Liberation's Children: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age
The Houston Chronicle, 6/29/2003
Teenage angst viewed from various angles
PAULA S. FASS; Paula S. Fass is editor-in-chief of "Children and Childhood," an encyclopedia forthcoming in the fall, and the author, most recently, of "Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America." She wrote this for the Washington Post.
"LIBERATION'S CHILDREN: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age." By Kay S. Hymowitz. Ivan R. Dee, $ 24.95: 202 pp.
"THE PRIMAL TEEN: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids." By Barbara Strauch. Doubleday, $ 24.95; 242 pp.
"FROM ANGELS TO ALIENS: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural." By Lynn Schofield Clark. Oxford University Press, $ 29.95; 292 pp.
ALMOST a century ago, G. Stanley Hall published Adolescence, a two-volume compendium that attempted to define the biological, social, sexual and emotional changes that take place during that critical juncture between childhood and adulthood.
Hall's publication signaled the new attention that Americans would show to a stage of development whose tempestuousness and instability fascinated professionals, parents and observers for the rest of the century. At midcentury, the psychoanalytic perspective of Erik Erikson renewed the focus on a stage of life that seemed especially urgent for our time.
In the half-century between the fame achieved by these two, adolescents (renamed teenagers in the 1940s) became cultural fixtures. First the American high school, then the junior high school and middle school were fashioned around their image. Legal institutions, such as the juvenile court, were created to serve their needs. Perhaps most vividly, adolescents remade the cultural scene with their music, clothes, eating habits and disorders, and they were featured as the alluring and enigmatic protagonists in novels and movies, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise to Rebel Without a Cause.
To many students of American youth culture, the heyday of the adolescent seems to have passed, the cultural space occupied by his image has grown cloudy, and our commitment to his protection has become insecure. We see this in the new emphasis on adult sentences for juveniles who commit serious crimes, the willingness to give over decisions about abortion to 14-year-olds, the new work lives of millions of teens who flip burgers and fill yogurt cups, and the tendency for adolescence to start earlier (by 9 or 10) and to end later (at 25, 35 and beyond).
Both our tolerance for adolescence as an extended, protected childhood and our sense of its coherence as a life stage have declined. Together, these three very different books about teenagers may help us to understand why this has happened.
In the intriguing essays that Kay Hymowitz has assembled in Liberation's Children, she uses teens as only one of several stages of development in order to lament our culture's failure to provide values and directions to its progeny. Many of these essays will hit a painful nerve for the generation of parents who jockey for social place by riding their kids' achievements from elite nursery schools to Ivy League colleges.
Hymowitz's most vivid portrait of adolescence is the chapter "J. Crew U." At the "Shopping Mall University," she argues, American adolescents are set adrift in a rudderless ship collecting specimens of information but little learning, since they are given no intellectual direction or moral purpose. "The legacy of the past has no real power over our young talents: it is merely a set of 'tools for genius.' " While the cult of the self brings to culmination a long history of American individualism, it was, according to Hymowitz, greatly strengthened by the generation of '60s radicals.
This book is both engaging and brutal as social observation, but it is only marginally about adolescence. It means to berate us, the exuberant capitalist parents and managers of youth institutions from Sesame Street to Harvard, who have deprived our children of the values and models they need.
As a strategy of lamentation it borrows from the Puritan jeremiad, in which the falling away of the children is seen as the result of the sins of the parents. It is an effective tool of cultural criticism, but it leaves us wondering what values exactly Hymowitz would want us to teach our adolescents and if she is prepared to change the definition of adolescence from a time for self-development to a period of enforced discipline.
Barbara Strauch's The Primal Teen is a very different sort of book. Introducing the reader to the latest research culled from laboratories across the country, the author, a science writer for the New York Times, newly focuses our picture of adolescence on the brain. Just as recent research on brain development in young children has produced a fundamental re-evaluation of cognition and learning in early childhood, this book sets out to do the same for adolescence. We all know that something magical happens to 1- and 2-year-old children; Strauch's aim is to make us see that same magic in the turmoil of the teen years.
