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.


Jenny Lerew said...

Nice post! It's neat that Eddie's daily musings can get others pondering--especially this thoughtfully.

But...I thought I too defended teenagers!

And your son doesn't look too surly--just intense(with perhaps a shadow of humor, i I'm not seeing things, across his face). : )

Lester Hunt said...


Thanks! Yes that is a gleam of humor you see in Nat's eye -- he's one of the funniest people I know!

I guess you are right, you were the other one who defended teenagers. You said that they act that way due to hormones. I guess what I was thinking is that this is what, in the law, is called an "excuse." I was offering a more extreme sort of defense -- a justification! (Well, up to a point anyway.)

Anonymous said...

When I read Eddie's post, I was amazed at how little I coudd relate to it, and how much the commentators COULD.

I always assumed the "surly teenager" was an invention of movies and TV, like allowances, the PTA, and "chat rooms," but maybe America is alot more different from Guatemala than I realized.

But both posts are an interesting read!

Lester Hunt said...


That's very interesting! The philosopher Charles Taylor (who is a Canadian) once said "Teenage rebellion is an American institution." Maybe when I say that these things are "natural" I should actually say that they are a natural by-product of a certain culture. It probably has something to do with the American "individualism" you hear so much about.

Anonymous said...

I wonder to what extent teenage surliness is encouraged in the public schools. Is the culture that parents are the enemy (epitomized in much rock-n-roll over the decades) encouraged in that environment? We homeschool and try to involve our kids in many adult activities. Furthermore, my kids, and homeschoolers in general, spend much time interacting with others of many age groups (as opposed to being herded with the same age cohort, for the most part, from K through 12). While there certainly are teenage issues that arise, I rarely encounter anything close to surliness with the teenagers I encounter at homeschool functions, and I don't can't relate to the complaints and concerns of friends when they tell us of their teenager-related issues.

There is no doubt that as adolescents grow emotionalyy and physically, relationships between parents and their children must adjust, and that when they don't, surliness is likely. Still, I wonder whether a less sociialized educational system in the US would result in a dropoff in such attitudes. That is, after all, a conclusion Murray Rothbard drew in FOR A NEW LIBERTY.

I enjoyed your post (and Uncle Lester's as well).

Lester Hunt said...

That's very interesting!

I had not thought of the connection with "public" schools. And if I had, I would have connected teenage surliness with features of the public school gulag that obviously do not suit teenagers: getting up too early in the morning (they need more sleep than their parents, not less!), regimentation, enforced silence, enforced passivity. All these things do violence to the teenage soul.

But you raise a factor that might be at least as important. Put a thousand teenagers together and reduce face-to-face, one-on-one interaction with adults to a minimum, and what do you get? They learn behaviors from each other. Humans did not evolve to live like this. For a million years, young humans of all ages interacted with adults (in a direct, personal way) a lot more than they do now. We shouldn't be surprised if their new behaviors are not very adaptive -- except in the tiny echoing micro-world of the teenage clique.

Kali Fontecchio said...

You are so in-depth!

Lester Hunt said...

Gee, thanks! That's how I like to think of myself!

Anonymous said...

I teach HS. I see both sides of this every day.

On one hand, the inability of many students to behave with respect towards their classmates -- and yes, that means being able to keep one's mouth shut and concentrate for long stretches of time, good skills to have -- can be frustrating. There is an obvious difference between students raised in America and 1st generation immigrant kids who are often appalled by how American kids act. Whining, cheating, and lying are not inherent aspects of the process of self-identification, and they are so common that they create unfortunate distance between teachers and our more civilized charges, who basically live in a guilty until proven innocent universe. How frustrating that must be.

On the other hand, when I hear cliche complaints about teenagers, I find myself saying things just like Lester. It is perfectly healthy and normal for kids to want some distance from their folks and it doesn't mean they don't love them anymore. For every absentee parent that didn't teach their kid to have basic self-discipline, there is one that preens and tries to micromanage their kids' lives, trying to remove all risk, to the point of absurdity. When these parents are appalled at teenage rebellion when it inevitably comes, I feel like they are getting what they had coming. Or maybe they delay it until the kid is off in college, and that can have very mixed results...

Adults who overreact to teenage edgyness amuse most kids, who don't take themselves nearly as seriously as we often think. Intense, yes (what a grind it can be), but surly? Most kids have a better sense of humor and laugh out loud infinitely more often than adults.

