‘The Challenge of Raising Upright Children in a World of Political Correctness’

By Katherine Kersten

Katherine Kersten is a Senior Fellow for Cultural Studies at the Center of the American Experiment, columnist for the Star Tribune, and co-author of “Close to Home.” Katherine is said to be one of the “wisest and most tenacious” commentators in America today.


Here, by popular demand, and forwarded with her permission are the notes from her presentation at the Catholic Parents OnLine Brunch on April 1, 2000.


“Why does Catholic Parents OnLine exist? If you want a one-line answer, it might be this: Because it’s really hard to raise kids today. Parents who want to raise their children in the truth, to fulfill their obligation to God to rear their sons and daughters as virtuous, godly and pure of heart – parents like us — are under siege. To do our job, we need to know who one another is, and on a regular basis, give one another council and support.Just how hard is it to raise kids today?

In the last 10 days, I saw two signs of the times, which are emblematic of what we parents are up against.

Last week, Cosmopolitan magazine surpassed TV Guide to become the nation’s largest selling newsstand publication. (Cosmo is, by the way, the largest selling women’s magazine in the world.)

On Sunday, American Beauty swept the Oscars, winning 5, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography.

American Beauty, of course, is the story of a middle-aged man’s disillusionment with suburban life, and his attempt to find emotional and spiritual fulfillment through sex with a high school cheerleader.

Let me give you the flavor of the movie. It opens with Jane, the middle-aged main character’s daughter, asking her boyfriend to kill her father. We see her father masturbating several times, and her mother having bizarre, adulterous sex. There’s a scene in which the father gleefully smokes marijuana in a parking lot. Next, we see Jane’s cheerleader friend encouraging her to speculate on the size of her father’s sexual organ, and Jane herself baring her breasts to the teen-age voyeur-next-door as he videotapes her. And of course, there are countless scenes of Jane’s forty-something father lusting, in various ways, after her nubile young friend.

Now wait a minute, some might say, yeah, that’s all in there, but American Beauty is rated R; it’s an adult movie, made for adults; kids can’t get in to see it.

Well, that’s balderdash. According to the New York Times, filmmakers are encouraged by the fact that “the youngest audiences” are embracing American Beauty, and other films of its kind. I quote:

“What is particularly surprising – and encouraging – to moviemakers is that there seems to be a greater crossover [this year] than in previous years between the films earning critical kudos and Oscar nominations and the films that are embraced enthusiastically by the youngest, hippest audiences. “The thing we kept hearing when we were preparing American Beauty is that teenagers just won’t go see a movie unless it has nothing but teenagers in it,” said Dan Jinks, one of American Beauty’s producers. Not close to true, it turns out. Movies like American Beauty, that in theory should have had greater appeal to older audiences, drew [an] enormous audience of young people.”

What’s happened to America? When those of us with teenagers think back to our own childhood, we remember My Friend Flicka and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and My Three Sons. We remember the Legion of Decency. When I was 17, Midnight Cowboy, which now appears laughably tame, received an X, a rating that Hollywood saw as the kiss of death. My parents would no more have given me permission to see it than sail a boat alone across the Atlantic.

Well, what’s happened since the 1960’s is complex. But in the last 40 years, we’ve learned one thing for sure: Ideas have consequences. In the 1960’s, for example, the American people decided – for the first time – that it’s OK to have a baby out of wedlock. Not surprisingly, in a period of a few short years, our nation’s out-of-wedlock birthrate soared from something like 5% to 33% today.

Now, I suggest that if we want to understand the genesis of the contemporary moral decline, we need to understand a fundamental shift that’s occurred over the last 40 years in the way that we Americans understand a very important idea, the idea of freedom – an idea central to our nation since its inception.

To get some perspective, let’s go back, as a reference point, to a time shortly before the 1960’s; let’s say to 1943, the year my father graduated from Notre Dame. At Notre Dame in 1943, education consisted of inculcating classical liberal learning in the context of the Catholic faith. Where social matters were concerned, there were lots of rules. Lights went out at 10:00 p.m. If you were caught coming out of a downtown bar, you could expect to be expelled. Needless to say, there were no female visitors in dorm rooms.

Many today, especially kids, might look at my dad’s college years and say, “Yuck, your dad was really repressed. He had no freedom at all.” (Like, none)

Nothing could be farther from the truth. The fact is, in 1943, education at Notre Dame was structured with one goal in mind: to prepare my father for freedom – freedom of the best and highest kind.

[What do I mean?] The education my dad received at Notre Dame was a self-consciously liberal education, which means, an education designed to liberate — to free — the human mind and spirit. What did this education seek to liberate students from? Liberation from slavery to their desires, their impulses, and their petty self-absorption. Its goal was to liberate their reason, and to awaken them to the good, the true and the beautiful.

Traditional Catholic liberal education was grounded in a very particular idea of freedom: what I call “freedom for” – positive freedom – as distinguished from license. It is what the English political philosopher Lord Acton characterized as “freedom to live as we ought, not as we will.”

