Kids today

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Following up on our most recent "kids today" post, I decided to spend a few minutes over lunch searching Google Books for interesting examples of the genre. Thus:

Many children today are greatly to be pitied because too much is done for them and dictated to them and they are deprived of the learning processes. We seem to have dropped into an age of entertaining, a breathless going from one sensation  to another, whether it be mechanical toys for the five-year-old or moving-picture plays for the sixteen-year-old. It not only destroys their power to think, but also makes happiness, contentment, and resourcefulness impossible. At seventeen, life is spoken of as "so dull" if there is not "something doing" every waking hour.

That's from Gail Harrison, "Modern Psychology in its Relation to Discipline", Journal of Proceedings and Lectures 53:658-661, National Education Association of the United States, 1915.

Or this, from Edna G. Meeker and Charles H. English, "Home Play", The Playground,  1922:

A few years ago there was no such choice of recreational activities as is offered today and the family was more nearly a unit in participation. Now there is a noticeable disintegration in interests which is a large factor in breaking down family solidarity. Parents lament their inability to understand or influence their children today. Parental respect and the bonds of fellowship and sympathy seem to have weakened. The socially-minded student points to these conditions as indices to more serious complications.

For fans of eye-dialect, here's "Beans and Cabbage" from Donald J. Howard, Stubby Jenks, 1921

Paw sez it usta be that a Familly had about one big Pot full of Stuff like Mush or Cabbige or Beans or Sumthing and a littel Bread on the Side and the Kids wud line up along the Festive Board and Rapp there little Selfs aroudn this Stuff in grate Shape, but now Days Kids is got to be pamperd and they don't like this hear and they dont like that their and the Cook of the House got to be a Book Keeper to get Everything strate adn be sure one of the 3 Year Old Offsprings aint going to Turn up his Noze at the Meal when its Dished out.

Paw sez what the Spoild Kids Today needs is a Chance to get Hungrie and it wuddent be long till they wuz Cryin for there Cabbige and boilt Potatos. that mite be the rite Dope but the Cabbige wud boit till it wuz Black in the face before i wud Cry for it on ackount of me not liken it a tall.

Going back a bit further, Emiel Eyben, Restless Youth in Ancient Rome, writes:

[The 4th-C. sophist Libanius] described the unmannerly behaviour of his pupils during a solemn lecture, a presentation to which a wider audience was admitted. He had ordered a slave to call the students in. They hardly budged, continuing to chat, laugh and sing the top hits of the day. Finally, they condescended to enter the hall, yet their lackadaisical attitude roused the ire of those already present and made them resentful. Finally the lecture could begin. The students, however, were winking at one another, were talking about this, that and the other, about charioteers, mimes, horses, pantomimes, and fights among students. Some students lolled about like statues, arms folded, while others picked their noses with both hands at once, remained utterly unmoved while everyone applauded, forced enthusiastic members of the audience to fit down. Their behaviour could be even more disgraceful: they clapped at unsuitable moments, prevented others from applauding, strutted ostentatiously through the lecture-theatre and tried to lure as many people as possible out of the hall by concocting false messages or by spreading round invitations to the baths.

Connoisseurs of the genre will also appreciate Farnsworth Crowder, "Our Parasitic Children", The Rotarian, May 1940.

[For a more systematic and high-minded account of some of the associated themes, see Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History.]


  1. Acilius said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    There are a couple of genres to be concerned with here. There's the "What doth corrupting time not diminish?" genre, in which a voice of antique virtue laments the corruption of the current generation; and another, perhaps almost equally venerable genre, in which a satirist quotes a series of such laments, the first of which sounds like it might have been written about today's youth though in fact it describes their grandparents, and each following excerpt is similar in its gist but older than the one before. In his book LITERATURE AND THE AMERICAN COLLEGE, published in 1908, Irving Babbitt quoted a number of contemporary pieces that meet this description. Babbitt topped them all with a quote from an old Egyptian letter. Babbitt then went on, however, not to attack the "What doth corrupting time not diminish?" genre, but the genre which satirized it. Babbitt strongly suspected that all these voices of antique virtue had been speaking the truth, and that the previous several thousand years of human history hads in fact been an endless cavalcade of degeneracy and moral rot. It's a point worth considering, I'd say.

    [(myl) I recall having seen a "kids today" complaint translated from the Sumerian, but I haven't been able to locate the reference.]

  2. The Volokh Conspiracy » Blog Archive » Kids These Days said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    […] a quote passed along by Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log), from Gail Harrison, Modern Psychology in its Relation to Discipline, 53 Journal of […]

  3. Brian said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    I also vaguely remember having read the Sumerian item, but it must have been decades ago, and I can't dredge up any further details. It's maddening. I tell you, kids these days with their internet and the google and all …

  4. George Amis said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    I can see how you might regard the passage from Stubby Jenks as eye-dialect, but it seems to me more like an exercise in semi-literate, but fairly plausible phonetic spelling. Otherwise, the capital letters make no sense.

