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Is there anything new under the sun when it comes to teenagers? For generations, adults have complained about adolescents, bemoaning “kids these days” and “the younger generation.” The hormones running through the current crop of teenagers are the same ones that have caused turmoil through the ages. Yet to many parents and those who work closely with teens, something feels very different. Stories abound of wildly outrageous behavior from children at younger and younger ages, not only within their peer group, but in interactions with parents and other adults.
Child psychologist and author Ron Taffel writes about this in his book, Childhood Unbound:
The debate over whether anything is truly different . . . has ended for me. From my twenty-five years as a counselor to children, teens, and their parents, as well as from over a thousand talks in schools, churches, synagogues, and community agencies around the country, I am convinced that not only are kids’ lives qualitatively different today from those of earlier eras, but that parents today are uniquely different, and therefore the parent-child relationship has fundamentally changed as well.
Dr. Kathleen Kline is an academic child psychiatrist and affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values. “Part of adolescent growth is a search for risk-taking, novelty-seeking, and peer affiliation,” she said in an interview. “It’s a very risky time, across millennia.” What’s changed, she believes, is the environment, specifically an environment rife with technology that can leave parents out of the mix and that is potentially toxic for kids
William Doherty, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota agrees with Taffel that parents have changed, too. For one thing, they cater to their children in a way previous generations did not. “You see it with the hyper-praising of kids, particularly middle class kids, who are given the message that every time they breathe they’re a little genius. Parents will bend over backwards,” Doherty said in an interview, “to make sure their kids have the most special birthday party, for example.” As a result, children are given an inflated sense of entitlement starting in their early years.
Like children, parents are not immune from peer pressure. Doherty tells the story of a four-year-old who, after being brought to preschool one day, suddenly demanded that her mother hang her coat up. “The girl had never done this before, but had obviously seen other kids treat their parents as servants.” The mother firmly told her child to hang it up herself. Later, a teacher remarked that she was the first parent who’d handled it that way.
Ask most parents of teens today whether they would even have dreamed of speaking to their parents the way their teens talk to them and the answer is a resounding “No!” And many of these parents are from the notoriously rebellious baby boom generation. Doherty writes about the disrespect and general coarseness common among children and teenagers in his book Take Back Your Kids. He describes a father being at a loss when his eleven-year-old son failed to thank him for a Hanukkah gift. When challenged, the boy responded, “But I don’t like it.” Another family in therapy has a ten-year-old who’s begun calling his mother a “bitch.” Doherty believes such disrespect is part of a widespread blurring of the boundaries between parents and children.
Taffel calls it “the new anger” and reports that, in his experience, it’s “becoming the norm in ordinary families.” He tells the story of “Jessica,” who was told by her mother to turn off the tv and clean up the table.
“Not now,” Jessica says, without bothering to look up. “No, Jessica, I mean this minute,” her mother says sharply. “Later,” Jessica responds, almost absentmindedly. Mom stiffens and threatens: “Stop it now, or there won’t be TV tonight.” Finally, she’s got her daughter’s attention. Jessica looks her mother squarely in the face and says, “F___ you, Mommy!” Jessica is eight years old.
Besides the lack of respect, there is also behavior that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Another story Taffel recounts in Childhood Unbound is that of "Margaret" and her daughter, "Lauren." Margaret considered herself the kind of mom Lauren could talk to, unlike her own parents. And Lauren obliged, telling her mother stories about her friends, while Margaret shared tales of her own strict upbringing.
"Then one day she came home and found her 14-year-old daughter in the bathtub having sex with two boys," Taffel writes. The savvy Lauren maintained her cool, telling her mother she must have imagined they were having sex because of her own strict parents. "Besides, there were bubbles in the tub—how could you know what was really going on?" Taffel reports that for a split second Margaret almost bought it. Coming to her senses she screamed at her daughter, "What do you think I am—a damn fool?" "Yes," Lauren answered flatly.
During therapy, Taffel learned much that Margaret, the cool, you-can-talk-to-me mom, didn't know about her daughter: She smoked pot, and she and her friends all engaged in sex. And she lied about it in a completely "non-conflicted" way.
Lauren is by no means the exception. "Friends with benefits" is a polite way of referring to meaningless, emotionless sexual hook-ups. Taffel reports reading "astonishingly explicit" text messages from children in elementary and middle school. "There is no question that the degree to which kids have been experimenting with sex in recent years at ever-younger ages is shocking, and very worrisome," he writes.
Loss of Watchful Eyes
Unlike small-town neighborhoods of the 1950s, where the watchful eyes of neighbors and other parents monitored who hung out with whom, today's adolescents can "virtually" hang out with whomever they choose. And that can mean almost anyone on the planet. Thanks to the internet and cell phones, teens have access to influences that can be difficult for parents to know about, much less censor.
Here's how Taffel describes the brave new world that adolescents inhabit, in Childhood Unbound:
They have an all-access pass to the infinite reach of the internet and are exposed at ever-earlier ages to categories of sex and violence that post boomer and boomer parents learned about much, much later in life. Cell phones, texting, and online networks afford kids endless freedom in socializing, breaking the old bounds of school and of town. . . . The loss of the town center with its eyes and ears—meaning shopkeepers, church and community groups, and school—has left children of all ages more scheduled, but much less policed by the adult world.