Positive freedom is the freedom of the moral being, the moral agent, created in the image of God. It is the freedom to pursue the truth; the universal and transcendent truth that Scripture tells us will set us free. Positive freedom is the freedom that undergirds the American political regime of ordered liberty. It is the freedom of the adult, the freedom of the Christian.

Today, however, many in our society – chief among them, the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine and the Oscar nominating committee — reject the understanding of freedom that under girded my father’s education at Notre Dame. Rather than “freedom for,” rather than positive freedom, today American opinion leaders seek something very different: What we might call “freedom from,” or negative freedom. It is this idea of freedom that pervades our culture today.

Now, negative freedom is freedom as understood by a child. To a child, freedom means the ability to go to bed whenever he wants to, eat as much candy as he wants to, and tell his teacher exactly what he thinks of her when she warns him not to barge in line again. (Or in the case of the characters in American Beauty, freedom means hopping into bed with your friend’s father if you want to, or feeling free to partake of whatever the illegal drug du jour might be.)

Negative freedom is freedom from rules, from limits. It is the freedom to do whatever you want to whenever you want to, unconstrained by moral norms, social expectations or obligations to others.

Negative freedom rejects the very idea of transcendent, universal truth. It claims that human beings must decide for themselves “what’s true for me.” Negative freedom holds up the Self — the autonomous individual — as the ultimate arbiter of value. It celebrates self-expression, self-realization, and self-fulfillment as the authentic goals of human life.

I’ve said that ideas have consequences. What are the consequences of the negative concept of freedom that has seized center stage in America over the last 40 years?

Obviously, freedom understood as “I’ve got to be me” lies at the heart of many of our nation’s most troubling social problems: from the breakdown of the family to the extraordinary coarsening of our popular culture.

But it’s also implicated in the smaller questions we encounter in our daily lives, like: why do so many pleasant, thoughtful and well-behaved parents have kids who are anything but? Why do our kids have friends whose parents are wonderful people, and yet can’t discipline their offspring, even to the point of teaching them manners? Let me tell you a little anecdote that, I think, sheds some light on this, and at the same time makes clear the vital need for organizations like Catholic Parents OnLine.

When my children were small, I participated in a parent discussion group for several years. Each year, the discussion leader would ask, “What do you want most in life for your son or daughter?” The women in the group were good people and devoted mothers. But each year, they would greet this question with indecision. They would pause and look around, slightly embarrassed. For a moment, they were speechless. Then, without exception, they would say the same thing: “I just want her to be happy.” Everyone would nod, “Yes.” Occasionally, some particularly venturesome mother would add, “I want her to fulfill her potential.”

But I could see that, for all their sympathetic nodding, these mothers weren’t satisfied with this response. They knew they wanted more for their children, they just didn’t know exactly how to say it. When my turn came, I would say this: “I want her to be wise, kind, just, responsible, courageous, self-reliant, generous, honest and good. I want her to be a productive member of society, and to fulfill her responsibilities as a citizen.” “Yes, yes,” they would say. “That’s what I want.”

It’s always been difficult to help children develop into the sort of person I described. But it’s next to impossible when you don’t know what you’re aiming at, when you are lacking what the ancient Greeks – the first great educators – called a paragon, a character ideal.

After all, if your highest goal as a parent is to ensure that your child’s life is pleasant and that she has just what she wants, how will you muster the determination to say no when you need to (in other words, over and over)? Rather than guiding her and shaping her character, the very best you will be able to do as a parent is assist her – in a passive way – to “muddle through” the problems and temptations life presents, with no overarching vision of the good life in mind.

Here, I think, we see one of the most serious consequences of the negative concept of freedom – that is, freedom understood as freedom to be me. It is stripping today’s parents of the categories of thought and moral framework – of the very words – they need to raise their children as moral beings.

If you want evidence, spend a few minutes at any nursery school or public elementary school. Just listen, see if you hear an adult say to a child,” “Don’t do that. It’s wrong. It’s wrong to hit.” Most likely, they say, “Hitting is not OK, it’s inappropriate.” When the child reaches the teen years, they can’t say, “Having sex before marriage is harmful and wrong and violates God’s plan.” The best they can muster is, “Having sex before you’re ready isn’t healthy – so when you decide it’s OK, make sure it’s safe sex.”

What a contrast to the vision of man, and the good life, that prevailed during my father’s years at Notre Dame. I think it’s both fascinating and vitally important that we, as parents, understand exactly what our culture’s lost in the intervening years. And to help us grasp this, there is no better guide than University of Chicago psychologist Phillip Rieff. Rieff is the author of one of the most important books I’ve ever read, a 1963(?) classic called “The Triumph of the Therapeutic.” In this seminal book, Rieff explains the phenomenon I saw in the mother’s group I mentioned a few minutes ago. He attributes these mothers’ loss of the language of good and evil to the rise – indeed the triumph – of psychology, and the psychological vision of man.

Rieff says that, in the last 40 years, our society’s model for the organization of personality — our paragon, or character ideal — has undergone a radical shift. “The Christian model of man,” he says, “dominant for 1,500 years, has been increasingly replaced by “psychological man.” The soul has been replaced by the self.”

