Where Are the Adults?

In the previous column we discussed the tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Massachusetts. For months, Phoebe was bullied, threatened, and humiliated by a group of high schoolers. To escape her tormenters, she hanged herself.

The story is eerily reminiscent of William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies. In it, a group of well-educated British boys marooned on an island descend into unspeakable savagery. It’s a near-perfect, fictional tale of the reality of what we Christians call original sin — the fallenness of human nature.

But there is one major difference between the South Hadley tragedy and Lord of the Flies. In the novel the young boys descend into savagery in the absence of adults on the island.

But in South Hadley, there were adults who knew what was going on. They just didn’t act.

While the prosecutor didn’t charge school authorities with a crime, she did call their inaction “troublesome.”

Then there are the parents of Phoebe Prince’s tormentors. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen asked why, in “all the finger pointing…not a digit is aimed at the parents.”

It’s as if parents “are somehow not expected to know anything” about their children’s actions.

Well, they’re not — at least not in contemporary American culture. American teenagers operate in what has been called a “parallel culture” that operates free of adult interference. American high schools have been described as places where “individuals of the same age group define each other’s world.”

As we saw in South Hadley, instead of challenging these definitions, or even the kind of cruelty endured by kids like Phoebe Prince, teachers and administrators often adopt a hands-off approach. This is politically correct, to respect personal autonomy. Look what it leads to.

Every once in a while, events like those in South Hadley or the school shootings a decade ago cause us to examine some aspect of this “parallel culture,” but the “parallel culture” remains.

Why? For one thing, we have too much invested in it. Literally! American teenagers are a 150 billion dollar per year market. Part of tapping into that market is, as Cohen noted, telling teenagers how important and smart they are—and then supplying them with every electronic gadget known to man.

For their part, many parents are either too busy to interfere or, even worse, are afraid of their kids’ disapproval. It’s easier to be their children’s “friend” than it is to teach them right from wrong. It’s easier to let them alone with their iPod or chat rooms than it is to engage them in family activities.

But this hands-off approach denies the truth about human nature. Despite the wild fantasies of utopians everywhere, humans are prone to evil. Without the restraint of a morally informed conscience, individuals are capable of doing the most hideous things.

To deny this is to deny the entire history of the human race.

The Christian worldview teaches us exactly what to expect when the kids are allowed to “run the island,” so to speak.

We can expect not some youthful, happy utopia. No, we can expect a literal hell on earth.

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