How To Not Raise a Bro

Steve and I watched Ryan Lochte and the asshole from Stanford this summer with a great deal of concern. Those privileged, good looking, talented boys/men are very much like the kids in our town. We desperately don’t want our kid to be a “bro” – a partying kid who thinks the rules don’t apply to him. But how do you counteract the general culture that they swim in it all day long.

Jonah got in trouble a couple of weeks ago. It was a relatively minor infraction, but it required a real punishment. He was grounded and his phone taken away. We then read every instagram note, snapchat story, and text message on his phone. Wow, he swims in dangerous waters.

He, like all the teens in town, are “friends” with hundreds of other kids. Kids he doesn’t even really know. These “friends” post pictures and videos of their parties gleefully recording every shotgun, every pong game, every blurry eyed drunk face. Idiots. And it’s not just the skateboarding, shop class kid. It’s the AP honors kid, the going to Harvard kid, the marching band kid.

And then a friend who has two teenage daughters warned me that I needed to watch out for the girls now that Jonah got so cute over the summer. She said that I would have to be careful, because girls would start launching themselves in his direction. So, we had lots of talks about all this over the weekend, but would I be a terrible feminist, if I asked the parents of girls to talk with their daughters about this, too? Perhaps teenage girls shouldn’t give themselves nicknames on their finsta-accounts that call themselves “hoes.”

Another parent in town was so dismayed by his kid’s behavior and the general culture of the town that he made his kid drop out of school and join the military. That seems a bit extreme. The parents who put their kids in fancy Catholic schools in the area say that the same problems exist there, too. In fact, the private kids are even worse, because their parents go away to Thailand for two weeks and leave the kids alone in their McMansions with an unlocked liquor cabinet.

As much as we would like, we can’t wrap our kids in cotton and lock them in their room until 25. How do you parent properly, when other parents aren’t? When other parents buy the booze for the kids? How does a kid make good choices, when he lives in a world where everybody else is making bad choices? Should we move to a cabin in the woods until everybody else grows up? Tell me, readers.

72 thoughts on “How To Not Raise a Bro

  1. Bummer.

    I can’t even imagine what Harvard admissions thinks about the “ho” talk.

    Totally different (but related!), here are a couple of videos on the “Christian instagram girl” problem.


  2. “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver” were aspirational.

    Reality TV and the tabloid culture enable the dysfunction. And as you note, it trickles down from well-off enablers to kids in rougher circumstances.


  3. First, I do think that parents are talking to their girls, too. But, when it comes to physical aggression the aggressor is ultimately responsible. The Ryan Lochte incident and the Brock Turner are different — only one was rape. A woman could have pulled a Ryan Lochte, and, frankly, Hope Solo comes pretty close. I am frequently, at the least, embarrassed by her behavior.

    I would counsel a girl that she shouldn’t call herself a hoe or to become so drunk that she is no longer capable of making decisions, but when it comes to short dresses and low necks and bare midriffs, we are all going to have different standards, and none of those standards are absolutes. Cover your elbows, cover your head, cover your knees, cover your midriff, cover your collarbones, . . . . And, though I counsel my own kids that drunkenness could be dangerous, and that overly sexualizing yourself could have consequences, nothing justifies the physical aggression, and nothing a girl does can make her someone who “deserves it.” That’s a bottom line that those of us trying to raise non-bros need to emphasize.

    And the girls are playing in the same toxic culture, one in which their own perceived worth is influenced by their willingness to sexulize themselves (as boys face the same demands to be players and bros). I think it’s a tough lesson to teach a boy to turn down what seems to be freely offered, but maybe a lesson on context, and some strong tests of whatt “freely offered” might be is worthwhile.


    1. Yeah, of course to the low neck lines and that no behavior legitimizes rape. Of course. But, after hearing stories and reading some crazy finsta accounts (Do you know what a finsta is? Google it.), there is all sorts of girl behavior going on that makes me feel uncomfortable. Is it okay to put a picture of your boobs on Snapchat? Or post pictures of arrows on your belly that point down? Of course, no behavior justifies rape. Again. But there seems to be a thing where girls initiate the consensual hookups, while the guys just sit around waiting for the girls to make themselves available. (Not talking about my kid here, for the record.) And that grosses me out, too.


      1. Oh, I know exactly what you mean about being grossed out. I think that the phenomenon you describe “But there seems to be a thing where girls initiate the consensual hookups, while the guys just sit around waiting for the girls to make themselves available” might be one of the new realities of modern teen/twenties culture. I’ve shared this article with a bunch of folks:

        If the behavior is truly “consensual hookups”, then I’d just look away. But, I worry about the circumstances and culture that surrounds the behavior.

