The year was 1984, I was a freshman in high school, and I was trapped in detention. I don’t recall the reason why — perhaps I chewed gum in class — but I can remember believing I was suffering from a monstrous injustice. Why was I in detention next to all the real delinquents, the guys who fought and drank? The guys who cut class in the restroom and smoked weed?
But that one inglorious afternoon of detention was memorable for another reason entirely: my first exposure to Scared Straight, the 1978 documentary that recorded hardened criminals threatening and screaming at a small group of extremely frightened juvenile offenders. The goal? Frightening them out of a life of crime.
The teacher wheeled the TV into the room, slid a gigantic videocassette into our school’s newest piece of technology, the VCR, and pressed Play. I was transfixed. I’m not sure if Scared Straight got any results in the real world, but it certainly made an impression on me. The language! The anger! The tattoos! I wasn’t planning a life of crime (bank robbery would have taken too much time from my Dungeons and Dragons hobby), but let’s just say that I redoubled my commitment to the rule of law.
Years later, I recalled Scared Straight when pondering the challenge of bringing up kids in our prosperous, self-esteem-saturated culture. I’m not too worried about my kids’ lapsing into criminality, but what about regressing to the contemporary mean of self-focus, self-love, and just general all-round selfishness? You see, the “good parents” seem to be the ones who order their lives around their kids — attending every soccer game, delivering omnipresent attaboys, and teaching them there is nothing more important to Mommy and Daddy than Junior’s wants and needs.
But does that produce virtue in children?
In response, my wife and I have moved in the opposite direction: The kids adjust their lives to ours, not ours to theirs. We shun the self-esteem world of elementary and junior-high graduations, participation ribbons, and frantic applause for even the most mediocre effort. That’s not to say we never go to their games — we attend most — or that we never praise our children, but the emphasis is a far more traditional (dare I say conservative?) model of children as obedient, respectful, and in the background of family life.
But for our kids, this lifestyle has costs. When parents obey their children, there are enormous short-term benefits for the child. What 13-year-old wouldn’t want a chauffeur to take him to games and parties, a butler to clean his room, and a chef to cook his meals to his exact specifications? How can we show our kids that self-absorption may have short-term benefits, but also horrifying long-term costs?
Enter Scared Straight — but with catchy storylines, attractive characters, and snappy music. In other words, with our oldest kids, we watch reality television.
Do you want to teach your kids the value of self-awareness? Have them watch early auditions on American Idol, where completely untalented, screeching wannabe pop stars are shocked, shocked to hear they won’t be famous. Your child’s jaw will drop at the high and public cost of self-delusion.
That could be you, sweetie, if we weren’t honest with you like we are.
Do you want to teach your child the value of humility? Turn on the early episodes of any given season of Survivor, where grandstanding, muscular guys are brought low year after year by illness, starvation, or the quiet 40-year-old firefighter — leaving behind a trail of broken dreams and embarrassing boasts.
Remember, son, the Biblical admonition to always count others better than ourselves? And humble ourselves and leave the exaltation to others? You don’t want to be like “Brian from Seattle.” (Reality-show contestants are always identified by short captions when talking on camera — and never with last names. They’re always “Bob from Birmingham” or “Bill, aspiring actor” or “Becky, barista from Boston.”)
You can even teach them of the perils of the inconstant heart. Year after year, the best-laid plans of the dreadlocked, super-cool aspiring actors of Survivor are waylaid by the mere sight of a young girl in a bikini. It’s the oldest story, and it’s a sad one — even on CBS, Wednesdays, at 8:00 p.m.
Son, the Book of Proverbs says that a faithless woman can reduce a man to a “crust of bread.” Isn’t that exactly what happened to “Carson from Omaha”?
Simply put, kids need role models — both positive and negative. My wife and I strive to be the best role models we can be, and we also introduce the kids to the great heroes of our cultural history. My oldest daughter reads missionary biographies, while my son devours books about Navy SEALs. That’s the positive. As for the negative, since they don’t seem tempted by criminality, I’ll spare them the swearing, threatening inmates of Scared Straight. Instead, I’ll let Ryan Seacrest and Jeff Probst guide their tour of mankind’s fallen nature.
How is it all working, you ask? A few short months ago, my oldest daughter received an end-of-season award for playing on a team that competed hard but lost every single game. When we arrived home, I noticed the award certificate, crumpled, on the kitchen table.
“Do you want your award?” I asked.
“No. I don’t accept awards for losing. Throw it away.” After all, I don’t want to end up like Roxanne, the struggling singer/songwriter from Albany, she might as well have added.
“Good girl,” I replied, and — a proud dad — I tore the certificate in half, tossed it in the garbage, and reached for the remote.
“Hey, kids. Time for Top Shot.”
— David French is a senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice.