I HEAR COMMENTS SOMETIMES FROM MY CONTEMPORARIES that kids today don’t know the meaning of discipline, that there is currently an epidemic of parents spoiling their children, and so on.
While contemporary parenting probably falls short in some ways, it is
worth understanding that older people have been lodging similar
complaints about the supposedly easier lives of the Younger Generation
since the earliest days of civilization — perhaps even before there
existed lawns that kids needed to get off of — and it has always been
anywhere from a wild exaggeration to complete nonsense.
About 20 years ago, I lived on the northern border of Oakland, in the
Rockridge district. There was a place there called the Buttercup Café,
which had food that was both pretty good and reasonably priced. I had
very little money then, so I usually stopped in for a cup of soup — all I
could usually afford — after work.
I was something of a regular there and got to know the waitresses
pretty well. There was one waitress named Ruth, and we got to be pretty
good friends, in the way waitresses and regulars sometimes do. On rainy
winter nights when business was slow I would sit at the counter and we’d
talk for hours about where we’d grown up and what we thought of the
She’d grown up hard and close to the bone, in a hardscrabble little
Iron Range town somewhere in northeastern Minnesota. Her dad was a Jim
Beam aficionado, and I got the sense in our conversations that his
drinking was a sore subject with her. She never talked much about it,
and I respected her too much to pry, but it was there in her eyes
sometimes when she talked about back home.
Some people move to California for economic reasons, some for the
climate. I got the sense from Ruth that Minnesota was a place from which
she had fled.
We were talking one night about northern California and some of the
cultural differences she’d noticed since she’d moved here from her small
Midwestern town. “One thing,” she said, “is how parents treat their
kids out here — they just let them run wild! No discipline at all. Back
home, if you did wrong you got a beating — none of this ‘time out’
“You’ve gotta keep kids in line. When I have kids, that’s how I’m going to raise them.”
Hearing her say that triggered an old memory. I stared out the window
for a moment at the rain dripping off the awning, then turned back to
her and said, “Ruth, let me tell you about Jeremy.”
When I was elementary school-aged in my old neighborhood in Richmond,
I often attended a day camp run by the city in Wildcat Canyon, in the
El Cerrito hills. On summer weekday mornings I would walk over to
Cutting Boulevard and catch a yellow city school bus up the hill to the
Jeremy was about 7 years old, and he would always ride at the very
back of the bus on the way to camp, sitting in the middle of the long
bench seat so he could see everything going on in the bus during the
daily ride up to Wildcat — almost as if he was afraid of missing
something. He had striking eyes — light brown, inquisitive and filled
with wonder. The world appeared to be endlessly fascinating to him, and
he radiated a simple joy that I found very inspiring.
Each morning when I got on the bus I would look back at Jeremy — I
felt a little protective of him. One day toward the end of the summer, I
looked back as I boarded the bus and was immediately struck by a change
He looked tired, weary, and the light in his eyes had gone out — like something important inside of him had broken.
I gave one of the counselors, a pretty blonde teenager, a look and
motioned with my head toward the back of the bus. We walked back
together and sat down across the aisle from each other, one row in front
“What’s wrong, Jer’?” she asked.
He paused a moment, then pulled up the hem of the right leg of his
short pants. On the front of his thigh was an angry purple bruise.
“What happened, Jeremy? Who did that to you?”
He looked up at us, his eyes filled with bewilderment and hurt, and said, “My daddy.”
When I finished telling this story to Ruth in the Buttercup Café, her
eyes looked as if they were straining to hold back a river of tears.
“That’s … really sad,” she finally said.
“Yes, Ruth, it is.”
I moved to another town a short while later and lost touch with Ruth,
but I hope she is married to a nice, sober guy — and I hope they give
their kids time outs when they misbehave.