        And, honestly, I do think it’s going to eventually be “ok” to put your boobs on snapchat, in the same way that putting your knees on the beach is now, and wasn’t 100 years ago. What does “OK” mean? Not that I’d condone my own child doing so, but, OK, in the sense that you can do that and still, as of today at least, not be eliminated from being first lady (and, some day, perhaps, president).


  4. The drop out and join the military seems like an odd solution to some of these problems — given your examples of bro behavior at the service academies, and the general culture of machismo in the military.


  5. So, I’m guessing that Harvard admissions doesn’t think very much about “ho” talk at all, and that it in now way influences your admission. Although we can be concerned about a culture that pressures girls to be more sexual than they want to be, ultimately, I don’t think Harvard cares how much sex a girl is having or how short her skirt is (though they may care if she drinks too much).

    I’m sometimes troubled by the length of my teen’s skirts, but I’ve found it pretty hard to be stern after reading the “truth or bare” fashion tests on the web, seeing the ridiculous pictures of French policeman regulating “burkinis”, and coming from a culture where legs are taboo, but no one objects to bellies and midriffs.


    1. Actually, I read that Harvard Business School, as part of its female equality initiative, forbade Halloween costumes–I guess just in class–because Halloween is treated by large numbers of yuppie females as slutoween.


  6. I think the sports actually helped for our kids, even if your lead is about athletes as bad examples. Coach and peer pressure not to drink and consistently enforced sanctions when kids (even captains) attended parties with drinking. Maybe I’m naive though.
    Maybe something about communication lines being open — they knew to call for a ride home if someone who was supposed to drive them was too high to do so. Looking back, there seems to be a lot of how lucky we were without even knowing.
    I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about this now for the past hour.


  7. The best solution is not to send your kids to a high-pressure, high-income school district. Because I teach at a rural liberal arts college, there’s only one high school, and it has kids from all social classes: farm kids, faculty kids, factory kids, desperately poor kids, immigrant kids. etc. There aren’t enough of the rich here to create the kind of culture that produces the Lochte’s of the world — the richest family in town is the College president, and she’s not making all that much. So we don’t have the kind of threats you describe (although the kids sometimes like to play at it), and it’s almost impossible for kids to act up without everyone knowing. On the other hand, nobody from the local high school has gotten into Harvard or Stanford in the decade I’ve been here. The aspiration of choice is the state system, and for the faculty kids, a tuition exchange to another mid-tier liberal arts college.

    To some extent, that’s the trade-off. If you want to swim with the masters of the universe, their culture is going to set the tone. But if you don’t swim with them, you probably aren’t going to get into the schools that provide entry into that world.


    1. I think the behaviors Laura describes are pretty common in working class environments, and probably even more common in ghetto environments. At least, all the working class teens I know get drunk, hook up, refer to themselves as hoes, etc. I would say that, if anything, what saved my daughter from the worst mistakes of teenage life was living in a culture where having a boyfriend was less prestigious than getting into a good college, and where everyone understood that Harvard admissions officers don’t like hoes, that JP Morgan interviewers don’t like tattoos, etc.


      1. This is right in line with Laura’s remarks about “.. how do you counteract the general culture that they swim in it all day long…” and I am going to launch into a Book Plug, for Judith Rich Harris’ The Nurture Assumption and group socialization theory. Go at least read a couple reviews, and then come back. I’ll wait.
        You’re gonna fail, at counteracting the general culture. All those sad articles about some promising young kid who got outa Camden (Newark, Compton, Ferguson, Anacostia) and came back from college a year later for vacation and got himself shot and the reporter brings out the tired chestnut ‘the lure of the streets was too strong’? Yah, that’s culture.
        Is the instruction really a whole lot better at Saint Finian’s School? No, but the other kids all pick up from those around them “..having a boyfriend was less prestigious than getting into a good college, and where everyone understood that Harvard admissions officers don’t like hoes, that JP Morgan interviewers ..” and then your kid will, too.
        This is why the children of immigrants grow up with no accent if they are in native-majority schools, and whatever the average accent is if they are in immigrant-majority schools.


      2. True – behaviors of teens doing stupid things cross all lines (racial, economic, etc.) but I find the specific fear mentioned in Laura’s post – the “partying kid who thinks the rules don’t apply to him” is way more prevalent in wealthier communities. Comparing kids who live in my neighborhood (middle class, white) and the kids who live in my “Little’s” (BB/BS) neighborhood (poor, black) – the rules apply very differently. I don’t know a kid in my neighborhood who has been to jail/juvenile detention whereas most of the males in her neighborhood have.

        That dramatically changes the social media/flaunting aspect.

        I don’t think there is any magical parenting that will keep kids from doing something stupid. But the fact that one has awareness of the culture and the technology – and are TALKING about it with one’s kids goes a long way, I think. I hope.


    2. Re: Steubenville. The presumption that this is some other classes problem is wrong when people think it doesn’t happen in private schools, and it’s wrong when one imagines it doesn’t happen in rural communities.


  8. I have NO idea how to handle this as my boys are just 13 and 12 – we’re just starting to swim in these waters. But the other day, when talking about boyfriends and girlfriends, my son made some comment about “those” girls. The feminist in me was horrified, but it’s hard to find a way to talk to them about these things that doesn’t lead to them tuning you out. At any rate, posting this here and following comments in case there are some good answers!


  9. I didn’t know you could drop out of school & join the military. I thought that you needed to have a high school diploma. Could it be that the story’s been altered a bit?

    I will write more later. Right now, though, remember that social media makes visible social connections in high school friend groups which were there even before Facebook, etc. It’s a big step to refuse to friend someone. Every high school kid likely is only one friendship removed from a kid with burgeoning addiction problems or home dysfunction. But the social media didn’t cause that–it only made it visible to adults.

    I would not talk with the mothers of daughters. If they care, they’ve already tried to raise the issue. Families vary widely in their tolerance or knowledge of their children’s online behavior.

    Amy P, that Christian Girl Instagram thing is so far from the local teen culture, it’s like another planet.

    Many high school students (and college students) do social media under pseudonyms. There is also a fair amount of stuff being made up. So I wouldn’t assume it all reflects reality.

    And some of the most alarming statements are often quoting songs, in-jokes, internet memes, etc. For the teens who understand the reference, it reads differently than it does to a parent who’s never listened to Kanye West’s (etc.) oeuvre. For example, the song “milkshake” by Kelis ( is frequently quoted or rewritten with spoof lyrics by my kids’ friends. (Until Facebook became terminally uncool, only fit for parents.)


  10. Feeling my way through this as the mom of a soon-to-be 11 year old girl who is already feeling a bit of this pressure. And a variety of thoughts.

    What scares me the most is that the consequences of a stupid decision can be SO much more serious and onerous than when we were kids. Nothing is private yet they don’t really believe that. I had a long conversation with the 14 year old daughter of a family friend while we were on holidays together who is convinced that snaps disappear forever.

    And what saddens me more than scares me is that to a great extent, our girls’ intro to being sexually active (whatever that looks like as they grow up) is even more focused on “performing” for someone else rather than what pleases them. I don’t know if any gender is going to get through to adulthood unscathed from so many unrealistic expectations. Read Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls & Sex for an eyeopener. Based on what the boys are consuming, not only do girls have to look a certain way, they even have to sound a certain way.

    It’s a challenge to navigate differing parental rules/expectations. Within my daughter’s friends we have the range of “not allowed on social media” to “unsupervised and can do whatever she likes”. The former is unrealistic because it’s really more about personal risk management than prohibition while the latter is giving WAY too much leeway. Some want to be friends rather than parents.

    I think all we can do is stay informed and continue to have ongoing conversations with our kids. Conversations that last for years about reputation management, risk management, safety, etc. Being vigilant about our own beliefs/values around media images, gender, sexuality, etc. and how we model that for our kids. Knowing who their friends are. Having high expectations but also clear that we’ll help them fix their social media/relationship mistakes.

    Early childhood was a piece of cake – just keep them fed & watered & alive. Teen years? This will be the challenge.


  11. “What scares me the most is that the consequences of a stupid decision can be SO much more serious and onerous than when we were kids.”

    I’m taking a contrarian position on this thread, but, having grown up in the day before the non prescription morning after pill, the easy accessibility of birth control, drugstore pregnancy tests, not to mention aids, I do not regard the dangers of boob pictures as significant as the dangers and consequences of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

    The danger of the boob picture is what happens to you because it exists — the shaming, the expectations people have of you, the assumptions that they make about you. I don’t really see why boob pictures would make someone a worse research tech, and wouldn’t imagine their existence affecting my hiring decision. Drunken partying pictures? Maybe. And, yes, I might care if I was hiring a nanny. But my guess is that we won’t really be able to police this behavior for teachers (if it pre-dates their teaching).

    There is the danger of searchable databases of everything you’ve done — isn’t the Lochte incident supposed to have exploded because Lochte told a lie to his mother, which his mother then repeated to the press, which resulted in an investigation, which uncovered the truth and the bro behavior? Video surveillance, screen shots, emails, texts, . . . that make your entire life a permanent record are a big deal.


    1. I’m looking at it more broadly than just inappropriate photos – the possibility that you screw up somewhere/somehow or get on the bad side of the alpha girl at school and suddenly it’s a huge deal. Beyond your school.

      But I do agree that there are many actions whose risks are reduced/eliminated due to birth control/vaccinations/etc. That’s the side where I come down on and could have explained better! That it’s more about self management and risk management than it is prohibition or constant monitoring.


  12. bj,

    “But my guess is that we won’t really be able to police this behavior for teachers (if it pre-dates their teaching).”

    In high school, I’m assuming that the kids themselves will make life a flaming hell for any teacher with “bad” pictures online. Middle school, I’m not sure. I think lower elementary is probably pretty safe because the kids don’t have lots of internet access, or wouldn’t think to google their teachers.

    But in high school teaching, having iffy pictures floating around online would be a huge obstacle to being an effective teacher.

    (I’m speaking based on my experiences teaching Russian high school boys in the Peace Corps as a very early-20-something. I tried to be VERY professional, but it could still be very trying.)


    1. I think you’re over-estimating the discernment abilities of high school kids. It’s not as if there aren’t dozens of people who look they they might have been a given woman as she looked ten years ago. The rumors of “So and So was in a porn that I saw” were common enough back when VHS was the only easy way to share a video.


      1. 1. Melania Trump’s photos turned up 20 years later

        2. tattoos (more of an issue for over-18s than for high schoolers, admittedly)

        3. as technology marches on, facial recognition will be more and more of a thing


  13. There’s really two separate things going on here:

    Is the behavior that I saw on my kid’s phone worse than what we did in high school? Is it any different than “Dazed and Confused” – a great movie, btw? Not at all. What’s different is the social media; we didn’t document, advertise or flaunt our illegal behavior back then, which makes it a whole lot easier to get into trouble. And the flaunting it puts the behavior into the bratty, privileged sphere that makes me squirm.

    And then there’s the hookup stuff w/the aggressive girls. Now I’m not really sure this is a widespread thing. It’s just anecdotal stories that I’ve heard and seen.


    1. I agree, the children are not doing more drugs or alcohol than the children of my generation. (And they are less likely to smoke cigarettes.) I don’t think rich kids flaunt these behaviors more than poor kids: children of all classes make more public displays than my generation did. It doesn’t offend me when rich kids flaunt universal, not particularly expensive behavior like drinking lots of beer or baring your breasts. Flaunting BMWs or private jets to Antigua would offend me– especially if it’s done by a child who didn’t earn the money in question–but I don’t see kids who really do that.


  14. A colleague whose kids were somewhat older than our girls gave us great advice. “Be the house that your kids party at and where they bring their friends.” Expect to know who their friends are and what they’re doing: not at the micro-managing level but broadly and regularly. I also spoke with Eldest frequently about the reality of bad choices and what would inspire us to give her greater liberty.

    We also happen to be very Scandinavian in our parenting. We’re not opening the doors to the liquor cabinet and who has one of those, anyway? We have a few bottles in the cupboard if we’re lucky and some beers in the fridge. But we’re open and honest about sexuality as well as our own experiences with partying people in our younger days. So the kids have never thought, “I’ll be grounded for even telling them this stuff exists out there” but they have thought “I’ll be grounded if I do stupid stuff or ignore the basic expectation.”


    1. That’s really good advice and it relates to what I was mentioning about being engaged with our kids and their lives. In many ways teens need more of our time than when they were littles.


    2. But there’s a tension here isn’t there? The house my kids and their friends want to hang out at is the house with NO limits on video games (they’re still young) – games that are totally inappropriate. I know in high school the house we wanted to hang out at was THE party house – the place where people could drink. It’s hard to find that balance of being inviting, but also setting limits.

      We’re completely frank with our kids too, and I do think that’s helpful. But we’re struggling with setting appropriate limits and being inviting at the same time.


      1. Yes, the popular house is the one where there are fewer limits. Video games are the big thing (we don’t have any), but, they want to be free even when it’s not to do something that wouldn’t be allowed here. For example, the last big project in the neighborhood fun house was to produce a podcast (I’ve mentioned it before). Sounds kind of dangerous, but it turned out to be a news talk show in which they sounded better to my ears than much of the commentary I hear of on television. I worry that they could be using the freedom to watch porn, and ask about it, but ultimately I don’t see any alternative to trust (though I do also assert the right to verify, checking phones).

        I think the answer is that we have to teach them well, trust them, and let them fly, and that there is really no other alternative. We can also offer perspective: No, not all the girls are sharing their boobs with the school, no, everyone is not drinking, no not every fifteen year old boy is having sex — one kiddo in my circle came home, having misread the powerpoint survey, saying that 90% of the 15 year olds in his school were having sex — it’s great that he was willing to share that factoid with his mom, and I think that’s the best we can hope for, an opportunity to offer our insight and greater experience.


