Unleashing Teens' Idealism On The World

ALICE STEINBACH

December 12, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

The age of adolescence brings with it many good things: increased independence, close friendships, romance, wild hopes for the future and a driver's license, to name just a few.

But it can also bring, as any survivor of adolescence knows, some not-so-good things -- chief among them a confusion about one's identity and what the world expects from you.

And while no one ever really forgets the turbulence of their own teen years, sometimes it's helpful to touch base with those currently caught up in the chaos and change we call "adolescence."

Indeed, having a purposeful conversation with today's teen-agers -- as I did recently with a group of girls -- should be required of every person over the age of 30.

Listen:

"My mother tells me to be more responsible, but then when I try to do something -- like cook dinner -- she's so critical of how I do things that she winds up cooking it herself," said one 14-year-old girl.

"Parents pretend to listen to us [teen-agers], but they really don't listen to our opinions," said another.

On the minds of many of the girls was the hypocrisy -- my word, not theirs -- they saw in the adults around them.

As one girl put it: "My mom and dad are always telling me not to be jealous and not to want so many material things, but I don't see them doing that."

Still, the thing that seemed to bother these girls most was a sense that they are "not needed" by either their family or the larger community. Simply put, they had never experienced the sense of self-worth that comes from knowing your contribution to the larger group is both important and necessary.

"My brother and I would like to help," one girl said. "But my parents work and they say it's easier just to do stuff around the house themselves."

But their wish to help reaches beyond family. I was touched by the concern expressed by this group about the homeless, the recession, unemployment, children in trouble.

And I sensed in them the idealism that lies dormant, just waiting to be tapped, in every teen-ager. It brought to mind psychiatrist Robert Coles' description of adolescence as the time when, paradoxically, we are most capable of both sacrifice and selfishness.

Nowadays, however, it is the selfishness of adolescents that seems to draw attention. Pick up any newspaper and article after article details the boredom, greediness and lack of direction evident in our teen-agers.

But from time to time an article will appear that might offer some clues as to why young people in our society seem to be particularly undirected.

Example: A recent newspaper article cited a study showing that children help out less at home than ever before. Why? Because fewer parents ask them to pitch in. And, the study reports, the better-educated the parents, the less a child is asked to help with household chores.

Another example is the controversy that springs up whenever the idea of community service is connected with public education. Requiring students to participate in meaningful service to the larger community is opposed by many parents and teachers for various reasons: Too much paperwork, too much time taken away from "real" education, too costly, too unproductive given the fact that students don't want to do "mandatory volunteerism."

Of course, many students don't want to be forced to learn math or grammar either. But in these areas we hold our ground and ask our children to be "mandatory students." Even so, by the time they reach adolescence, many of our children have turned away from "real" education as well as the idea of responsible citizenship.

The question is: Why? Why do our children so often become part of the bored and the restless as they enter adolescence?

Could it be that we, as parents, have bestowed upon our children the curse of high hopes and low expectations? Of many privileges and few responsibilities?

It's interesting. We look with envy at Asian youngsters and wonder why they excel. But unlike many Asian cultures -- which ask even young children to contribute to a family's well-being -- Americans tend to coddle their children well into adolescence. Then suddenly the day arrives when we expect these still dependent fledglings to take off on their own as responsible citizens.

But people who learn the art of connecting to the larger community are made, not born. They are brought along by adults who care enough to do the hard work of discipline. And who love enough to set free the idealism that lies coiled, waiting to be sprung, in every young person.

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