Thanks to cell phones and computers, which facilitate emailing, texting, and instant messaging, instantaneous communication with peers is not only possible, it's become part and parcel of being a child. Gone are the days when households had one or two telephones, and parents knew who was calling their children. Without even having to leave the house, children at younger and younger ages spend vast amounts of time with what Taffel calls their "second family." As a result, peer influence plays a much larger role in their lives.
As Dr. Kline told me, "It used to be that parents probably had a pretty good idea who their son or daughter talked to on the way home from school. And if they thought someone was a bad influence, they told their child to stay away from them." There have always been plenty of bad influences among peer groups. Thanks to technology, most parents today have no idea whom their children are talking to or who the bad influences are. Nor do they have any idea of the extent to which their children are being influenced. As Doherty put it, "The amount of screen time kids have has to dilute parental influence. The use of social media has drastically increased and has got to edge out some parental influence."
Myths of Therapeutic Parenting
The battle over who wields more influence over teenagers—parents or peers—is shaped not only by technology but also by the parents themselves. It's become almost a cliché to say that modern parents have trouble being authority figures and often behave more like their children's friends than their parents. Part of this discomfort with authority may stem from what Dr. Doherty calls "therapeutic parenting." He writes in his book Take Back Your Kids that, starting in the 1970s, with the publication of Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training: The Tested New Way to Raise Responsible Children, parents have been repeatedly told to behave like therapists with their children. Among other things, that means being non-judgmental and constantly attentive.
The therapeutic culture of parenting distorts parents' interactions with their children, presumes that children's psyches must be treated gingerly, and can lead to what Doherty calls "timid parent syndrome." When Johnny kicks Mommy, Mommy tries to use it as a "teachable moment." When Johnny's teacher is unhappy with his behavior or school performance, Mommy acts as if it's the teacher's fault. Taffel describes the plight of a mother he once counseled: When her six-year-old son hit her and screamed at her in a store, she wasn't sure whether she should "smack him on the spot or let him get his feelings off his chest so they wouldn't fester."
Doherty is by no means suggesting that child psychology has nothing good to offer parents. In fact, the best research indicates that, as he writes, "children need both love and limits, they need confident rather than insecure parents, and they do best when contributing to the common good rather than just focusing on themselves."
Modern parents are also often caught up in the idea that they shouldn't interfere with their children's desire to express themselves. Parents play therapist when, for example, they let their kids swear at them. Doherty writes that, as a therapist, if a young patient swears at him, he'll likely try to figure out the underlying issue. But therapeutic parents who allow that kind of disrespect not only appear impotent, but also confuse their children. "Children mostly know when they are off base, and feel safer when their parents step in assertively."
Doherty specifically addresses the issue of raising teenagers. He believes that another myth of therapeutic parenting is that parents have little control over their teenagers' behavior. On top of that is the belief that teens should make their own decisions so that their development isn't stifled. "This myth," he writes in Take Back Your Kids,
comes into full play in the later years of high school, by which point many parents have completed the process of resigning as parents and become full-fledged buddies to their children. Thus, half the high-school seniors in town I know of spend their spring break, un-chaperoned and with parents' permission, at Mexican frolics that put them at risk for acting out sexually and drinking and abusing drugs. Some of these parents also reserve hotel rooms for their teenagers after the prom, knowing that sexual activity is thereby more likely to occur.
There are endless stories of parents who host parties for their high-school-age children and their friends, at which the parents either provide the beer or willfully look the other way while alcohol is consumed. They're the "cool" parents, and they make it that much harder for others who want to do very "un-cool" things like calling ahead before letting their own children go to a party, to be sure that the friend's parents will be home and that there won't be any alcohol served.
Taffel believes that many boomer and post-boomer parents have willfully chosen not to be authoritative, as their parents were, believing that this would mean "squelching" their kids. In addition, he writes in Childhood Unbound, parents are "beginning to lose their own moral direction." He describes a scene he witnessed while attending one of his son's softball games. When a kindergartner was called "out" by the umpire, she screamed, "I hate you!" and kicked him hard in the shins three times. "Incredibly, her mother, who was watching, did not reprimand her," Taffel writes. "The umpire did not kick her out of the game, and a few minutes later, Chrissie received the weekly achievement certificate she'd 'earned'—a red ribbon for her participation."
Dr. Kline was the principal investigator for a study published in 2003 called Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities. Sponsored by the YMCA of the USA, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Institute for American Values, the study concluded that human beings are "hardwired," e.g. biologically programmed, for connection with other people and with the transcendent. Regarding the need for connections to other people, the report suggests that the answer lies in "authoritative communities," of which the family is first and foremost. "Authoritative" is defined as "warm and involved, but also firm in establishing guidelines, limits, and expectations."
Regarding the need for connection to the transcendent, the study issues this warning: "Denying or ignoring the spiritual needs of adolescents may end up creating a void in their lives that either devolves into depression or is filled by other forms of questing and challenge, such as drinking, unbridled consumerism, petty crime, sexual precocity, or flirtations with violence."
It seems that the confluence of weak, confused parents and today's technology, with its potential to destroy childhood innocence and redouble peer influence, has generated a perfect storm to wreak havoc on childhood.
It also seems that what's called for is a lot more wisdom of the ages—the kind that comes from authoritative families and from God. In view of this crisis, the wisdom literature of the Bible indeed seems wise: The Book of Proverbs teaches that if children are disciplined by their parents, only then are they truly loved. •
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