    3. LOL, I guess we have a liquor cabinet. I showed Amy a photo of it, so she could speak to whether it counts as a liquor cabinet. It’s a closet with a lot of liquor in it because my husband is into cocktails and whiskey lately.

      We don’t keep it locked except the night my daughter hosted a post-prom party (about 6-8 kids). My husband put one of those zipties on it to hold the door shut just in case.

      I asked my daughter about the concerns raised here. She says she is too out of the loop to know too much but she doesn’t think our area is that bad. We are just north of a very wealthy district, just west of a rural district, and just east of a few larger, more urban (some black, Latino, but mainly Portuguese and working class white) communities.


      1. Small liquor pantry?

        It’s interesting that your daughter doesn’t think it’s that bad, because from what you’ve said, she’s way into Instagram.


      2. Actually, we have pile our booze on a shelf in the TV room. Steve and I drink it fast enough, so it doesn’t really accumulate too many bottles. We would notice, if someone walked away with a bottle of wine or something.


      3. Hah — we keep booze randomly scattered throughout the house, because we rarely drink and forget where the alcohol is. So far, the invitees to our house have been more interested in cookies and ice cream, but we do need to fix things.


  15. Shannon said:

    “But there’s a tension here isn’t there? The house my kids and their friends want to hang out at is the house with NO limits on video games (they’re still young) – games that are totally inappropriate. I know in high school the house we wanted to hang out at was THE party house – the place where people could drink.”


    Come to think of it, one of the worst case scenarios is that your party house is where the big rape happens.

    I guess a good baseline for being a good parent is being alert enough to know if drunk underage girls are being carried in or out of your home.


  16. We’re not opening the doors to the liquor cabinet and who has one of those, anyway? When we were house hunting in this area, most of the houses we visited had built in bar areas. Some of the recent listings online in this area have shown full-sized pubs built into private homes. On the other hand, people who can afford homes with full sized pubs built in are usually too busy to use them, except for adult events with caterers.

    I would say it’s best to keep talking with your children about expectations. It doesn’t mean they won’t get into trouble. It doesn’t mean that their friends won’t get into trouble. It does, help, though, to tell them that they are free to claim we have grounded them if they aren’t comfortable with plans.

    There’s a certain ratcheting up of offerings necessary to become the “party house.” Some parents go way overboard in trying to control their children’s lives that way. Having a pool would help (we don’t have one.) On the other hand, it is really necessary to know where you don’t want your children hanging out. There are parents who will serve alcohol to underaged kids (not their own.)

    It’s a good idea to go over the consequences of being caught at an underaged drinking party. There are many in our state, some mandated by state law for competitive athletes. Somehow, athletic teams are often caught drinking in this town, or attending such parties. Sometimes booster parents seem to be involved, although they always claim innocence.

    Sometimes parents go off on weekends, leaving the house in the care of high school children. This is a very bad idea. I know parents who have arranged for their children to spend the weekend at neighbors’ houses, to avoid the “John’s parents are away. Paaartayy!” phenomenon. Nevertheless, I have heard of teens arranging drinking parties in the woods.

    Our private school offers a social host program. Parents agree to call the other teen’s parents before giving permission to attend parties. Will the parents be present at the party? What are the plans? I was the good doobie who called. The mother I called admitted no one else had called. When we held a party for a child, again, only one parent called. Whether or not one signs a pledge, it’s a good idea to do that sort of thing. Teenagers are rational beings. They are able to gauge the consequences of their actions. They are definitely more open to risky behavior than they will be in a few years, but knowing that the parents will check up on their plans helps to keep their frontal lobes engaged.


    1. Well, we got a used armoire off Craigslist and put a padlock on it for booze, and when my wife came downstairs and found a half empty half gallon of cherry vodka by the sink she poured the rest of it down the drain as kids sadly watched. It at least communicated disapproval? Yah, our kids were definitely less than six degrees of separation from some of the bad stuff in our schools. We expressed disapproval of some kinds of behavior. Cruised through the parties at half-hourly intervals. I told my lads about the Stanford rape, and said besides the moral vileness of it, I couldn’t see how it would be fun to fuck an unconscious young woman, it was sort of like masturbating with someone else’s body. And made sure they knew about the consequences he was suffering. Went and got #1 in the District when John Law caught him with a bottle of beer at 17, and expressed disappointment. They are now off at college, with nothing really disfiguring on their, wait for it, its coming… Permanent Records. But it was nip and tuck.


  17. I’m pretty sure that there’s are pretty strict legal penalities for adults who allow underage drinking in their house. If a kid leaves their house intoxicated and gets in a car accident, then there are extremely serious repercussions. I’m not really interested in being the “cool parent.” I saw some instagram posts making fun of those parents. They were laughing at their parents for saying “make good choices” as they dropped them off at a kegger. Kids don’t respect cool parents any more than the uncool parents.

