What’s the Matter with Kids Today?

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threatening 6-year old boy with freckles and a red hat back looking violent with fists in the forefront,acting like a little bully at school, contrast effects over grey background studio

Remember the musical Bye Bye Birdie? In it, Paul Lynde sings this famous refrain:

Kids! I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!
Kids! Who can understand anything they say?
Kids! They are disobedient, disrespectful oafs –
Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy loafers! And while we’re on the subject,
Kids! You can talk and talk ‘til your face is blue!
Kids! But they still just do what they want to do!
Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?
What’s the matter with kids today?

The movie is from 1963 but the Broadway show debuted in 1960 and the action takes place in 1958. No matter how you slice it, it’s pretty old. I assure you that the kids who are referenced in the song grew up chastising their own children “Why can’t you be like we were, perfect in every way?” Then those children grew up, reprimanding their children with the same refrain.

This is nothing new. Socrates said pretty much the same thing, albeit in Greek and probably not in rhyme:

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

I’m not sure exactly when Socrates said this but he died in 399 BCE, so he had more than a few years head start on Bye Bye Birdie. If three generations got to repeat Paul Lynde’s lament to their children, we can only imagine how many times Socrates’ criticism has been repeated over the years!

So we get it. Every generation of adults considers their generation of kids to be rambunctious, rowdy, slovenly, uncouth, ungrateful – fill in your own favorite criticism here: ________________. (If you need more space, you can print out this article and write on the back of it.) They say that hindsight is 20/20 but if we really think that our own childhoods were so angelic then either hindsight needs glasses or the generations are getting exponentially worse. (My money is on hindsight needing an optometrist.)

Now I’d like to bring in a Talmudic thought. In Talmud Sanhedrin 97a, Rabbi Nehorai says that in the generation before moshiach comes, young people will disrespect older people, elders will have to stand up for the young, daughters will rebel against mothers, daughters-in-law will rebel against mothers-in-law, and sons will feel no shame when rebuked by their fathers.

Now, if every generation feels this way about their kids, what exactly would Rabbi Nehorai have us looking for? It would have to be a worse generation than usual, somewhat more extreme than the typical “these kids with their hair and their music…!”

Something New, Different and Profoundly Disturbing

I think we may finally have an idea what rotten kids truly look like.

You may be aware of the recent incident in which students from Newport Harbor High School in California played “beer pong” with red Solo cups arranged in the shape of a swastika while participants made the Nazi salute. Even though the incident did not occur at a school event, it was appalling enough to prompt an apology to parents from the school district.

What’s the matter with kids today?

You might be tempted to say, “Well, that’s just an isolated incident!” Except it isn’t. The Forward reported on the disturbing history of this game, apparently referred to as “Alcoholocaust.” The game is widespread enough that Dart Container Corporation, maker of the ubiquitous red Solo cup, has requested that perhaps customers might not use their product to, you know, make swastikas.

The article mentioned numerous other recent instances in which teens shared pictures of “Alcoholocaust” to social media including a public high school in Princeton, NJ; Lovett School in Atlanta, GA; Cape Coral High School in Florida; and St. Teresa’s Academy in Kansas City, MO. The Forward also noted that three of the communities – Newport Beach, Princeton and Atlanta – “are wealthy, heavily educated, and have large Jewish populations.” Presumably this game has been played many times in other cities by students with enough sense not to post their indiscretions on social media. (Students at Commack High School in Long Island did not merit a mention; they played normal beer pong but in homemade Nazi T-shirts bearing swastikas and the word “Auschwitz.”)

What’s the matter with kids today?

Teenage self-identification with Nazis is not limited to drinking games. Remember when the junior class of Baraboo High School in Wisconsin made the Nazi salute in their prom photo? How about when students from Minnetonka High School in Minneapolis extended an invitation to a dance on Instagram doing a Nazi salute and saying “I could Nazi myself going with anyone else. Be Mein?”

In Indiana, the soccer team from Zionsville Community High School was reprimanded in January for taking a photo making the Nazi salute – five years after the same team (with a different line-up) was chastised for the same offense. Students at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis were photographed holding the German flag and making the Nazi salute. Noblesville Schools investigated one of their high school students who appeared in an online video hurling racial epithets while wearing a Nazi flag. That’s all in one state; do you think Indiana is somehow unique?

Last year, students from Paradise Valley High School in Arizona were disciplined after being photographed lying on the ground forming the shape of a swastika. This year, another human swastika was formed by a dozen students from Matilija Junior High School in Ojai, CA.

This last incident involved middle school students! Not college young adults, not high school teens – middle school tweens! Say it with me now: What’s the matter with kids today?

I’d say that this kind of behavior is unprecedented but in fact, it has happened before – in Germany, between the years 1926 and 1945. It was called “Hitler Youth” and, starting in 1936, membership was mandatory for all eligible youth under Gesetz über die Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth Law) and, later, Jugenddienstpflicht (Youth Service Duty). But to my knowledge, this generation represents the first time that American teens whose parents are not White Supremacists have voluntarily emulated the Nazis en masse.

An Appalling Trend – What Can We Do?

Every generation thinks their kids are the absolute worst, whether it’s hippies with their long hair and beads, bobby soxers with their “devil’s music,” or flappers, those “modern neurotic girl(s) who jazz… from morning to night” (quoth Agatha Christie). But all of that is just youth spreading their wings and trying to find their place.

A lot of curmudgeonly people (by which I mean people my age) like to complain about “these kids today.” That has always been the case and it will always be the case. It’s just older folks unable to adapt to changing tastes. But if large swaths of youth think it’s somehow funny, cool, acceptable or justifiable to make a game out of the Holocaust? That’s more than just a fashion trend some of us don’t understand. That’s a real problem.

George Santayana famously said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We’ve seen such behavior before and we cannot turn a blind eye to it. Each of us has a moral responsibility to be aware of such behavior and to call it out when we see it.

One would hope that the combination of some Holocaust education and a little maturity would be sufficient to turn most of these kids around. We must make every effort to accomplish that. If we fail, then whatever is wrong with kids today is what will be seriously wrong with adults tomorrow.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.