Adolescence:  Living on Capital

By Tina Blue
June 23, 2002

I like adolescents, and I sympathize with the life circumstances that make them so difficult for us to deal with. Of course, that doesn't mean they aren't difficult sometimes.  They really are.

Certainly, it helps to keep a sense of humor during this difficult stage in our children's lives. What also helps is a realization that there are actual reasons, both biological and social, for their behavior, and that if we can just steer them through these years without losing our cool, they may well emerge as very nice people on the other side of the turbulence.

I am always astonished when parents burn their teens' bridges behind them, assuming that their children are monsters of a most unique sort--as if we don't know that they are going to go through certain phases at certain ages.  If we can keep from freaking out while they are freaking out, then we have a good chance of seeing them again some day as a willing, even affectionate, part of the family.

I believe that we have only about twelve years to build a strong, loving relationship with our kids. After those first twelve years, as hormones begin to flood their bodies, we will be living on capital--emotional and relational capital--at least until they emerge on the other side of adolescence as reasonable adults.

But even during those early years, we have to keep a close watch on the external influences that our children are exposed to, including the almost entirely malignant influence of our society's popular culture.  One way for parents to counter this influence is to make sure that they are around enough and involved enough to be the ones raising their own kids. 

If a child is in daycare during most of his waking hours, as most American kids are these days,* then unless they work very hard to overcome that fact, his parents are not going to be that big of an influence on his values, his beliefs, his preferences, or his behaviors.  I did home daycare for eighteen years, precisely because I wanted to stay home with my children so that I would be the major influence shaping their worldview and behaviors.

Unfortunately, no matter how conscientious you are as a parent, you cannot completely shield your kids from the deleterious effects of our popular culture, though you should try to take a stand against the worst purveyors of mindless, sexist, self-absorbed, materialistic, and antisocial values. 

For example, I didn't allow my own children to watch MTV in our home until they were 13 years old.  By that age, of course, I knew they would encounter MTV in their friends' homes.  Nevertheless, MTV is such a mindless thing that anyone who is not hooked on it as a young child is likely to find it silly and uninteresting when exposed to it at a later age.  That's what happened with my own two kids.  When they finally got to see what all their friends were always going on about, they couldn't understand what the attraction was.  It just seemed stupid to them.

It's like with cigarettes.  Anyone who doesn't start smoking by the time he is eighteen is not likely ever to smoke at all.  The appeal of cigarettes is only apparent to the very young.  Similarly, the appeal of the mindless drivel on MTV is only apparent to young kids.  If they get hooked young, they may stay hooked for years, but if they don't get hooked young, chances are they never will enjoy MTV all that much.

But there are other aspects of our culture and our social arrangements that are disastrous to the emotional and ethical well-being of our adolescents, and these are so pervasive that they are bound to reinforce the natural tendency of teenagers to rebel against the necessary restrictions on their lives and the authority of their parents.

To begin with, our entire popular culture encourages kids to adopt a snotty attitude toward adults.  It starts young, too.  When was the last time you saw a kid on TV or in the movies behave respectfully toward adults?  Isn't it pretty much normal these days for children to grow up watching small children and adolescents on the screen behave with abominable rudeness toward adults, even as the adults attempt to treat them with love and respect?

Generally, adolescent boys are worse than girls in their behavior toward their parents and toward any form of authority. Nature sends hormones through adolescent male mammals' bodies to make them move away from their families, establish their own territories, and start their own families. If they didn't have hormone-induced feelings of alienation from their families, how could they ever leave their mommies to get on with the business of establishing their own lives?

But in our society, adolescent males don't get to establish their own territories, families, etc., so they stay where they don't want to be, in the bosom of their families, and raise holy heck. Watch any mammalian species, and you will see that the adolescent males band together, harass females, fight with each other, disrupt the order of the tribe, and generally annoy everyone so much that they are driven away. Either they successfully establish their own territory and find mates, or, as is more often the case, they die.

In human societies, excess adolescent males are usually "bled off" through war. On the whole, we prefer not to do it that way, of course.