    I was talking to a neighbor who is a local lawyer. She said that all kids are idiots. It’s really just luck that determines who gets caught or gets in big trouble, and who skates by.


  18. Back to Laura’s original post–I’m skimming/rereading Smart Money Smart Kids, which is a book about children and money cowritten by Dave Ramsey and his daughter Rachel Cruze.

    It’s obviously not really about sex, drugs and rock and roll, but the book has a lot of down-to-earth stuff about raising children to be productive, responsible, and not horribly spoiled. I believe the Ramsey kids went to a hotsy totsy suburban public school and the family was pretty well-off by the time the kids were in high school after clawing their way back after bankruptcy, so the Ramseys probably had very similar issues to the ones you have in suburban NJ and had to be pretty intentional about keeping their kids’ feet on the ground.

    It’s a very good, practical book and it covers everything from the preschool years straight through high school, college and weddings.

    We’ve done various Ramseyish things with our kids over the years. The big current one is that our 9th grader has been saving for her senior trip to Europe. We have her saving just under $80 a month every month. We do a check-in with her at the end of every month, collect the money, and are holding it for her. (We’re not complete monsters–the Bank of Mom and Dad pays 3% annual interest, which is pretty darn good these days.) She’s been doing this for the better part of a year and has hit her goals almost every month. But she has to do a lot of work (mostly for us) and she has to be very consistent, or she’ll fall behind and we’ll have to raise the monthly target. And she’s going to need to keep doing this for the next 3.5 years if she wants to go with her class. It’s amazing what she’s done already–I never did anything like what she’s doing at this age. I knew nothing of saving as a 13 or 14-year-old.


  19. I live with a high-school teacher, so I hear stories like these over dinner every night. They’re hair-raising—and we don’t even have kids.

    Laura, I think you’re right that most of what kids are doing now isn’t necessarily much worse than what we all did in the ’70s and ’80s, but what’s new is their obliviousness to the possible consequences of their online candor. But I think there’s another bigger, larger change. It seems to me that most of our other institutions, including schools and often even families, have been pushed far, far downstream from popular culture. Kids used to do more of their foolishness in secret because who they were was primarily formed and influenced by their families, their communities, their religious affiliations, and other powerful, real-life social networks. Kids knew that getting drunk in the woods was transgressive, a secret thrill in a larger social context. That doesn’t feel like the case anymore. By the time schools and religious and civic institutions try to engage them, kids (as you surely know better than I do) have spent thousands more hours hunched over a smartphone, which is basically a delusion machine.

    I mean, to use a local example, when a white kid can shout the n-word in a crowded hallway and think it’s a big joke, how can the teachers who sit him down for a little talk convince him otherwise? All of his real-life friends, his hundreds or thousands of social-media friends, the celebrities and rappers he likes—they’re all, to use your phrase, swimming with him in that culture all day. What authority, in his mind, do teachers and the other adults in his life actually have? To him, they’re the ephemera. He can simply turn on the little box in his pocket and hear far more indulgent authorities.

    As someone who packs a teacher’s lunches every morning, I admire your serious parenting. Trying to defy these tides is a challenge that would send King Canute’s courtiers trudging back to their cabanas in utter despair.


    1. I mean, to use a local example, when a white kid can shout the n-word in a crowded hallway and think it’s a big joke, how can the teachers who sit him down for a little talk convince him otherwise? All of his real-life friends, his hundreds or thousands of social-media friends, the celebrities and rappers he likes—they’re all, to use your phrase, swimming with him in that culture all day. What authority, in his mind, do teachers and the other adults in his life actually have? To him, they’re the ephemera. He can simply turn on the little box in his pocket and hear far more indulgent authorities.

      I think that’s just wrong, at least in reference to things being worse than in the 70s. The biggest difference is that half the kids don’t have parents who use the n-word at home as the standard way of saying “black.” Kids know the celebrities are deliberately breaking a norm, a norm that really didn’t exist forty years ago.


      1. MH said,

        “Kids know the celebrities are deliberately breaking a norm, a norm that really didn’t exist forty years ago.”

        Eh, I don’t think so.

        I think you’re getting at something, but that the norms were different:

        1. Celebrities would not say “n—–” in public.

        2. They might use it in private.

        Whites saying “n——” in public has had a big class marker attached to it for a long time.

        So, it’s not just racially transgressive, but also transgressive with regard to class.

        On a somewhat different topic (but related to the topic), I was once a couple tables away from a group of local college students. One of the guys was a kid who was expressing his enthusiasm for the Kardashians’ show. He got ignored SO hard.