Most kids will respect those that respect them. A few get it bassackwards, demanding respect and offering none in return, willfully forgetting that the other 34 people in the room should not have to wait for the teacher to gently ask for the 3rd time for so-and-so to do something. Sometimes "because I said so" has to hold, just because the alternative is chaos or an incredibly expensive education. But most teenagers are pretty reasonable if you listen and have respect in the first place.

Granted, I teach in an academically strong school with a critical mass of well-educated parents. I wouldn't chose to teach in a diverse urban school, as I once did, simply because so much identity is wrapped up in acting defiant for the sake of acting defiant. Whatever psychological mumbo-jumbo people proffer about "powerlessness" doesn't really matter to me; it is sad to see so many potentially educatable people learn pitifully little because of their lack of respect. Maybe it's self-identification, but in the context of a culture that values the wrong things, it is self-identification run amok. No thank you. Sorry if that's not PC, its the truth.

ClareA said...

Your reaction to "surly" teen-age behavior is very close to mine. It is just so easy for me to remember being that way. So often it wasn't PERSONAL! It really was a way of being individual.
Those times it was personal, it was because I didn't have the skills to express myself.
When I was in college I rarely called my parents. It wasn't because I disliked them, it was just that my OWN life was so much more compelling.
I agree that this behavior is in part due to our culture. I had cousins who grew up on farms. I noticed that they didn't seem to have that much of the "generation gap" as it was then called.
I thought it was because their family life was a farming life. Everyone had their responsibilities and everyone's contribution was important.
I suppose that might be an example of communalism versus individualism.

Anonymous said...

All you have to do is look at the photos of the rock bands in town. They are usually in the Living/Entertaiment pages.
Defiant posture and pissed off facial expressions are the norm. Never mind the rap hip-hop lyrics that chant a never ending screed of venom against every institution of adulthood.
I wonder what they listen to when they make out.

Stranahan said...


The school connection can't be emphasized too much - after a couple of months in high school. my son wanted to be home schooled again and as I thought back on High School I thought "Oh, right....High School SUCKS..."

So now he's at home...sleeping in most mornings...

MN said...

Heh, interesting. I got via Sully which is kind of weird when you think about it.

Let me just add that I feel guilty about SCREAMING at my parents. It was the WAY I expressed my disagreements, not that I had them. Also a lot of that volume came about because they never took what I said seriously as said by another person as opposed to a "child" until I moved away.

Also my parents had the annoying habit of being RIGHT a lot. Their advice was almost always good and I was smart enough to see it. It just got frustrating over the years.

Lester Hunt said...

Whoa! Suddenly another wave of comments on this post. Obviously, this is an important topic for a lot of people. Which stands to reason, of course! I'll try to post another comment sometime today or tonight (Friday, April 13).

Anonymous said...

Andrew Sullivan posted a link to your blog. :-) Excellent post!!

Lester Hunt said...

Ah, so that explains it!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I'm 31 and still feel guilty about how I treated my parents when I was a teenager. I remember my "oh so important" reasons back then, but of course now as an adult, I realize my behavior was irrational and unnecessarily cruel. But hey, as someone else pointed out - High School SUCKED! :)

goin2college said...

As soon as I get home I am apologizing to my mom.

Anonymous said...

Hey Goin2College - Did you apologize to your Mom?

Anonymous said...

The reason for my behavior as a teen, was a consequence of living under a dictatorship of sorts were I had little personal freedom. My parents would suggest something, however if I didn't agree, they would disrespect and yell. This forced me to become frustrated and answer in a similar manner.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.

teen said...

It’s hard for anybody to recognize they have an alcohol problem, and teenage drinking can be especially hard on young bodies.

Lester Hunt said...


It sounds like you think that young people today are sometimes listening to stuff that encourages rude behavior. That could be true, and would be a factor that I wasn't taking into consideration when I was writing this post.

Before the 'fifties, teens listened to the same music that adults listened to (eg., the big band music of the 'forties). That helped to support the socialization process. If the music expressed any values, they were the values of adults who function in the adult world. Today, that's not necessarily true, which means they could be listening to stuff with some rather destructive values.

Still, I would probably argue that if this sort of thing has a bad influence on a kid, it is probably because something more fundamental is going on, including the sort of thing I talk about in this post.