The children are watching

Published April 25, 2024

By Tom Campbell

Remember the game “Simon Says” we used to play as children? One person, the designated “Simon,” would show the players an action to take or saying to repeat. But you weren’t supposed to mimic it unless Simon prefaced the instruction by specifically saying, “Simon Says….” If you performed the action without Simon’s specific say-so you were out of the game.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of this recently when I listened to a CNN interview with Frank Luntz. Those in politics know Luntz as a leading Republican pollster, strategist and analyst. In the interview, he stopped me cold when talking about America, “We’re in trouble,” adding, “I don’t know what to do about it.” When the interviewer asked him to be more specific Luntz said, “74 percent of Americans say they are mad and hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. 83 percent say we are more divided than we’ve ever been.”
North Carolina is not unlike the nation as a whole. Drive any Interstate and witness the rage on our roads, as drivers weave in and out of traffic at high speeds, without regard for others. Listen to politicians waging culture wars with different groups. Check in on FaceBook, TikTok or any social media to read hate-filled, expletive laden responses to those with whom the writer disagrees. Go to a restaurant or retail store and observe how clerks, servers and employees are spoken to. And if you want a real temperature check, attend a local school board or city council meeting.
People are rude, disruptive, argumentative, narcissistic and downright mean to one another. These qualities are also seen with increasing frequency among teens and young adults, Luntz adds. Focus groups with young adults reveal they feel ignored, forgotten and betrayed.
If you don’t remember anything else in this piece, here’s the main point: The children are watching! 
What do they see? They are watching people, supposed to be adults, shouting at one another, acting out, cursing. They see humanity run amok. People say whatever they want, with no effort to edit or censor language, no self-control, moral constraint or societal norms. If someone disagrees with you on one point, they become your bitter enemy. It’s no wonder nothing gets done in Congress or many other elected bodies.
And we wonder why? Axios reports only 18 percent of young adults (18-29) are proud to be Americans. In 2013, that number was 85 percent. A Harvard study just revealed that 64 percent of young Americans have more fear than hope about the future of Democracy in the U.S. Gallup reports 50 percent of Americans say our country’s morality is poor. In 1972, 32 percent of 18-25-year-old adults opined that people are basically good and trustworthy. By 2018, that percentage dropped to 15 percent. We can’t find numbers since then. Young people say they care about others, but don’t believe others feel the same way.
Younger generations are expressing more stress than ever recorded. They feel exhausted, burned out, and overwhelmed. 31 percent of North Carolina’s k-12 school students missed 10 percent or more of the school year during 21-22, increasing their chances of dropping out and failing to graduate. They openly speak about mental concerns. 22 percent of high school students and 13 percent of young adults age 18-25 have had thoughts of suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among children 10-14 and third among the 15-24 age group.
We wonder why young people aren’t excited about marriage and starting families, why they don’t feel compelled to work hard. We don’t understand why they aren’t engaged, in churches, civic clubs or community endeavors. Some think them lazy, but they just aren’t interested in joining they culture they see.
Monkey see, Monkey do! Young people see the mess we’ve made in so many areas. What they don’t see is happiness, contentment, compassion, civic pride and love of state or nation.
There are things I disagree with Frank Luntz about, but his wake-up call is something we should all heed. The future of this democratic republic we have loved for 248 years is threatened and unless enough of us come together to make dramatic changes we may be another notation in history of a grand experiment that failed.
I am a fan of Louise Penny’s books, featuring Inspector Armand Gamache. This wise beyond-his-years Canadian Homicide Inspector has three questions and four rules which lead to wisdom and might be helpful to us now. His questions are: Is it true? Is it kind? Does it need to be said? The four rules are: I was wrong; I’m sorry; I don’t know; and I need help.
We adults made (or at least allowed) this current culture to spread like a cancer. It is up to us to fix it, always remembering that the children are watching.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965.  Contact him at