Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Rude, Surly Teenagers: A Defense

Cartoonist and animator Eddie Fitzgerald has a very interesting post, Why Are Kids So Surly?. He tells a touching story about his grandfather, who raised him out of a sense of duty, and young Eddie, who ignored him, snubbed him, and never once thanked him. Now, grampa having passed on, Eddie wakes in the middle of the night wishing he had done things differently. Kids, he says, learn to forgive your parents' mistakes now, before its too late. It will save you some guilt-time later on!

Many of the commenters who wrote in expressed guilt about the way they had treated their parents, or are still treating them today. I was the only one who wrote in defending (well, up to a point) the way teenagers behave. Sometimes I think there are two kinds of people: the Good Many who feel too much guilt, even about nothing at all, and the Bad Few, who never feel guilt, but should.

I wouldn't dream of denying that Eddie was giving good advice. Forgiveness? I'm for it. But within reason, like anything else. Also, I would add that some of us should start by forgiving ourselves. Forgiveness, like charity, begins at home.

Having said that, as the parent of a teenager myself, I would only want to supplement Eddie's advice with some advice to parents. It is this: Please realize that teenagers have two very good reasons to be surly.

First, they are extremely narrow people, only interested in certain things. If they act bored, its because they are -- with your interests, not with theirs! Their intense focus is a perfectly natural part of the process of identity-formation. Kali Fontecchio, who can remember being a teenager like it was only yesterday (come to think of it, in her case is was yesterday) commented that the interests of teenagers can coincide with those of adults. In her case, she was interested in many of the same things that her dad was interested in, but she would act indifferent anyway:
I would act bored when he tried to tell me about something I would like, "oh Kali, there's a really good Laurel and Hardy short on tv right now." I'd act like it didn't mean anything to me. The moment he closed the door I'd jump for the remote, turn on the tv and watch it!
Come to think of it, I see my son doing that all the time. There's no way he is going to agree enthusiastically with anything I say, at least not right away. Personally, I don't find that sort of behavior obnoxious. It's another aspect of the identity-formation process. Look at it this way. Your influence has completely dominated your kids' lives so far. You know vastly more than they do about everything that you think is interesting or important. Your influence consequently has to be resisted, or they will have no being of their own at all.

It may not be so bad, from their point of view, if their interests coincidentally overlap with theirs, as long as their interests and concerns don't come from you. As a result, though Teenagers can be interested in the same things that their parents are interested in, it will often be as if they weren't.

Second, many teenagers live under the thumb of inscrutable, irresponsible authority. "Because I said so!" "As long as you live in my house you follow my rules!" They are in a state of rebellion because, unlike you and me, they have plenty to rebel against. Most families are run like little dictatorships, with authority exercised either by arbitrary fiat or "rules" made by a power that answers to no one. For a lot of teenagers, it would show a lack of self-respect if they were not in a state of rebellion.

Nota: I don't have time to go into it now, but there is an alternative, which is sometimes called "noncoercive parenting" or "taking children seriously."

This is our son Nat, doing his imitation of surly. He really isn't, though. Surly, I mean. Trust me. His worst problem: nothing to rebel against.
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