Saturday, April 07, 2007

An Explanation for Teenage Rebellion

Be good and you will be lonesome.
- Mark Twain, author and humorist (1835-1910)

It's a shame that this quote was taken out of context (I don't have access to its original material source). Mark Twain embedded life lessons or observations about human behaviour in just about every story he told.

To adults this seems like an observation about life. To an adolescent, it's advice.
In the latter part of grade school and the early years of high school, every child see that the most popular kids in their grade and above are those who are a little bit naughty, if not outright criminal.

It's part of the teenage rebellion thing. The kids who brag about being bad come across as being the best at rebelling. The best attracts attention, including "friends" and members of the opposite sex.

In the western world we have come to accept that teenage rebellion is part of the process of coming of age. It's almost expected. This is not the case in most of the world where the teen years are ones where a child transforms into an adult, not seamlessly but without large scale rebellion.

Why the difference? In the west we assume that if we teach our children the principles of our culture--that whatever has to do with money is good and the more of it that is either earned or spent is best--that our children will simply grow into our money-oriented culture and adapt as we did. In most of the world, money is not a god to be worshipped.

For much of the non-western world, simply surviving takes up most time for adults and adolescents. Teenagers must learn from their parents about how to find food and support to ward off enemies or they won't thrive as adults, have families and grow old enough to be supported by their children.

To accomplish this, people must teach to their children the details of their culture, including everything to do with work, support systems, friendships, alliances and how to deal with the problems of life that have been faced and overcome by their forebears. Life continues using the proven ways of the past because life itself is at risk if anything different is attempted.

In the west we have a different attitude toward the future, especially of our children. We grew up believing (because we were taught) that anything is possible, that every job possibility is available to someone who is prepared to work for it, that the economy will provide for those who work hard and that traditional life skills didn't need to be taught because the world is changing so fast that new skills would be needed anyway.

From the point of view of adolescents, they see parents who have trouble coping with their lives, so turn to divorce, drugs, alcohol, gambling, prostitution and theft (or cheating), among other things. Their role models do not conform to the ethics and morals they were taught (though loosely and ineffectively in many cases). They don't want to be like their parents, so they rebel.

The problem is that they don't know how to rebel constructively, so they rebel in ways that often turn out to be destructive. Consequently, western countries tend to have the highest rates of their citizens in prison (the US is the highest in the world, by a good margin) and the highest rates of mental illness and people taking mood-enhancing or mood-controlling medications to make their lives bearable.

One recent change in high schools (in some cities) is that the geeks are now among the more popular students. Shocking? Not at all. They are the students who are most likely to have the highest paying jobs, to become wealthy in the working world. The money ethic hasn't changed, but it has taken some of the lustre away from doctors and lawyers.

Teenagers rebel because they are confused. The closer they get to adulthood, the more they learn that the lifestyles of their parents are not sustainable, which is why the parents turn to personally or socially destructive behaviours. The young people want something different.

So long as we do not teach our young people what they need to know as adults, including coping skills, and meet their needs, they will want something different and will "rebel." Rebelling is their way of signalling their needs to us, but we take it as simply bad behaviour and feel they need to be punished.

These are generalizations, of course, and do not apply to every teenager or every family. They are social trends with enough study having been done on the subject to show that the conclusions are correct in a general sense.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, striving to make our social weaknesses clear so that we have a chance to correct them.
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