Peter Pringle's America: Prepare for brat politics

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WITHOUT wishing in any way to judge the new New York mayor by his offspring, it should be noted that his son was a brat at the inauguration. Andrew Giuliani, aged seven, clowned his way through his father Rudy's speech to such an extent that New Yorkers spent the rest of the week talking about his son, not hizzoner. The mayor is a dreary speaker so the tousled-haired, gap- toothed Andrew would have attracted attention in any event, but this boy made a meal of it, repeating lines from his father's speech, waving at relatives, yawning noticeably when his father was boring and giggling - just to get a laugh.

Surprised to find a Giuliani with such charisma, the crowd was delighted at first. But as the display went on unchecked, even the child-loving grandes dames of Manhattan longed for parental restraint, a withering glare, perhaps, to bring the pranks to an end. The nation's best-known liberal paediatrician, T Berry Brazelton, who preaches love and patience over discipline, suggested the new mayor might have missed an opportunity to show his citizens how to deal with rambunctious youth by explaining to the child, 'This is Dad's time.'

But neither parent made a move. Indeed, the mayor seemed to approve of his son's pranks; perhaps he was advised by his aides to encourage them so as to lighten his own stern prosecutorial image and leaven his earnest message about crime and budgets.

Small and unrepresentative though he is, Andrew Giuliani fits into the popular notion of a new and bolder breed of Nineties kids. They are supposed to be old beyond their years and stunted by society's moral and physical degeneration. But after the uprightness of the Eighties, children feel they are entitled to be irreverent, confrontational and rebellious.

From elementary through high school, teachers are witnessing a tide of truculence which they see at best as healthy scepticism, at worst as a kind of juvenile nihilism. As a teacher of 14-year-olds put it recently: 'It's not that they won't respect you, but they won't respect you just because you're an adult . . . Now there's a testing mechanism that goes on constantly. There are certain teachers they take advantage of because there are no consequences. We did that, too, but there's definitely a line that's been crossed.'

A host of reasons is given. Sociologists talk of an eroison of 'social capital'. Changes in the family structure with more single- parent homes, working mothers, children left to do the chores, sometimes taking responsibility for paying bills and, of course, the rise in cases of child abuse. From outside the home come other influences: television violence, real violence and increased sexual activity at younger ages.

Gone is the image of the perfectly-formed American kid of the Fifties and Sixties, the fresh-faced youngster attired in sneakers and T-shirt, biking to school, delivering newspapers in leafy suburbs, spending pocket money at the soda fountain. That image ignored the black population who were spat at when they tried to go to school, but in those days the national child image was entirely in the hands of freckled white boys and girls who respectfully trailed parents to church on Sundays and passed clean-living holidays at summer camp. At school they enthusiastically pledged daily allegiance to 'the flag', and many prayed. They even played their part in the Cold War by learning to 'duck and cover' under their desks during atomic bomb drill.

American parents who mourn those days talk about the lost innocence of kids, unable to go out on their own for fear of being abducted or introduced to drugs and violence. The statistics are repeated almost daily: the estimated number of child abuse victims increased 40 per cent between 1985 and 1991. Children under 18 are 244 per cent more likely to be killed by guns than they were in 1986. And so on.

This means today's eight-year- old learns by heart telephone numbers to call in case of emergency, and where to run if attacked on the street. In Canoga Park, California, where a serial killer was on the rampage, mothers taught their children how to take refuge in a police-approved home with a 'Safe House' sign. Those American parents who still allow their children to bike around the neighbourhood often insist on them riding rusty old three-speeders, not the shiny mountain bikes of yesterday; other kids will kill for those.

But does all this add up to a petrified younger generation, imprisoned by violence outside and unable to function properly inside because their brains have been turned into static by television and video games? Not necessarily. Most children adapt and move on. My eight-year-old often upbraids me for taking too much notice of New York street crazies possessed by the peculiar demons of the big city. 'Just ignore them, Daddy,' she says. That is not a scared kid talking; it is one with more street sense than her parent. At the same time, it seems to her doting father that she retains the innocence of youth, aspiring to a world of peace and justice for all, this time with recycled garbage.

In many cases it does mean children are growing out of their parents' reach more quickly. If parents cannot understand computers, they lose contact with their offspring. If they cannot figure out which bag to put recyclable bottles in, the kids mock unmercifully.

In Andrew's case, behavioural scientists summoned for comment on the mayoral spectacle warned of yet another difficulty: parents in public life often lack the time to administer proper discipline. Prepare for brat politics in New York for the next four years.