used to be a stoic ordeal, not a festive occasion. Your folks might march you to the proper spot, if it was your first time, but after that you were on your own. Nobody took pictures. Nobody was waiting at the bus stop when you came back, either. Now parents not only wait – they bring the car in case of inclement weather.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal recently, Lenore Skenazy detailed some of the other ways parents are urged to mollycoddle their children: Practice saying goodbye. Practice eating a sack lunch. Drive the bus route. Tour the school. And to avoid even the slightest measure of novelty or surprise, have a picnic on the playground before the school year starts.
The equipment on today's playground, you might have noticed, is sheathed in rubber (fewer bruises) with few if any moving parts (no pinched fingers). To increase safety further, some schools have banned games such as dodgeball, touch football, soccer, and even tag. The playground itself might be surfaced with shredded tires. Shredded tires are not only environmentally correct, they also guarantee that any child unlucky enough to fall will bounce.
When those of us of a certain age were growing up, playgrounds were surfaced with gravel. Sometimes even scrap metal and broken glass. It hurt like heck, but it made a man out of you.
Not to get all philosophical, but that is the problem with how we treat The Youth of Today. Thirty or forty years ago Mom and Dad did not have time to hang out at the bus stop and take Polaroids. By the time you left the house Dad had already been slaving away in the hellish furnace of the steel mill for several hours, and Mom was too busy doing all the manual labor needed to keep the household together. No Roomba vacuum for her.
Now look. America has gotten soft.
Did anyone see this coming? You bet they did. Years ago, many conservatives lamented what Daniel Bell called the cultural contradictions of capitalism. In this view, market economies develop and thrive thanks to a particular set of values: hard work, thrift, persistence, and so on. But those market economies then produce a level of material comfort that degrades precisely those same values. Capitalism, therefore, contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.
You used to hear this sort of thing a lot. David Frum, for instance, once wrote that "without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability. . . . Contemporary conservatives still value that old American character." He cites another cultural conservative, William Bennett: "In his lectures [Bennett] reads admiringly from an account of the Donner party written by a survivor that tells the story in spare, stoic style. He puts the letter down and asks incredulously, 'Where did those people go?' "Frum wonders, too: "If you believe that early Americans possessed a fortitudethat present-day Americans lack, and if you think the loss is an important one, then you have to think hard about why that fortitude disappeared."
This sort of thing earned such writers the richly deserved sobriquet "Donner-party Conservatives" for thinking what people really need is a good hard bout of misery and deprivation to toughen them up. (Notice how it's always other people who need toughening up. You never see Frum, Bennett, or other social conservatives striding into the snow-covered woods with nothing but a poncho and a hunting knife to enhance their own fortitude.)
Still, it's not just right-wingers who think this way. Everybody says America has grown too flaccid – even President Obama. As he put it last September, "The way I think about it is, you know, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and, you know, we didn't have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track."
Right you are, Mr. President. It's time for the U.S. to toughen up. Donner-party starvation and cannibalism might be asking too much at first. But could we maybe strew some broken glass on the playground?