  5. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    "At seventeen, life is spoken of as "so dull" if there is not "something doing" every waking hour."

    As someone who is perpetually seeking to fill empty moments with some entertainment or edification and is constantly afraid of being bored, I think this is something to be celebrated. Children of 1915 no longer had to put up with useless hours of ennui, but could seek out and find new delights and information.

  6. Forrest said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    Socrates told us "children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers." Or at least this is attributed to him.

    If the world has been going to hell in a hand-basked since the dawn of writing … I think we'd have got there by now.

  7. TootsNYC said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    Isn't the whole "banished from the Garden of Eden" story essentially a "kids these days" moment?

  8. Dan T. said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    I suppose it's possible that the state of "kids today" follows a sawtooth curve, where it's generally in a state of decline, but once in a while ratchets up to restore its old glory, only to begin a new state of decline. (That's a "devil's-advocate" theory I don't actually believe in myself.)

  9. Ed said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    All of these passages are accurate. You are playing a sort of game by quoting passages written by different time periods, I guess to say, "see, people were always complaining about x! That must mean there is nothing to complain about!"

    Logically, this is a non-sequitor, and it lacks historical perspective. The late Roman Republic and the Roman Empire were the most urbanized societies to have appeared in Europe and Western Asia at the time. They even approached industrial revolution style technology, then decided against it. No society in that area came close to being as "developed" until about 1700. The Romans were more "like us", meaning post-industrial revolution people, in most respects until, well, us.

    As for the other passages, consider if increased industrialization and urbanization does promote increase alienation or restlessness among people born in these societies, and weakens the family. Then you would see people increasingly noticing that as industrial civiliation takes hold. This has been an ongoing, 250 year process. So the effects would be noticeable compared to past years in 1900, would be noticeable in 1950 as compared to 1900, and in 2000 as opposed to 1950, as long as the technology kept advancing.

    To take the family in particular, since the institution was designed for a predominately agrarian society (some 90% of the workforce employed in farming), why wouldn't it be under stress after industrialization?

  10. Ian Preston said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    (myl) I recall having seen a "kids today" complaint translated from the Sumerian, but I haven't been able to locate the reference.

    Is it this? Also Ch 3 here. (I can't get past the paywall myself to read past the first page.)

    [(myl) Yes, that looks like what I remember. Thanks!]

  11. Jim said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

    Not to overlook the point, but I'm amazed that I didn't have to get any further than "greatly to be pitied" to at least roughly date the first quote.

    Time moves much faster these days, and my kids' attention span is too short for television.

    [(myl) Maybe TV is too passive, not interactive enough for them?]

    Ironically, texting may eventually become grunts….

    [(myl) TWSS.]

  12. MB said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    I remember hearing this genre being called "the complaint of the times" in Latin literature.
    Can't find the Ciceronian reference.

  13. Troy S. said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

    I remember an Egyptian scroll in one of my history textbooks that said something like: "The youths no longer respect their elders, they think only of drinking bread beer. The end of times is near” Can't find a concrete citation anywhere on the internets, so maybe it's one of those entrenched educational factoids.

  14. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    "Our earth is degenerate-children no longer obey their parents." – 6000-year old Egyptian inscription in stone, quoted "all around the internet" (not necessarily a sign of authenticity).

    [(myl) The date, at least, can't be correct, since the earliest full sentence attested in Egyptian inscriptions is (I think) from the tomb of Seth-Peribsen, around 2700 BC (i.e. about 4,700 years ago).

    But the Sumerian case (located by Ian Preston above) is well authenticated — it's based on tablet 29-15-195 in the collection of Penn's University Museum, documented by Samuel Noah Kramer [Professor of Assyiology and Curator of the Tablet Collections], "A Father and His Perverse Son", Crime & Delinquency, 1957. The tablet is dated to about 1700 B.C., and Prof. Kramer writes that "its original composition may go back several centuries earlier". Kramer's translation begins:

    "Where did you go?"
    "I did not go anywhere."
    "If you did not go anywhere, why do you idle about? Go to school, stand before your school father [professor], recite your assignment, open your school bag, write your tablet, let your big brother [assistant teacher] write your new tablet. After you have finished your assignment and reported to your monitor, come to me, and do not wander about in the street."

    The father complains that the son never had to work in the fields, but the son is ungrateful and idle. "Night and day am I tortured because of you. Night and day you waste in pleasure."]

  15. fard said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

    is this bitter tradition in favor of bitter traditionalism
    why the Guardian insists on "manoeuvre" vs "maneuver"

    I don't know James Ellroy at all. No assertion on what he wrote or didn.
    Jus gessin.