  20. Kids also throw around the word, “fag,” in a way that I find a little shocking. But at the same time, they are massively accepting of their gay and trans friends in a way that didn’t exist in the 70s or 80s. One kid in my kid’s social media cohort basically live-blogged losing his virginity to another guy on Instagram. Did a close up of the hickeys on his chest. And everybody cheered for him. I know this kid’s parents. I’m not quite sure how I can un-see what I saw. I don’t want to see any kid, gay or straight, losing his virginity. I stopped looking at his phone after that.

    And, to make this grey area every more grey, Jonah has also accessed so much cool stuff on the web through reddit and YouTube. One of the reason that Jonah got so cute over the summer isn’t because he’s 6-feet tall and climbing. It’s because he figured out what he thinks is interesting and gained a ton of confidence. He spends hours and hours watching science videos online. And European soccer matches, too. And dudes playing video games. But science!


    1. I don’t know what kids are saying today, but I was maybe 20 or 21 before I heard “gay” used by a peer for anything but an insult or joke.


  21. On language–I think that online, there’s a lot of “edgy” humor, and that may be driving a lot of the “ho,” “fag,” “n—-” stuff.

    The problem is that online standards are very different from real world public standards, and people are often getting crushed by the collision between those two standards.

    Justine Sacco’s bad tweet was actually really funny and edgily self-deprecating–but she couldn’t afford to be really funny and edgily self-deprecating, because she’s not a professional comedian, she’s a PR person. But Twitter and the internet generally tempts a lot of normal people to be funny in ways that can wreck their lives.

    Reading Jon Ronson’s NYT piece, I can easily see how one of Laura’s NJ suburban teens could put something on social media that will wreck their lives, or at least derail them for a year or two.

    And I have to note that it’s not necessarily bad behavior that will wreck your life. I’ve lately been interested in the whole Red Pill/PUA/MRA world, and those guys often have a combination of malice, technical know-how and unlimited free time that can make life miserable for anybody in their cross-hairs.

    Lastly, the gods of social media are fickle, so it’s very unpredictable who is going to wind up falling under the wheels of the juggernaut.


    1. Do you ever read Return of Kings? I have a high tolerance for trolling/upsetting material, and I can barely stomach that site. It’s sad that there’s such a cesspool of awfulness that allows men who might otherwise be steered away from negative thinking to get sucked in and have their misogynistic worldview reinforced.


      1. I don’t read Return of Kings, but I do read We Hunted the Mammoth. The Red Pill/PUA/MRA/MGTOW guys turned into one of my online hobbies after discovering that I had (through no fault of my own) become a hate figure on one of the satellite Red Pill sites.

        The Red Pill is very influential among alienated young men online. It’s very flattering for the guys to believe that they have acquired some sort of gnostic secret knowledge (despite the fact that you can master all the basic ideas in a few hours).

        One thing that I have been noticing the last year or two is that a huge percentage of the younger Red Pill guys are spectrummy (hence the alienation, failure with the opposite sex, the rigidity, and the love of elaborate systems). I would really encourage parents of autistic boys to be very careful that their sons don’t fall in with a bad online crowd and to keep working on their social development through their teens. The Red Pill offers brotherhood and community online, which can be intoxicating to people who don’t feel like they belong. But there’s a very dark side to it–even in their treatment of guys who leave. Those guys doxx each other with wild abandon, given half an excuse.


      2. Another thing–I think that the Red Pill guys are partly fueled by other people’s social media. They see the social media lifestyle and take it all literally–they assume that everybody else is hotter than them, parties more than them, has more friends than them, has more sex than them, etc, rather than understanding that the boring, unphotogenic parts of life have been edited out.


    2. Amy, I think you’re right that much of what kids are putting online is meant to be “edgy” or ironic. What troubled me about the white kid shouting the n-word in the hallway was that he didn’t even seem to realize that adults, and the real world, would hold him to a somewhat different standard.

      Quite a few other kids in the hallway, black and white, were put off by it too, which is a good sign. What the anecdote suggested to me is that, as long as kids don’t let embarrassing stuff go public (per the hair-raising examples Laura offers), the bright ones, the ambitious ones, and the ones with involved parents will all be pretty much be fine. As for kids who are neglected by their parents, or overlooked by the educational system, or just a little bit dim–well, it makes me wonder (and this is a rather square, old-man thing to say) if overwhelming immersion in social media and popular culture will only further hinder the social mobility of these kids.


    1. In terms of virginity, does this mean no intercourse or no sex at all? (Oral, etc). Because a lot of kids identity as virgins who have had oral or other sexual activities with their partners, but not intercourse


      1. Yup – I don’t have the stats at hand but although teens are having intercourse at later ages than we did, they are engaging in other activities at much earlier rates.


