Over the Christmas holiday, we took the kids to New York City for a Broadway weekend. While my wife and Eldest took Youngest to see Lion King, I accompanied Middle to Green Day’s American Idiot to satisfy his growing taste in punk rock. It was surprising to see more than a few families there but what truly took me back was that I actually enjoyed the show, so much so that I stood for the ovation before my son did. The jury is now out on whether the boy will continue listening to punk, but that’s another article for another time.
What also took me aback was the implicit social commentary about the state of the times – and the family – for today’s young adults. Each of us views events through a prism shaped and framed by our own set of values and mine is clearly shaped by my concerns about the electronic media and role as a father.
While trying to not give anything away, the show’s onset and continuing theme is framed by a constant barrage of electronic imagery with a grim message of crisis and war. The young viewers watch it but you can’t tell with the lights dim whether they’re intent or simply slackjawed and it’s shortly afterwards that the show breaks open with the cover song, American Idiot. Much of the imagery additionally is in stark design and contrast and beats a rapid tattoo of crisis and impending war engineered by then President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. The older adolescents – remember that according to prevailing medical experts, adolescence gives way to adulthood much later than 21 – are functionally mesmerized by the swift panoply of imagery. In real life, our teens and youngsters are watching more than 50 hours weekly on various screens and there is typically a constant shifting from one image to another so that there is far less linear thinking than there was when viewing was less. Literally, before a person can even begin to critically examine something presented, they’re jerked onto something else and then onto something entirely different afterwards.
When you talk to people, some have few memories of their childhood experiences and when you talk to others, their memories tend to be more scattered, like three dimensional photos that have been pinned to a board for the mind to see. What pulls these memory photos into some coherency are the thread lines that are placed between them, making each relatable in some fashion to the others. It’s these lines providing the context and coherency that help pull the masses of images and experiences into something that makes fuller sense to the person. As children age however, it becomes apparent that few, if any, are capable of placing that thread in a manner that permits them to make sense of what’s happening around them. So if there’s going to be some understanding, then it’s left to someone else to string the thread benefitting the youngster. What struck me as I viewed the entire backdrop of the show was the sense that through all of the variety of images witnessed by these generations – far wider than I ever had as a youth – there’s no one really helping them string the threads that bring coherence, leaving them with a giant mess in terms of understanding. It becomes the blind being led by the blind, or those with their own agenda.
At moments in the show, the main character writes home to his mother and derogatorily mentions his stepfather, who has belittled and derided him. There is only a single mention of his father and that is in a phrase coupled with God; while I seriously doubt that he maintains his real father in a god-like position, the point is clear that in the moment that he views God with the same sense that he’d view his own father, as someone who was far away but with whom he’d want a relationship. It’s a hope in moments of distress that he’s there and willing to listen to what you need to get off of your chest.
How do I pull of this together into a coherent whole? It isn’t just a diatribe against an apathy that permits an entire generation to electronically anesthetize itself while its parents seek their own relief and release. The kids can be off of the machinery but if someone doesn’t make a conscious and deliberate effort to take them in hand – literally or figuratively – then they’ll still be badly uninformed and ill-prepared for the world around them. It will require an investment of time, but the good part is that it isn’t time spent within a classroom or structured environment; it can be within the car, below the basketball net or simply walking the dog. The point is to avail yourself and simply start talking and in the course of conversations, they’ll begin to string the thread that helps connect and bring meaning to the mental pictures posted inside their heads.
Trust me, they’re listening.