Old Men and “My Old Man”

May 13, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I could never get away with that with my old man.”

I’ve blogged before (here) about the myth of the authoritarian past – the idea that in some ideal past, back before Hip Hop (now), or before Rock ‘n’ Roll (1960s), or before the automobile (1920s), or . . . kids were more respectful of their elders. 

The nostalgia goes back farther than that.  Kieran Healy  digs out his Latin copy of Livy’s history of Rome, and finds the historian bemoaning the lack of respect for elders.
This is due to the cheapened and diminished authority even of parents over their children in our day.  
Livy, on the cusp of BC/AD, was writing about a war 200 years earlier.  That’s a little while before Paul Lynde in “Bye-Bye Birdie (ca. 1960) was singing “Kids, they are disobedient, disrespectful oafs.”

This nostalgia for a non-existent authoritarian past mistakes personal change for social change.  Livy and Lynde remember the past as more authoritarian – when grown-ups were men of power that you didn’t mess around with – because they are remembering the past from their point-of-view at the time. They were children then, and from their perspective, a father was indeed a powerful figure to be feared and respected. They stood 4' 3" or so; they literally had to look up to their fathers.* 

But as grown-ups, they live in a more complicated world where they cannot control everything – not the choices of the younger men, not even the desires, abilities, and flaws of their own small children. 

*This post is more appropriate for Father’s Day rather than Mother’s Day.  But the same principle of nostalgia applies to softer sentiments as well – community instead of authority.  (My post on that is here).  But Happy Mother’s Day anyway.


Todd Krohn said...

My favorite is: "Children today love luxury. They have bad manners, a contempt for authority, a disrespect for their elders, and they like to talk instead of work. The contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up the best at the table, and tyrannize their teachers." - Socrates, 400 BC

Bob S. said...


Wow...you simply dismiss other people's views and beliefs and experiences out of hand.

Never that you cite no evidence. no studies. Nope, you don't believe it so you dismiss it.

How about looking the extent of governmental (over) reach into parental discipline. Now days if a child is spanked,especially in public, the parents can expect a visit from the government.

How about looking into the extent in which schools are assuming more and more authority over what kids do at home.
You can usually find an article or three a week where the school is punishing some kid for what (s)he said on Facebook or did off campus.

My personal experience is that I wouldn't dare say things to my father that I did let my children say to me. My father and his before him did verge on the edge of child abuse in cases. My father, and from his stories his father, were more demanding of respect, less back talk, etc.

And this isn't just some memories of being 5 -- try 15, 17, 18, 21.

Yes, society changes but it changes at the personal level first doesn't it?

And believe me this isn't nostalgia on my part (love how you assign motives to people you don't know) -- I tried to take the best of what my parents had to offer and combine it with modern ideas. But I fully recognize it was a conscious decision on my part to let my kids -- in some cases -- say things to me that I couldn't say to my father.

Tell me, do you have kids?

Jay Livingston said...

Bob, long time no see. Hope all is well.

"you simply dismiss other people's views and beliefs and experiences out of hand. . . . . My personal experience is . . ."

(With apologies to Carly) You’re so vain, you prob’ly think this blog is about you. . . .

. . . but if you look closely at what I wrote, you will note that I did not say that you, Bob S., are nostalgic for an authoritarian past. I said that this nostalgia was a commonly found theme; I did not say that it was felt by 100% of the humans on the planet.

If you think that the past has always been more authoritarian and therefore better, then no, I don’t share that idea, though it can certainly be true for individuals that a father is less authoritarian than his father. But if each generation since Socrates (thanks Todd) or Livy or . . . (pick your starting point) were less respectful than the previous one, respect would have entirely disappeared ages ago.

Do I think that the power of the state affects the appeal of this idea that parental authority has declined and that the decline is for the worse? Since the idea seems to crop up in many different societies at many different times my guess is no. But you are right that this guess would be stronger if we had measures of both the prevalence of that nostalgia and the power of states over individual child-rearing practices.

Of course, it’s possible that the more authoritarian a society is, the more prevalent the perception that the past was more authoritarian and the greater the longing for that imagined past. People who value something highly are probably the ones most likely to perceive its loss.

But a state intervening to protect children from possibly abusive parents and a school extending its reach to children’s lives outside of school (sex, drugs, Facebook) – these may be objectionable or not, depending on your point of view, but they are not the same thing as authoritarianism.

PCM said...

Same with the police. Back in the old days, people used to respect police, too. Not today. Nope. Not anymore. Things have been going downhill for 183 years, I tell you!

Ever seen Charlie Chaplin's Easy Street?