Saturday, April 14, 2007

More on Rude, Surly Teenagers

Andrew Sullivan linked to my original post on this subject, with more comments coming in as a result. Here are a few of my reactions to them.

One commenter, a high school teacher (scotts), said that most kids respect people who show them respect, while on the other hand foreign students often express shock at how mean and ill-behaved American kids often are. Sometimes, "because I said so" is the only alternative to letting one jerk ruin things for the other 34 people (!) in the room. It was also suggested that explaining what teenagers do in terms of identity-formation is "mumbo jumbo."

Actually, I think that talking about "respect," as if it should be obvious to everyone what that is, is closer to being mumbo-jumbo. The capacity to deal with many small conflicts of interest every day without getting into screaming arguments is something that we learn, and it is a slow and gradual process. It seems simple to us because we have automatized it. It isn't so simple to the kids!

One thing that I have found helps in avoiding shouting-matches with Nat is to avoid putting him in situations that put a great burden on his developing people-skills. This means thinking ahead so that we have enough time, when there is some kind of conflict, to talk it out, propose solutions, and reach some sort of agreement so we can all do more or less what we want to do.

Before I had a kid, whenever I saw a child throwing a tantrum in a supermarket, I would think, "Dang those blankety-blank kids! No manners!" After I had a kid, I would be as likely to think, "Dang those blakety-blank parents! Ain't got a lick o' sense!" Such scenes, I've noticed at last, are usually the parents' fault.

In such cases, I think the right solution is to figure that if you are going to take the kid to the store with you, then your shopping trip is going to take up more time and energy that it would without them. Kids need our attention. Part of what this means is to talk to them about the trip beforehand. If there is some reason why you are going to expose them to the sight of hundreds of tempting treats without buying them any (health problems? budget constraints? time constraints? etc.) be sure they understand it beforehand. To some people I am sure it sounds comical to reason with a three year old in this way, but I think that is because they have never really tried it.

But this doesn't yet deal with the issue of why American teenagers are worse-behaved than those in other cultures, or what to do about it. But unless scotts is saying that the right response to this is to blame American teenagers for their lack of moral fiber and to administer increased doses of authority and discipline, then I'm not sure that he is disagreeing with what I was saying here.

Ideally, I would say that the solution here is the same in principle as the one that applies to the supermarket and the small child. Don't put kids in a situation that they are unable to deal with on their own, unless you are going to interact with them enough to enable them to deal with it.

Years ago, I used to assign a book in one of my classes, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. It was a socialistic utopia, a world in which the government owns everything and people live in huge dormitories. The cityscape was dominated by "stately piles," huge buildings where swarms of people bustled calmly away like ants. Bellamy's big idea was economies of scale: cost per unit produced goes down as an enterprise becomes bigger. Why waste money on small, individual houses or factories when we can all live in one giant domicile and work in one supercolossal factory? For reasons I have never understood, socialists have always tended to think that there is no limit to economies of scale. Look at the old USSR. Whatever they did, they like to do it huge!

I eventually stopped assigning that book because the students detested it. Who would want to live that way? What a nightmare!

Well, isn't that how we are forcing our kids to spend their days? It has never been sufficiently appreciated that, as far as K-12 education is concerned, the US is probably the most socialistic country that has ever existed. And just like their colleagues in the old USSR, the people who made our educational system like it huge. Vast high schools, swarming with teens who mainly interact with each other, forming cruel little cliques and gangs. Adult supervision is often limited to the blunt-edged instrument of crowd control. The first public elementary school that Nat attended was a vast, frightening labyrinth inside. Imagine inflicting such an architectural nightmare on a small child! What were they thinking? Of course I know what they were thinking: economies of scale!

Scotts suggests that the only alternative to the crowd-control approach to education would be one that is ridiculously expensive. I don't think so. When we were first putting Nat into school, we visited every private school in our area (except for the religious ones). The private schools gave students more individual attention and at lower per-student cost.

Well, I still haven't commented on the reason why American teenagers are less well-behaved than others. Of course I don't really know. But maybe one part of the explanation is to be found in the idea of identity-formation. Teenagers are becoming the people they will be in adulthood. And as an American adult, you are an autonomous individual. You are selling your labor in a free market. There is a welfare-state safety net, but your fall if there is one will not be cushioned by the thick pile of mattresses they have in France or Germany. You also are not looking forward to a life watched, cared-for, and regulated by an extended network of aunts, uncles, cousins, patriarchs and matriarchs. You are on your own.

Maybe the task of becoming such an individualistic person is not very well supported by the giant socialist factory-school system we have developed. In other words, maybe there is a fundamental contradiction in the system.

Here I have only discussed one commenter and have run out of time! Maybe more later!
BTW, take a look at the video linked on this post on Crooked Timber. There is a lot of unhappiness coming out of these kids. Where does it come from?


Roderick T. Long said...

One thing I noticed when visting France was how much more well-behaved pre-teen children are there compared with the U.S. They would accompany their parents to grown-up places with grown-up dignity.

No theory, just an observation.

Em said...

For what it's worth, I don't think it's true that American teenagers are any more or less surly and rude than teenagers anywhere else. After seven months of teaching, I've certainly found that teenagers here in Vietnam can be as rude as any you'll meet in the States. Because the culture is different, the ways in which they rebel are different, but they are certainly present.

Lester Hunt said...


Thanks. It's always good to hear from someone who actually knows relevant facts!

Moxy Jane said...

I stumbled across your blog while doing a search on Bob Solomon (I live in Austin, TX, where he taught.) I find this thread of discussion really interesting. We have three children, all still quite young, and we homeschool. I often find myself imagining them as teen-agers and I just feel in my gut that there MUST be a way to avoid that whole surly, angst-ridden, rebellious stage. My husband argues that it's a right of passage and inevitable. Your writings have given me both encouragement that it might not be so bad, and perhaps, it might not even happen at all...mainly because I see them "rebelling" and becoming more independent individuals already. Your comments about three year olds and the grocery store really hit home! Thanks for the humor and the personal insight!

Lester Hunt said...

Moxy Jane,

Thanks for your kind words. Based on my own experience, I think that those aspects of teenage surliness that involve actual hostility are not inevitable at all. The one word I hear most often from our seventeen-year-old is "thanks" -- believe it or not!

Barry said...

In my experience (teenager in the 1970's US), teenagers are more polite now.

Vera said...

I don't know about the teenagers in the us, but here in Canada,they are so rude OMG. if i had lived here when my children were young,i would have definitively moved back to Belgium.
The differents is big