One of the main functions of civilization is to control instinctive male impulses. The impulses of the adolescent male are especially destructive to social order. A sane, coherent society channels those impulses constructively, but in our society, our popular culture glorifies and reinforces all the worst aspects of adolescent male behavior. (By the way, we don't take into consideration, but we should, the impact of young males' instinctive thuggery on terrorist organizations, from Hamas to al-Quaida, to the IRA, and the Basque separatist ETA. These are young men whose energies are not being constructively channeled.)

Girls would not be much of a problem at all, but our popular culture also encourages girls to imitate the worst behaviors of adolescent males. You can even see girls grabbing their crotches and snarling, "S...k my..." these days!

Actually, even adult males in our society are allowed to act like adolescent males. Look at Bill Clinton and Gary Condit--and George W. Bush before Sept. 11, and even since then, like when he sneered at a reporter for daring to speak briefly in French to the French president, in France!

At puberty, a boy or a girl essentially becomes an adult physically. But they are not mentally or emotionally mature, and certainly they are not at that age prepared to play a productive role in our complex society. They need far more education for that. So at the same time that their bodies are telling them that they are adults and should be in complete control of their own lives, their society and their families are still treating them like children, which of course they still are in most ways.

Those who lack real power over their own lives inevitably resent that lack of power. Passive aggression is the way that the powerless assert power. They can't control anything, really, but our adolescents can sure drag their heels and contest our control at every step of the way, and just generally make it difficult for us.

In traditional societies, girls are married off as soon as they reach child-bearing age, and they look to their mothers (unless they are married off far from home) for advice and help in performing household duties, in birthing and raising children, etc. Thus, there is not that much reason for conflict. Mom is a help, not a hindrance, to the daughter's adult activities.

Look at what usually happens even in our society. After adolescence, women often don't grow close to their mothers again until they have children of their own, and then there is frequently this outpouring of affection and gratitude--and desire for the mother's advice on all sorts of things. Of course, so many families are so dysfunctional now that for many moms and daughters even this natural, instinctive rapprochement is blocked by decades of unresolved rage.

Also in traditional societies, a boy begins doing important economic work as soon as he has the size and strength to do so. His energy is not dissipated in mindless activities, or misdirected into destructive ones. His work is needed and valued, and his sense of self is enhanced by that. In our culture, a young man must put his life on hold for many, many years beyond the point where he is physically ready to become a contributing member of society.  All that energy must go somewhere, and usually where it goes is into the sort of wild, selfish, irresponsible behavior that drives us up the wall.

Unfortunately, when a boy becomes an adolescent, he is big enough and strong enough to simply ignore his mother's authority, unless she has built up enough "capital" with him before that stage arrives.  But it's hard to become that sort of an influence or figure of authority with your child when he spends virtually all of his waking hours during childhood in daycare, at school, or in front of a TV or video game.  You can't let others--including the others who program television or who design video games--raise your kids for you and then expect the kids to listen to you once they are big enough to ignore you altogether.

Adolescent boys and girls generally do not mouth off or give attitude to adult males--unless those men are perceived as "weak" enough for the adolescent to get away with it (of course, that is often the case these days).  But in our society, too many women do not have an adult male backing up their authority in the family any more. If a man is around (often one isn't), he is as likely to undermine the mother's authority as to support it.

Some women are actually afraid of their own sons.  Since popular music, TV shows, and movies encourage uncontrolled expressions of male rage, many teenage boys feel manly only when they are having temper tantrums.  But as I have already pointed out, an adolescent male has the size and strength to genuinely terrorize a woman, and his mother is, after all, just a woman.  If he wants to bully her, there's not a lot she can do about it--at least not unless she has raised him in a way that will prevent such behaviors when he is big enough to engage in them.

It is an interesting rite of passage in our society that a significant number of young men are actually thrown out of their homes when they reach the age of eighteen, which is when their parents are no longer legally responsible for them.  (Some are desperate enough to give their sons the boot before eighteen, but when that happens, it usually involves calling social service agencies or the police.)

