Almost every day the newspapers report yet more tragedies that teenagers have inflicted upon themselves or upon other people. For many of us these are not just abstract stories in the press. We see similar disasters just waiting to happen in the lives of our own children or those of friends, or those who we teach. Every time we hear of a young person who has started taking drugs, or taken to the streets, or become anorexic, many of us ask the same question: Why do they do that?
Why do they criticise everything? Why do they take drugs? Why don’t they respect authority? Why do they develop eating disorders? Why are they obsessed with fitting an image? Why are they so sexually promiscuous? Why don’t they see the value of old people? Why don’t they get up and do something useful? Why? Why? Why?
For many of us, teenagers can be a real mystery. It’s as if they have come from another planet. Parents, in particular, can find it very hard to understand them, let alone be held responsible for their actions. We may be tempted to take the advice of Mark Twain, who, it is said, recommended that when a boy gets to thirteen years old he should be sealed in a barrel with just a small hole for air. And then, when he gets to fifteen years old, the hole should be bunged up.
Through my work with teenagers over the past eighteen years, I have met many parents who feel that they have failed. They have often come to me in tears asking, “What have I done wrong?” They describe the behaviour of their son or daughter, and then say, “It must be our fault.”
There are things that parents can do to relate better to their teenage children and to help them more effectively but before we can consider how we might respond to any particular teenage behaviour in any particular situation, we must obtain a general understanding of why it is that so many teenagers behave in the way they do. We can’t think about particular solutions until we have understood the underlying causes.
Many of the root causes of teenage behaviour lie not so much in the home, or in the parents, but rather in the massive shifts that have taken place in Western culture in recent years.
Things aren’t what they used to be
The term ‘teenager’ was coined in 1942 by market researchers who were looking for a new category of young people to whom they could target their goods. Since then a lot has changed. At that time, if you asked a teenage boy what he most wanted, he would probably tell you that most of all he wanted a “suit just like my dads”. Today, that’s the very last thing he wants!
Research tells us the top seven discipline problems in schools in 1940 were: talking in class, chewing gum, getting out of line, running in halls, making a noise, wearing improper clothes and not putting rubbish in the bin. However now, the top seven problems are: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, rape, suicide, robbery and assault.
There is no doubt that teenagers are very different today. And so is the world in which they live. Our culture has gone through massive changes in the last few decades – at a depth, scale and pace that have never before been known in the history of civilisation. Unless we are aware of these changes and have thought through their implications, we will not be able to understand the teenagers who are growing up among them. Nor will we ever begin to have any answer to that constant question: Why do they do that?
Douglas Rushkoff, the American journalist and social commentator, has observed, “Our world is changing so rapidly that we can hardly track the differences, much less cope with them. Whether it’s call-waiting, MTV, digital cash, or fuzzy logic, we are bombarded every day with an increasing number of words, devices, ideas and events that we do not understand. On a large-scale the cultural institutions on which we have grown dependent – organised religion, our leaders and heroes, the medical establishment, corporate employers and the family itself – appear to have crumbled under their own weight, and all within the same few decades. Without having migrated an inch we have nonetheless travelled further than any generation in history.”
We must wake up to the fact that we are in uncharted waters. Never before, in the history of civilisation, has a generation grown up amongst such extensive cultural change. During the last few decades almost all of Western culture’s underlying beliefs and values have been turned upside down. Philosophically, we have shifted from modernism to post-modernism. Educationally we have moved from a didactic to a critical teaching model. Sociologically, many of our communities and families have disintegrated. Psychologically, new ways of viewing brain function have destroyed the previously foundational concepts of our individual identity. Politically, the fall of communism has rewritten the world map. Economically, the triumph of individual consumerism over socialism has changed the way in which we determine value. Medically, previously impossible treatments have become commonplace and expected. Technologically, computers and the internet have offered us instant access to information throughout the world. And so the list goes on.
Wherever we look in Western culture there have been massive changes during the last few decades. Should we be surprised then, when those of us who grew up before those changes took hold find it hard to understand those who are growing up knowing only a world full of such changes? Clearly it is inevitable that we should be puzzled by teenage behaviour. They are so different to the way we were at their age, because the world in which they are growing up is so different from the world we knew, even as little as twenty or thirty years ago.
And yet this is the world that we all know today. There are certain aspects of teenage culture which are unique to teenagers, but much of teenage culture is shared with the wider culture in which we all live. We find it hard to understand teenagers because we don’t understand the world in which they are growing up – and yet that world is the same world in which we find ourselves right now. It is not the world in which we grew up. It is not the world that shaped us through our formative teenage years. But it is the world in which we live today. So why, then, don’t we understand it?
Perhaps the answer to that paradox lies in an old Chinese proverb which says, “If you want to know what water is like, don’t ask a fish.” The more we are surrounded by something, the less we are aware of it. We can become so familiar with things around us that we don’t really think about them at all. When I travel in America people sometimes say to me, “Gee, I love your accent.” That always takes me by surprise, because I don’t think I have an accent. They are the ones with the accent. I just talk normally! But of course, I do have an accent, only I am so used to it that I am not even aware of it.
In the same way, although we live in this world, many of us do not have clear insight into it. In any case, most of us are so busy surviving that we don’t have the time to reflect upon the underlying nature of our culture. But we must do so. We must become aware of our social and philosophical accents, because it is only when we understand our world at this deeper level that we will be able to respond to the issues we face on the surface.
I hope that as you read this, you will be able to take time to think about the world in which we live, in particular to consider the effect that the massive cultural changes of the last few decades have had upon today’s teenagers.
Only when we understand why teenagers behave in the way they do, will we be able to think clearly about how things might be different. Although we may not be individually responsible for the shifts that have taken place in our world, perhaps together we can do something about them. If our changed culture is having such a devastating effect upon today’s teenagers, then, for the sake of tomorrow’s teenagers, we must see our culture change again – not necessarily back to how it was, but perhaps onwards to something far better.
Some of the underlying concepts examined in this book will take some effort to understand. They are not all easy, but they are all vital. It is always less difficult to look at just the surface of things, but that is not usually where the real answers are to be found.
Indeed, simple, superficial answers can mislead us terribly.
The writer and commentator, Os Guinness, used to tell a story about a security guard at a Russian factory. One day this guard stopped a worker, who was walking out of the factory gate, pushing a wheelbarrow with a suspicious-looking package in it. The guard opened up the package to find that it contained nothing but some old bits of rubbish, sawdust and sweepings from the floor. The next day he stopped the same worker, who was again pushing a wheelbarrow containing a suspicious looking package. Once more it contained nothing of value. After the same thing had happened many days in succession the guard finally said to the worker, ‘”Okay, I give up. I know you must be up to something, but I don’t know what it is. I promise I won’t arrest you. But please put me out of my misery. Tell me what you are stealing.” The worker looked at the guard and smiled as he replied, “Wheelbarrows, my friend. I am stealing wheelbarrows”.
Rather like that guard, we can spend our time looking at the surface of things and miss the real answers that might be found if only we would look and think deeply enough. So let’s try to get below the surface. Let’s probe into our culture and try to analyse it. Let’s be prepared to look back in history. Let’s be willing to think about underlying philosophies. Let’s do whatever it takes, in order to answer the question: Why do they do that?
TEENAGERS – WHY DO THEY DO THAT by Nick Pollard, a specialist in teenage spiritual and moral education.
He provides us with invaluable insights to enable us to open doors of communication with our teenagers and begin to influence them for good. We encourage you to purchase a copy of his book and refer to it regularly. We are called to be the salt in this world.
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