Why Some Kids Can't Do the Right Thing

This present-day scene may well be a scene from your future: My friend had made plans to meet up with her 20-year-old son to tour an art exhibit in Manhattan. Come the agreed-upon day, she texted her son to remind him that she would see him at the agreed-upon hour. He sent back a message that conveyed, in effect, Scram. A more appealing option has come up. 

“I was heartbroken,” says my friend, who’d been looking forward to the none-too-frequent opportunity to spend time with her son now that he’s in college. “I gave him a real lecture—like I was talking to a six-year-old. I told him I thought I raised him better than that.”

No doubt, she did. But her son’s behavior is typical of millennials, who, tethered to their devices, are often alarmingly unaware that their impulse to respond to what’s happening right now can bruise others’ feelings when a better opportunity comes along.

Parents of millennials, at least, had a chunk of their children’s youths to impart be-kind-to-others lessons—without the distraction of social media. Parents of Generation Z kids face a stiffer challenge. While they, too, encourage their children to be mindful of others, their children often see actions that contradict that message.

Take six-year-old Jake, for instance. There he is at the bus stop, Mom a few feet away. Jake is playing, as he does every day, with his pal Dennis, when a cute dog strolls by. When Jake tries to catch his mom’s eye to transmit the obvious message, he instead catches the top of her head. Why? Because Mom is peering down at her cell phone screen, trying to keep up with the deluge of morning e-mails.

Perhaps Jake is the rare child who understands that life is chaotic and doesn’t take Mom’s distraction personally. More likely, though, he feels a bit crushed and internalizes the message that someone else is more worthy of Mom’s attention. But, hey, Jake knows Mom loves him. Therefore, it must be OK to disengage from (read: blow off) the people you care about. They’ll understand.

One morning a few weeks later, Jake decides he’d rather spend his bus-stop time playing with his friend-of-the-moment, Amanda. When Jake’s mom notices a hurt and bewildered look cross Dennis’s face, she calls Jake over. “That’s not nice,” she whispers. “It hurts Dennis’s feelings when you ignore him.”

Now it’s Jake’s turn to feel hurt and bewildered. What did he do wrong? Doesn’t his mom do the same thing all the time?

Or imagine seven-year-old Taylor, who’s been trying for weeks to make her first kick on the soccer field. Finally, foot connects to ball. Turning to the bleachers to pump a triumphant fist at her dad, she instead sees him talking animatedly with other parents in the stands, not focusing on the field at all. Come the day she announces that she wants to quit soccer to do choir instead, how much resonance will Dad’s sage words have about Taylor’s team counting on her to finish out the season? Dad hasn’t exactly been present at those games himself.

Now fast-forward a few years and imagine what Taylor’s own etiquette will be after she gets her first cell phone (which these days, on average, is around age 10). Try to hold her attention? Good luck.

If Taylor’s parents push back with a stern lecture about how it’s not nice to ignore people that way, Taylor’s response, “What’s the big deal? Everyone does it,” is likely to be genuine. After all, these days, connections (and plans) are made to be broken if a more scrumptious opportunity comes along. “Everyone knows that, Mom. Geez. Get off my back.”

Perhaps when these Gen Z kids become parents, they will be comfortable with their own kids’ that-was-then-this-is-now attitude. But parents of the Gen Z crop weren’t raised that way. They were groomed to pay attention and honor obligations, responsibilities, and commitments. They were taught to be mindful of other people’s feelings.

All of this makes it all the more critical for parents of young children to dig in hard to impart and model behavior that is considerate of others. By the time Gen Z kids hit their college years, they’re going to be even more unreachable than the current crop of millennials—and that current crop can be heartachingly oblivious. “With all these gadgets and in-the-moment distractions, I’m not in their conversation, I’m not in their moment,” says a mother whose three kids are in their twenties. “It sounds whiny to say I’m hurt, but that’s what I feel. Hurt.” 

As did the mother whose son blew off their art museum outing without any consideration for how she might feel about being stood up. “I took it personally,” she says. “I’m his mother.” Yes, she is. “I delivered quite a lecture about how you don’t treat people this way.” No, you shouldn’t.

But be forewarned: Increasingly, today’s kids do. Everyone does. Geez. 

Jill Smolowe

Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents