This may be controversial, but I think I’ve finally nailed down why today’s youth and young adults are triggered and entitled and unable to function like the champs of the generations before them. It’s something I’ve thought about often – thinking that if I could just put my finger on it, I could probably solve a lot of today’s societal issues. In a flash a few weeks ago, I realized that I was looking far too deep – seeking an answer that made sense on a philosophical level. When it hit me, the simplicity of it had me shook. It may shook you as well. Being on the right track (finally) brings me a feeling of success and intuitiveness and offers a direction that I’ve no doubt will go absolutely nowhere. But, at least I have an answer, right? An offer of hope that will be completely ignored as we continue allowing generation after generation to shuttle their what doesn’t kill you moments into more acceptable, Zen events that they’ve come to demand.
Hope you are sitting down.
Yes, as in, the dressing.
This societal downward spiral to participation awards and safe spaces and this age of entitlement is the product of ranch dressing. Or, more specifically, that shift in parenting in which we went from feeding our children to give them fuel to feeding our children to give them pleasure. I may not present a direct line to this conclusion but, by god, I think I’m onto something here.
When I was in my toddling years, I rarely had the option of not eating what was placed in front of me by the loving hands of my mother. And by “rarely,” I mean never. I didn’t even know that the word “options” could relate to mealtime until I strolled into the dining hall at West Chester University. There was certainly no doctoring of those homemade masterpieces to make a dish that leaned on the side of offensive more palatable. My mother never said anything close to Oh, you don’t want like that? Just get some ranch and camouflage it. What I heard was more along the lines of Oh, you don’t like that? Shut up and eat it. My first glimpse of multiple meal choices at one sitting was in high school, when I could finally toss my brown bags and go through the golden doors to the lunch line. Before that, lunches were whatever came out of a squished sandwich bag – an only what hadn’t oozed out the opening into the bottom of my backpack as we were not flush enough to use actual Ziplocs. Typically, this meant a flattened peanut butter & jelly and glimpses of the previous night’s leftovers. Shut up and eat it. It was a pretty clear dinner table message that did not include an or else you can just starve. It would be eaten. There were no stories of hungry children worlds away because my plate never had a chance of being shipped anywhere. There were no promises of dessert if I finished my vegetables. Shut up and eat it. My only input was how long I wanted to sit alone at the table after everyone else had left.
If I haven’t been clear enough – let me put it more firmly. My mom was not effing around on this. I tried to sneak offensive items to the dog. I tried forming the words I’m Done! with cheeks stuffed to the size of a squirrel’s during acorn dropping season. I tried wobbling my way to the bathroom while holding carrots under my armpits. Evidently, the penguin gate is a dead giveaway. Every attempt was thwarted and often earned me another helping. This was not a case of a forced stay in the clean plate club – this was a case of eating what was served, regardless of its distance from the ice cream family. It was also a case of parents who lived on a budget, shopped by sales, and stretched every ounce of grocery to its bitter end. We did not live in a world where we were going to waste food.
As with most people, how I was raised helped me map out my own parenting strategy. You know the one – where you are going to be an amazing, cool, dreamy parent? The plan that is a thing of beauty? The one that gets thrown out the window almost immediately when the actual kids arrive? Yeah. That plan.
As they came late into my life, my kids arrived with taste buds already set to the nuggets and pasta setting. My kids could not have recognized an asparagus if strolled in and shook their hand. Of course, being the a new stepmom, the most idiotic thing I could have done was try to change their eating habits right out of the gate.
I wasn’t an idiot. Which is exactly what I did. I had long since forgotten those lonely nights as a child, sitting at the table with hope that my mother would forget about me so that I might make a break for backyard freedom. I had blocked out my past dislikes – aided by the dozens of parenting books on my nightstand discussing proper diet and exercise among the youth population. I crashed and burned – but not before noticing a seemingly never empty bottle of ranch dressing in the refrigerator.
Why was this thing always on the table? Why was it never empty? What? Why?
My husband explained way too casually that in order to get the kids to eat, well, anything, we’d have to employ that anything as a vessel to carry ranch dressing to their mouths. Come again? What? Since when? I don’t even like ranch dressing. Who started that rule? Was I the only person in the world who thought ranch dressing was not delicious as all (apparently, yes, by the way)? Also why? Why was this an option? And acceptable? And also, why wasn’t it blue cheese? Or ketchup? Or anything more delicious than ranch?
Rather than focusing on transportation modes to the Hidden Valley, what I really should have been nailing down was: Why don’t these kids just eat what is put in front of them? Why were we catering to the push back? Why were we catering to the push back on such a basic, basic thing – meals – which they didn’t shop for, they didn’t cook, they didn’t plate, and they didn’t clean up from? Why were they getting a vote at all? Why were we rewarding their spinach meltdowns with methods to make it more palatable? I have no problem with crying children when there is something to cry about. But a tantrum at the table? In response to a whole lot of planning and timing and balance and a food pyramid? Hard pass. Shut up and eat it.
Of course, that’s not how it went.
I had already gotten a list of things the kids would eat – very easy to manage as it was incredibly short and only included chicken nuggets, macaroni & cheese, rice, and hamburgers mixed into the rice (with gravy). It was also easy to remember as it was pretty much written on a third, less known, stone tablet delivered by Moses himself. If I wanted to do any hefty reading, I could pull out the list of things the kids wouldn’t eat which didn’t end up on stone tablets as we needed the supplies to build the Sphynx. From day one, I thought it was ridiculous. I was new to mom-ming. I was new to cooking for more than one person. I was not going to make multiple meals. I was certainly not going to downgrade my diet to nuggets and pasta.
I did my best to ignore the list. The results went something like this:
Hello, Complaint Department? The new lady is steaming asparagus. We got a red alert on Rural Farms Road. And, presto, a gallon of ranch would be slammed down on the table and we all lived happily ever after.
That is not how it went.
With the appearance of well-disguised cauliflower hash browns (I swear they were good), there were tears and screams and kicking feet and snot pouring out of the hysterical boy child as the rest of us looked on to see if his head would actually spin in a full circle. Parenting happens quickly in these moments. You think you will not cave and that you will stick to your guns and that your kid will not get away with that type of that behavior – until you just want to eat dinner after a long day without having an ear drum blown out. Out came the ranch. And the chicken nuggets. Wait, what? Yes, parenting happens quickly with a just for tonight and a we’ll regroup tomorrow. And the other thing that happens quickly? Kids learning how to pull the strings in their favor. We may as well have declared our parenting over at that very moment. We just had no idea that, by producing that bottle of ranch, we were taking an onramp to a road that would include repeated moments of tears and caving, tears and caving, tears and caving.
I’m almost positive that’s why my children, and so many others, now feel that if they don’t want something – they shouldn’t have to have it. Or if they do want something, they should get it, presto! Exhibit A: Who doesn’t want a trophy? No one, right? Trophies are awesome! Even now, at fifty, I’m collecting a year’s worth of 5k medals for 5k’s that I do not run. Yes, nobody sees me. There is no check in table or course arrows. The faux-event takes place on my treadmill, whenever I want, and never at speed greater than 3.5mph. I sign up for the awards through a website (Virtualrunevents), post my time each month and *presto* a medal arrives in the mail. No, I get it – no one would even know if I really, really, really didn’t do the mileage…but, remember, I grew up in a time during which if I wanted to complete something, I had to complete it. If I wanted a reward, I had to earn it. I had to eat what was put in front of me. My children? They get a trophy simply for having a parent willing to fill out a registration form and drive them to a few practices. That’s it. Everybody gets a trophy. No need to get all sweaty.
Is that a leap? Maybe. The next leap might be worse. What’s that disclaimer? These thoughts are my own?
These thoughts are my own.
I wonder how this incoming generation of adults might be different if we hadn’t cracked the door of willful rejections with that first dollop of dip. If I don’t like it, I shouldn’t have to eat it. If we hadn’t been so quick to whip out our gallons of ranch dressing, could we have avoided our current state of If I don’t want to do it, I won’t? Or what about If I feel like it it, I shouldn’t be expected to. These are real statements from real teens – two of whom I live with. It’s no longer a matter of I don’t want to get a job or I don’t feel like studying. We’ve traded up to I didn’t want to get a job, so I didn’t and I didn’t feel like studying for that test, so I didn’t. And the most common adult response? Oh, okay! Sounds good! From teachers: No problem, here’s some extra credit options to bring your grade up. From parents: No worries, I’ll add money to your account, give you a thousand dollar phone, and make sure there’s gas in the car. We have pushed this so far beyond a workable reality that we now live in a world where society often takes the blame for sin. Yes, I stole the Chapstick. You didn’t give me any money. I am the victim.
But that’s how I remember it. I have heard this in my own house and I have heard it as an acceptable line of reasoning from those I go to for sanity checks. It doesn’t matter what the truth is – what matters is how events are perceived. As in, during the telling of a family story. One child may have a completely different version of what actually happened than what actually happened as witnessed by every one else present. Like so different that nine out of ten dentists would have disagreed with that one child’s version if they had been rating that version on the Dentyne Truthiness Barometer. Yet, we are told to just nod empathetically because we now live in a world where a recollection is valid, regardless of its accuracy.
Hello? Is there anybody out there? Bueller?
My recollection of my childhood dinner table is that my my mother made me eat the dinner that was served. I want you to know that I am okay. I want you to know that I am not wounded. I was able to get through high school with very little drama. I attended college with no need for safe spaces or trigger warnings. I do not suffer by rubbing elbows with people who may not have the same opinion as me – in fact, I call some of them my friends. I certainly did not need padding down my path to adulthood – I just slammed back and forth between the guardrails until I got the hang of doing it.
Imagine if we hadn’t made a left at Hidden Valley Ranch. Imagine if, we too, had thrown our chins in the air and stomped our feet with a very clear that’s a negative, Ghostrider and left the kids sitting at the table until they at least tried something they didn’t even know if they didn’t like. Imagine if we hadn’t acquiesced on what we thought was just a minor fold. Imagine if we hadn’t heard from other parents that, yes, ranch dressing was the answer to all things icky and imagine if we hadn’t passed that information down the lane. Imagine if ranch dressing hadn’t soured to the top of dressing popularity in 1992 as parents across America jumped on the bandwagon in response to a quieter dining experience. Would we still have an entire generation of young adults navigating the world with cries of If I don’t want it, I shouldn’t have to have it. If I don’t want to do it, I won’t. If I don’t agree with your advice, then I’ll just ignore it and blame you later.
Of course, that’s not how it happened in our house or in gazillions of other houses across America. And while the first thing I learned when becoming a parent was that offering unsolicited parenting advice boarders on improper marking of one’s territory, on this one, I will be bold. Do not fall down the gateway that is ranch dressing. Somewhere far down the road, you will be thanked – and it may even be by a child who managed to wolf down some carrots without actual gagging.
Imagine if, instead of giving everyone a trophy, we just gave out one trophy.
And eleven bags of brussels sprouts.