Wednesday, July 29, 2009


The title of this post is the title of the song in Bye Bye Birdie, you know (if you're of a certain age, anyhow), the one Paul Lynde sang on Broadway and in the movies, the one with the questioning refrain, "What's the matter with kids today?" In the musical, it was an expression of parental frustration. The kids were, ultimately, just fine.

Back in the day (almost any day, I suspect), in response to complaints about how terrible our generation was - unlike the decency and respectfulness of our parents' generation, people circulated blocks of quotations (everything from the Bible to Hitler, and I've been looking for the Hitler quote to post a link but haven't found it - please pass it along if you've got it) showing that every generation has said this about the next.

In the 50s, we saw that generation gap reflected odd ways in the popular culture, with young people presented as threatening the safety and social norms of a prior generation in films like The Wild One and in the rise of rock 'n' roll (also racially tinged) and its careful and qualified admission into the mainstream through, for instance, the near censoring of Elvis' hips on The Ed Sullivan Show. In the 70s it was showing up as theme in such television shows as All in the Family. By the 80s, the generation had shifted so that the conservative child in Family Ties
proved the threat to his liberal parents.

And of course it continues today. Sometimes the kids are fine, sometimes they're not. But always there's the threat. "What's the matter with kids today?" And what will we do about it?

One option, one we always turn to when we're scared, is the penal code. So a number of jurisdictions have tried to criminalize sagging pants. Others have brought (or threatened to bring) felony charges for sexting (see here and here and, self-referentially, here, for instance).

And then there's the matter of punishment.

In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court held that because juveniles lack the maturity and self-control of adults, they could not, consistent with the Eighth Amendment be subjected to the death penalty. This coming term, the Court will be looking at two cases from Florida (Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida that ask whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits a sentence of life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.

The number of children currently serving LWOP sentences almost defies comprehension. Back in 2006, Doug Berman blogged about the problem (thanking Howard Bashman for a citation to a story in the Philadelphia Daily News which seems no longer to be available). Berman also provided the link to this report from Amensty International and Human Rights Watch. It's chilling.

And now there's the problem of the real kids. A new report issued by The Lyndon Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System, focusing on children under 13 being tried and sentenced as adults. Yesterday's NY Times carried this editorial urging Congress and the states to enact legislation to restrain the trend. Doug Berman quoted the editorial at length and linked to the report. Arbitrary and Capricious linked to both the editorial and the report. And now I've done it.

I'm not naive. There are kids who've done terrible things. But they're kids. It's the grownups who are supposed to exercise restraint.

So, finally, here's the answer to the question Paul Lynde asked:

What's the matter with kids today?


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