Rieff lays out a fascinating contrast between the Christian and the psychological conception of what it means to be human. The organizing principle of Christian character, says Rieff, is faith. Christian life revolves around the pursuit of Truth and salvation.

One thing always strikes me as I stroll the halls of public elementary schools. I always see these big signs: Respect each other. Help others. Be nice. They’re everywhere. Yet the irony is this: public schools, for all their well-meaning exhortations, can never tell children why they should do these things. Why should I be nice when I’m in a foul mood? Why should I tell the truth when I’ll be punished for it? The answers are hardly self-evident. You can tell your children why they should do these things, and you do tell them. And this is the most precious knowledge on earth.

Last night, as I was preparing to talk to you, I sat down and thought about the kinds of things my husband and I have done as we’ve tried to fulfill our obligations to God as parents. When we were first married, we couldn’t wait to have children, but – as we gazed around us at the popular culture – we approached our new role with some fear and trembling.

Today, our kids are 16, 14, 13 and 10, and so far, the road has been smoother than we expected. As I thought about why, several things came to mind.

First and foremost, we have had a character ideal – we’ve known all along what sort of human beings we want our children to become, and we’ve evaluated potential experiences in light of whether they will contribute to or detract from our goal.

Second, we’ve tried to put our children in environments where the morality we try to teach at home will be reinforced. We’ve tried to find schools, for example, where they will meet friends whose families think as we do. There’s an incredible peace of mind in knowing that when your child goes to a friend’s house after school or to spend the night, the parents will have rules, and expectations, similar to your own.

Third, we’ve always tried to remember that education and entertainment are two sides of the same coin. Today, many families take education seriously – seeking out the best teachers, the most challenging courses, monitoring homework. But they make the mistake of believing that — when it comes to the way their children spend their free time – the movies, the video games, the music, the TV that fill their leisure hours – well, what they do “just for fun” isn’t all that important. This, I think, is a gargantuan mistake.

The truth is, what our children watch on Saturday night profoundly shapes their view of the world, often teaching lessons more powerful and enduring than those they learn in school. Entertainment educates by molding our children’s understanding of what is important, how the world works, and what behavior society expects of them.

So, we try to turn off the bad stuff. But then we try to do something equally important: show them the good stuff. We have made an effort, for example, not just to say: You can’t see “The Waterboy.” We say, come on in, tonight we’re going to see Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight or Michael Caine in Zulu or great foreign films like “The Seven Samurai” and “Babette’s Feast.” Then, when they see the bad stuff, as they inevitably will, they will have something to compare it to – and they will, perhaps grudgingly, eventually recognize how bad it is.

We’ve also tried to encourage small, but telling habits.
Every day when young, what good thing did you do today?
Answer the phone.
I do this because my mom did it to me and I still say it: Yes mom.
Things I’ve tried to say every day: “Remember you are the temple of the Holy Spirit.”

One more thing: when I find my children paying attention to the bad stuff that’s out there, I generally try not to shame them. So many bad things out there, can’t walk through the grocery store checkout without being greeted by models in various stages of undress announcing the secret of latest sexual thrill is within the pages.

I do not say: shame on you for showing interest; this is dirty, this is bad. Rather, I understand this temptation. We are made this way – we are weak, we are fallen. But we must struggle against temptation. It calls out to what it weakest and lowest in us, not what is noblest and most beautiful. It’s like driving by a grisly accident: we have a prurient curiosity, but we must struggle against it everyday.

Want to close with this thought. The older I get, the closer I feel to my grandmother and great-grandmother, both now long dead. At times, I have wondered at the ease of my life compared to theirs.

Many years ago, my great-great-grandmother crossed from Tennessee to Texas in a covered wagon. My great-grandmother homesteaded in a sod hut that she and her eight children built in Colorado after my great-grandfather died. My grandmother started a business during the Depression to help put her five children through college. She drove 3,000 miles alone in a Model T to get it off the ground, and sent three sons to World War.

In contrast to all this, I look at my life of relative ease, and ask, “What dangers do I face, what challenges comparable to theirs?” But in recent years I have come to realize that each age, each generation has its challenges. My challenges, though not physically dangerous like theirs, are every bit as difficult and demanding.

One might even say that it is more important for our civilization that we meet our challenges, than that my great-grandmother met hers. For the greatest challenges of our age are moral. Confronting them successfully requires faith, hope, love, courage, vigilance and moral imagination.

Most of us do not think of ourselves as called to a life of heroism; few of us will find ourselves confronted by life-or-death decisions in rare and dramatic moments of crisis.

But true heroism does not consist so much in this, as in striving always to do what is right, rather than what is pleasant, or convenient, or what everyone else is doing.

Every day we make decisions, large and small, about how to live our lives, and shape the lives of our children. It’s so easy to say yes to children, so hard to say no: “you’re the strictest mother in the world; Dad, you’ll never understand; all the kids are making fun of me.” But true heroism is making the right decisions in moments like these that come over and over again; even when no one is there to praise and recognize us for cleaving to what we know God wants.

Catholic OnLine helps parents do this, and for this I applaud you.”