  16. John Cowan said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

    This particular topos is part of what Northrop Frye called in his early papers "the butterslide theory of human history", very prevalent in those days what with the Aristotelians and their offshoot the Thomists dominating literary criticism. TootsNYC (hey, fellow citizen!) is quite right to associate it with the myth of the Fall. In Anatomy of Criticism, he doesn't use that phrase, but says (in the Tentative Conclusion, p. 343f):

    Any such [Spengler/Toynbee] view, if adopted, could be decorated metaphysically to suit the tenant: but there is no reason why it should be "fatalistic," unless it is fatalism to say that one gets older every year, nor why it should include any theory of inevitable cycles in history or a pre-ordained future. Certainly it should not be perverted into a basis for rhetorical value-judgements.We get these, for instance, in the sentimental view of medieval culture which sees it as a gigantic synthesis followed by a progressive disintegration which has subdivided and specialized until it has finally landed us all in the Pretty Pass which we are in today.

    A movement which will restore some thing of the unity of medieval culture to the modern world, or some other qualities of it, has been hailed in one form or other in nearly every generation since the middle of the eighteenth century. Subsidiary forms of the same view are present in the people who cannot listen with pleasure to any music later than Mozart, or whatever terminal they choose; in the Marxists who speak of the decadence of capitalist culture; in the alarmists who speak of a return to a new Dark Ages, and so on. All these have a more or less muddled version of some quasi-organic theory of history as their basis.

  17. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

    To take the family in particular, since the institution was designed for a predominately agrarian society (some 90% of the workforce employed in farming), why wouldn't it be under stress after industrialization?

    "The family?" I'm pretty sure the term refers to a rather broad category of human relationships, including ones which can be found in societies with non-agrarian (including foraging) economies.

    The point of the quotes is, when people write that kids-today crap nowadays, they will hark back to those exact same times that the quotes came from as examples of when we did childhood and adolescence better.

    And it's just not true. Former conditions of childhood, as a general case, would not be better for children of today. And young people of the past were not, as a general case, better people than young people of today.

    I'll tell you one thing though: when I was a kid, I had it a lot easier than kids today do. I could look forward to a nearly-free college education (almost exactly free if what I needed could be gotten at community colleges). There were jobs lying around everywhere that you could get as a young person and they paid enough to pay the rent, buy the groceries, and pay for the fees (there was no tuition per se) at the University of California.

    An aside, though — there's a mysterious field above the comment field which demands that I should fill in what upper respiratory infection I have been exposed to. I think? Anyway, it says URI. I think I've been exposed to all of them. Do I have to write them all down, or would "all" be sufficient?

    [(myl) Wow. TB? Psittacosis? Legionellosis? SARS? Anthrax? Impressive.]

  18. Shrikant said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 2:54 am

    Farnsworth Crowder? What a delightfully 40s name!

  19. Chaon said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 3:06 am

    Why can't they be like we were — perfect in every way …

  20. Stephen Nicholson said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 3:58 am

    When I was in high school during the early 90s, the common complaint was to say kids these days couldn't identify Canada on a map. I've yet to see any evidence that.

    [(myl) One instance of this trope is dissected here.]

  21. Adam said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 5:37 am

    "Manoeuvre" is the current standard British spelling. I assume that the James Ellroy who wrote the article is the American crime writer (I'm not familiar with his work) and that The Guardian edited the article in BrE. One could argue whether the editors should do that, but I'd be very surprised if American newspapers didn't do the same in the other direction.

  22. [links] Link salad slopes off to the infusion center | said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    […] Kids today — How do you say, "Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!" in Latin? […]

  23. Philip said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    My recollection of the Sumerian "kids today" complaint–in this case it was of the "kids today can't write" variety–comes from an article by James Fallows criticizing SAT tests. I think it may have been published in The Atlantic Monthly.

  24. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    is this bitter tradition in favor of bitter traditionalism
    why the Guardian insists on "manoeuvre" vs "maneuver"

    What Adam said. Of course they edited it in BrE. Every paper would edit spelling into their own language, especially a commissioned article. When, say, Timothy Garton-Ash writes for the NYRB, they don't keep his spelling. I mean, the whole thing is edited into house style, including spelling. The Obserer even runs straight extracts from the NYRB and the NYT – I'm pretty sure those would be *corrected* for spelling, though to be honest I haven't checked.

  25. TGGP said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    Deogolwulf agrees with Babbitt:

  26. Steven Pietrick said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

    Yes, history shows that each generation wonders what is happening with kids today? Yet, I am more concerned that today's youth will suffer an increasingly prominent disability in the use of language. Some of the young professionals with whom I work periodically fall into the trap of using texting acronyms in emails (did you know that "np" means "no problem"?). Of course, that is separate from the institutionalized informality which email has engendered.

    Music now also tends to show ineffective language skills, although I am not certain if the music reflects current language use or if it is driving common language use. Virtually every hit song now abuses the language. I even had to write a very brief piece about how the Black Eyed Peas will be the end of civilization as we know it following their song "Imma Be" ("Imma" is the shortened form of "I am going to").

    Yes, I am getting crotchety about kids as I get older, but please don't burst my rationalization bubble which tells me it is them, not me.

  27. Jeffrey W Percival said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 10:42 pm

    I would like to point out that to observe that each generation says "kids today" means that it is an infinitely repetitive process is mistaken. It can be that each generation sees a 5% degradation, while no one lives long enough to see the accumulated change. I see that my own childhood differs from my childrens'. I swang on vines in a forest; my children have never run among trees. Their children will never see an elephant or a tiger. For those who say, So said the Sumerians, So said the Romans, you will see a difference this time.

    [(myl) I don't think that I'm following you. If each of the 200 generations since the Sumerians invented writing has seen "a 5% degeneration" in average levels of qualities like self-discipline, then our level of these qualities would be 0.95^200 = 3.5e-05 or about 3/100000 of the level that the Sumerians started with. The Romans of Cicero's time would have had about 0.95^100 = 0.006 = 0.6% of a typical Sumerian's self-discipline, while we in turn would have about 0.6% of the Romans' already pitiful level, leaving us essentially at zero.

    It's true that the effect in each generation would be hard to see, against the background of individual variation; but over a hundred generations or so, any consistent secular trend of that kind would reduce average levels to (a point indistinguishable from) zero. Exponential decay is a bitch.

    Is this really what you think has happened? ]

  28. Aaron Davies said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 12:38 am

    there's another version floating around, variously attributed to cicero and the sumerians, which goes something like "times are bad: children won't obey their parents and everyone is writing a book."

  29. Jeffrey W Percival said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    myl: you're right, I shouldn't have tossed numbers around for making my argument. My thought was more along the lines of "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you." Rephrased here, I was trying to suggest that just because each generation complains about the quality of the next, it doesn't mean that it's all relative, or that it's not, in some sense, true. One generation may actually end up being right, and sorry about it!

  30. Mark P said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 12:07 am

    Time moves much faster these days, and my kids' attention span is too short for television.

    Anecdote is not data.

    My kids (9 and 11) watch almost no television. Maybe an hour a week.Their attention span is too long and TV is too vapid. They much prefer books and computer games.

    (And it is not because we stop them. We have never put any rules on the amount they can watch TV, because it has never been an issue. We do veto unsuitable choices of programs.)

  31. Around the Internet « Eric Gregory said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

    […] the Internet March 14, 2010 by Eric Kids today (at Language […]

  32. Anna said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 2:10 am

    I may be late to the party but I wonder if ALL of the quotes may be wrong and yet right at the same time. Generations ARE each different from each other and in many ways may be a decline from what the previous generation valued, but may also be an increase in a new set of valued characteristics, which their children will then break too.

    So conservative parents bemoan their liberal children, who bemoan their own conservative children, etc. etc. This particularly seems valid when looking at shifts like industrialisation… where one generation values hard physical labour and the next vigorous learning, and the next personal creativity…

    So each seems to be declining relative to fixed points that they don't all share. Generations from the early 1900s may be horrified by our lack of social duty and modesty, but we'd probably be horrified by our perception of their sheep-like nature.

    Additionally, the generic "kids these days are rude and I wasn't" is almost certainly aimed at a small subset of children who are acting poorly. I was always quiet and made an effort to behave properly as a child and I was never noticed by adults – they only pick up on the kids who cause grief for them. And these feral children will grow up to have more feral children, constantly shocking the rest of society.

    So basically, I think when these complaints were made they were ALL genuinely correct – the author didn't behave the way they saw children now behaving. But that doesn't mean there has been some continual decline, simply a constant lack of perspective.

  33. Anna said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 2:14 am

    Additionally I just wanted to add that most of the "Fall" mythology I have seen nearly always has an exchange for the people involved, ie they lose one thing (usually closeness to their gods) but gain another, usually a kind of knowledge like fire, or good&evil, or beer, etc. So I don't think this genre of complaints are related to Fall myths, as they don't suggest there is any hidden value in this loss.

  34. Ross Churchley › Mildly Interesting | Kids Today said,

    March 26, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

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  35. Ross Churchley › Blog › Kids Today said,

    April 13, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

    […] EntertainingMildly Useful Kids Today 15 Mar 2010 Mark Liberman of Language Log collects historical examples of people despairing of the younger generation."We seem to have dropped into an age of entertaining, a breathless going from one sensation  to […]

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