Sometimes the boy is still in high school when he gets thrown out.  Because a child is usually not allowed to start kindergarten unless his fifth birthday comes before September 1, many of the kids who are seniors in high school are eighteen years old--legal adults--during most of their senior year.

When I poll the students in my college English classes, anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of them tell me either that they were thrown out of the house or that they know one or more eighteen-year-old boys who were thrown out of the house.  Usually, they come from homes headed only by a mother, and the only way the boy's mother is able to assert any control over her self-willed, out-of-control son is to refuse to support him or give him shelter any longer.

You see, in their willfulness, these boys often forget that while they are rebelling and raging, they are still living off their mother's work, and without her, they really do not have the wherewithal to make it.  They can't get enough money together to rent an apartment, and even if they could, no landlord will rent to them.  And even if friends are willing to put them up for a while, that willingness doesn't usually extend to more than a few days' worth of crashing on the couch or in a sleeping bag on the floor. 

Besides, it's not pleasant to have to live in someone else's home, with no place for your own stuff, no space to call your own.  Most of our kids grow up with their own private rooms and way too much stuff.  They don't tolerate Spartan conditions all that well.

Most of the adolescents I know of who get kicked out of their mother's home do end up going back after a few days or, in a some cases, after a couple of weeks.  And when they do, they almost always acknowledge that their mother does have a right after all to insist on certain rules of behavior as long as she is supporting the boy and putting a roof over his head.

But if you think about it, it is astonishing that so many women have to literally throw their own sons out of the house because their behavior is intolerable and, in some cases, even intimidating.  Again, this happens less often when an adult male is in the picture, but even adult males don't have as much influence over adolescent boys as they once did, because everything in our culture assures these boys that no one has a right to tell them what to do or to deny them anything they want at any given moment.  Self-control, it seems, is for sissies.

One woman posted this comment on a parenting of teens message board that I sometimes visit:

Believe it or not, here in South Georgia, most of the teens are still respectful to adults. When we moved here 4 years ago from Atlanta, I noticed such a difference in the attitudes of the kids toward adults. Why?? This is a conservative Bible-belt area, and parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc., just don't tolerate it. The kids are exposed to the same TV shows and movies, but parenting styles are different here, and as this is a small town, there is extended family around for many kids, reinforcing values.

The fact is, most American parents let their kids get away with far too much while they are young and could still be controlled.** During the eighteen years I ran my home daycare, I watched as kids who were as good as gold for me would turn into nasty little monsters the minute their parents walked in the door, because that's how their parents allowed them to behave. Eventually I would have to correct the child when his parents wouldn't, because I couldn't allow the daycare kids (including the misbehaving one) to think I was going to tolerate, much less sanction, such behavior.

When undisciplined kids reach their teen years, it's too late to impose rules and discipline without a major struggle. But even parents who do try to impose rules and discipline when the child is young will be immeasurably helped if they belong to a supportive community, like the one described in that mother's post, where the norm is good behavior and respect toward adults. If you are the only parent who maintains discipline, you end up looking entirely unreasonable. But if all the kids in your child's social group are subject to similar rules of behavior, there is tremendous social pressure to behave the same way.

Unfortunately, I think such communities are rare these days and getting rarer, and that most of our kids are being raised by the popular media and their peers, not by their parents.  Parenting is hard, exhausting work, and no matter how tired you are, you can't hand off your responsibilities to the TV, the video game, or the daycare provider. You have to get down in the trenches while your kids are young and make sure that you build the emotional and relational capital you will need when your sweet little love-dove turns into an uncontrollable, hormonally-driven pain in the rear end. 

Sure, it helps to have a supportive community to back you up, but chances are you won't have one.  So it's best to think ahead and start training your children while they are young to be the sort of people you want them to be when they grow up. What you teach them now will still be there during their difficult teen years, even if you can't always see that it is influencing them. 

But what matters most is that those lessons will help them find their way back to you when their hormonal storm subsides. 

*On this issue, see "Children Don't Belong in Daycare" and "Do Good Parents Put Their Children in Daycare?"

**On this issue, see "What You Encourage in the Puppy, You'll Live with in the Dog."

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