  22. Sheltering. I’m an Evangelical Christian. Most of the teens I know are carefully religious & have a strong long-term vision for their future. They let me follow their social media accounts. Occasional bikini pics but mostly squeaky clean. Homeschooling and small private schools (the kind that meet in a church basement, not the kind with endowments & parents who vacation in Thailand.) Lots of youth group & young life with responsible adults always around. Serious Sports & general busyness help too, because kids have less time to get into trouble & pressure from coaches to behave. They get major scared straight talks from parents about the kind of legal trouble you can get into — and it helps if the parents themselves were straightlaced teens. I do know parents who screen their kids’ phones on a regular, even nightly basis. They change the home Wi-Fi password very frequently. Devices stay in mom and dad’s bedroom overnight. Internet filters and software like covenant eyes that sends a record of every site visited to the parents are common. Sleepovers are rare. In my circles this is on the radar very early. People talk earnestly about training a child’s heart/will/character from the toddler years…. Teaching self control with things like cookies in early years with an eye towards raising a child who has the willpower to decline pot and porn 10 years later.


    1. A month or two ago, I got to hear one of the nice dads from school talking about his college-aged son whose hobbies seem to be wrecking cars and wenching (and both nearly simultaneously on at least one occasion!). (The parents have a REALLY nice house.) College-aged son doesn’t spend a lot of time at home, and the dad thinks it’s better that way. The dad sounded really tired and resigned.

      That was a bit of a reality check to hear the dad’s story, but I was thinking during the recital that shutting down the money spigot would help lots. Like, why did this kid get a second or a third car? (Lord help us, there might have even been a fourth car–I lost track.) Plus, there’s the issue of college funding and work. The kid sounded like he had way too much free time and spending money.

      But, this is easy for me to say, because I’m not there yet.


      1. Marianne,

        I didn’t have the heart to ask.

        Maybe it’s just that the kid is almost done with college, so they just want to get it over with and not fight about it.


    2. From HuffPost:

      “By Adelle M. Banks
      Religion News Service

      (RNS) The statistics, some evangelicals say, can no longer be ignored.

      Eighty percent of young evangelicals have engaged in premarital sex, according to a new video from the National Association of Evangelicals. and almost a third of evangelicals’ unplanned pregnancies end in abortion.”

      I do think the tools you are describing — screening kids phones, keeping them busy, monitoring their activities (and knowing that their friends teens are also monitoring), as well as creating a sub-community in which the bad behaviors are known to *not* be the norm are useful. But, I think that any presuming that the problems are some other kid and not our own (rather than earnestly discussing the issues and monitoring behavior) is a bad plan.

      A strong value system at home, “earnest” character education, and monitoring (which might be religiously based, but don’t have to be) might influence children’s behavior.


  23. Also a homeschooler, but not an Evangelical Christian one. Most of the attributes identified above do not apply to us, but this one does, in a big way: “Lots of youth group & young life with responsible adults always around.” We are in several intergenerational communities that provide a rich selection of activities and social opportunities that do not involve substance abuse, in any way. These are singing and dancing communities. In a decade’s worth of regular involvement, I have only seen a young adult under the influence of a substance once. (That person’s substance-abuse problem was a serious one, and serves as a reminder that no community, and probably no person, is insulated from the risks of substance abuse.) But if substance abuse is not part of the community, I have seen young adults gladly conform to community norms. Still, it’s always a matter of “talk to me next year,” because I’m never sure that the groups we are in now will work long term, but, for now, I value these communities greatly.


  24. I hate the saying, “work hard, play hard.” You’ll find high school/college students repeating that online, often to justify honors students partying. The attitude behind it–that stress in one situation (work or academic) justifies a lack of restraint in social situations is just…wrong.


    1. My kiddo told me recently that “work hard, play hard” meant precisely that — working very hard to be academically and otherwise successful, and binging (hooking up, . . . ) in the hours/minutes of downtime in between. It’s an explanation given for binge drinking in elite colleges, as well as the hookup culture (no time to develop relationships). Reminds me of the cocaine fueled behavior of the 90’s? economic boom. Maybe Japanese salaryman alcohol culture, too.

      And, I agree that it is the opposite of what I want for the generation: the sustainable approach to living, balancing reaching for the brass ring with mental and physical and emotional health.


  25. bj said:

    “My kiddo told me recently that “work hard, play hard” meant precisely that — working very hard to be academically and otherwise successful, and binging (hooking up, . . . ) in the hours/minutes of downtime in between. It’s an explanation given for binge drinking in elite colleges, as well as the hookup culture (no time to develop relationships).”

    I have been around one elite college with that kind of culture but what excuse do large state party colleges have then?


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