I was watching an MTV documentary this week about lead singer Will.i.am from The Black Eyed Peas, and what he had to say about how he was raised has stuck with me for days.
Born into the tough, drug and gangs infested inner city area of Los Angeles known as “The Projects”, like many young black boys with an absent father, Will was brought up by the matriarchal figures of his mother and his grandmother; two very strong women who together managed to ensure that he did not end up as “just another statistic”.
Gang-related shootings were an everyday occurrence, and so was getting arrested, so Will’s mom had a rule: if Will wanted to play with his friends they had to come to their front lawn, because he was not allowed past the grass. In fact, his mother ended up taking care of all the kids in the neighbourhood. What impressed me the most was when Will pointed out that what kept him on the straight and narrow was that he was more scared of what his grandmother would do to him than of the police.
Above all, what Will learnt during these crucial formative years was respect. “I grew up hearing my mother saying ‘yes ma’am’ to her own mother when she spoke to her, so of course, it was obvious that when my mother spoke to me I would say ‘yes ma’am’, too.”
There, in that sentence, he managed to crystallise everything that I feel has disintegrated and evaporated in our society. In Maltese we call it ‘sudizzjoni” (which can be loosely translated as respect for authority, tinged with a feeling of fear).
These days, too many children speak with shocking arrogance to their parents and some parents treat their own elderly parents with a sneer bordering close to contempt (when they are not dumping them into old people’s homes or Mater Dei as social cases).
There are those who do not agree that parents should instill fear into their children in order to get them to behave. I used to think that too. I used to think that it is possible to raise respectful, well-adjusted kids without all the strict, stringent rules (and, yes, even a light smack on the behind now and then) that our generation was brought up with. Now that I’m older and wiser though, it is clear that there was a method behind the madness so to speak. All that discipline (especially from a very tender age) was there for a reason, because what you absorb when you are young stays with you forever.
To this day, there are moments when I can hear my father’s voice in certain situations where I see young brats throwing tantrums and misbehaving in public, completely disrupting other people’s evenings and ignoring any halfhearted admonishment by their parents. In some cases, the parents don’t even bother with scolding their offspring, but carry on socializing as if they are oblivious to it all. Or, what is worse, they look on with fond amusement, thinking the behaviour is precocious and “cute”.
My father’s ‘do’s and don’ts’ of how to behave in a variety of social situations could fill a small notebook. This included manners at the dinner table and the importance of adhering to bedtime. The rules were drummed into us with the precision of a sergeant major until they became second nature. Of course, we would rebel and object and express frustration to each other, but then we would receive “that look” and like Will.i.am we would assess the situation and conclude that it was wiser to obey than risk even worse consequences (like being grounded and, horror of horrors, not being allowed to watch our favourite TV shows).
I have a clear recollection of myself as a six-year-old furiously vowing to myself that WHEN I GREW UP I would stay up late and watch TV as long as I could and no one would stop me. Such are the innocent aspirations of a child.
As I entered my teens and friends of mine smoked cigarettes, experimented with pot, cut class, snuck out at night to meet their boyfriends and even shoplifted just for kicks, I always held back and refused to do what everyone else was doing, primarily because the thought of my father’s reaction made me quake in fear. I figured it was better to be called a goody-goody two shoes and still remain alive. There were a couple of transgressions, of course, like when I boldly skipped a class with the rest of my friends. Of course, trust my luck, I was immediately found out by a teacher whom I looked up to. Rather than being angry, however, he expressed his disappointment and asked me why I was acting “like everybody else”, so I just ended up feeling silly and ashamed. His words really made me stop and think and made me realize that there was a lot to be said for being an individual rather than just going with the flow.
Respect takes many forms; what, for example, has happened to the concept of ‘chores’? I hear so many mothers complaining that their adult children still living at home don’t lift a finger to help out (“because she is studying hux?”) and I have to force myself to stay silent. Learning to help out within the family environment from a young age teaches you that you have to pull together, work as a team, and appreciate the fact that no, your mother was not put on this earth to wash, iron, fold and put away your laundry.
When I look back now, I can better understand how the no nonsense approach and definite parameters we had as children stood us in good stead and gave us a solid grounding. We learnt that every action had a consequence, and you have to take responsibility for what ever path you decide to take in life, which is a valuable lesson as you grow older. We also learnt that in life there are always going to be rules, so you might as well get used to it.
It is no use trying to pamper and protect children from the realities of the world, which is why I find it so detrimental to a child when his mother or father insist on interfering in how teachers handle a situation. I wonder, are they going to do the same when their grown up child is told off by his employer?
The lack of respect within the family circle usually spills out further and becomes a blatant disregard towards others. It can be seen everywhere you look, from graduates “celebrating” by vandalizing public property, to people dumping litter everywhere, to the sheer arrogance of those who park wherever they see fit even if it means occupying a disabled spot, blocking a road or a garage. A school fair this weekend turned into chaos because of selfish parking. Facebook conversations turn into unbelievably rude exchanges because some people have no idea how to debate civilly. It seems like the Me generation has spawned the generation of Me, Myself and I, and anyone who doesn’t like it just has to lump it. How depressing.
Yet, I suppose we still have a choice. We can either just shrug our shoulders and resign ourselves that there’s nothing we can do, or we can start with our own immediate families and try to fall back on some of those good old-fashioned (but tried and tested) child-rearing methods. After all, many of my generation were raised with a strong measure of discipline and from the looks of it, we turned out OK.