She is largely successful. I now know more than I ever wanted to about the exuberant growth and subsequent pruning of neurons in the frontal lobes during early adolescence and about a wide array of other brain activities, not to speak of hormones of several varieties.
But Strauch tries to make this empirical tour of the teen brain as painless as possible with a light, anecdotal style and a sense of humor (which anyone with a teenager must develop). This is a very useful book, and while its conclusions cannot be anything more than tentative about a rapidly developing new field of scientific inquiry, they are conclusions parents will want to consider carefully.
According to Strauch, the teen's brain is responsible for much of the rambunctiousness, recklessness and moodiness we associate with adolescence. Like those of 2-year-olds, young teens' brains grow and change rapidly in anticipation of the impressive integration of their thoughts, behaviors and emotions that can only happen as a result of this messy earlier development.
Here Strauch's book connects with Hall and Erikson's work; both of them saw adolescence as a normal stage of development that produced strange behaviors requiring adult patience and forbearance as well as a social moratorium on responsibility. Strauch does not discount the role of nurture but insists that the brain develops in response to environmental influences.
Still, she sees this largely as a physical process; Hall and Erikson both believed there was a physical basis for processes they understood in psychological terms. Strauch, by contrast, hardly uses the word "psychology," a sign of the discounting of the psyche as a space for inquiry in a society now more comfortable speaking of seratonin than egos and ids.
Although Strauch's emphasis is on the universals of brain development, the examples she draws on are from a narrow range of people whose adolescent children work hard and sleep little so they can compete for places in the schools where her brain researchers work. Many of the anecdotes she uses to illustrate the problems that teens experience concern kids who wind up at Harvard or Brown.
These selective case studies permit Strauch to confirm that these strange-acting, dopamine-driven primals are really good, normal, high-achieving kids who haven't quite gotten it together yet. Her audience will be pleased and relieved.
But what of the other normal teens who do not go on to college, or those whose misbehavior does not shake out because they get caught up in the criminal justice system, become addicted or wind up on the streets? Neither of these books really addresses the problems of these children, but such issues are eerily present in Lynn Schofield Clark's From Angels to Aliens.
This is a much denser, more scholarly book, and its methods of analysis and argument make it much harder to read. But its subject - the curious proliferation of otherworldly beliefs in teen-targeted media - is at once more bizarre and potentially more revealing about our declining tolerance for adolescence.
Teenagers, according to Clark, believe in personal angels and in aliens from other worlds. Some even believe that God is an alien. The book provides a number of intriguing insights into teen spirituality and a solid understanding of the central role of religion in American culture, but also some unfortunate examples of the current tendency to apply scholarly seriousness to the banal and trivial (including somber analyses of episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files).
Clark is finally not very convincing in her main point that rebellious teen spiritual seekers are drawn to find meaning in supernatural entertainment precisely because conventional moralists on the evangelical right have targeted the media as evil. In rejecting traditional authority, Clark argues, teenagers have begun to look to the media and their portrayals of angels and aliens for spiritual guidance.
Although based on a small and selective sample of interview subjects, Clark's book does something that neither of the other two books even tries: It takes seriously the experiences of non-middle-class teenagers. In fact, she overuses one interview "family" group composed mainly of social dropouts, some of whom have spent time in jail and many of whom regularly sell drugs.
Nevertheless, in so doing, she takes note of teenagers who may not strive to go to Yale but are watching some of the same programs that those who go to Yale do.
The role of the media in creating the American teenager is something that Clark's book glances at but does not sufficiently engage. And it is here, I think, that we finally come to the institution that has been central to the obscuring of adolescence in the 21st century. In considering the kind of moratorium they are willing to provide for teens, American middle-class parents most fear those things they can least control. A social moratorium is, after all, a period of freedom to explore and to experiment.
This freedom frightens us, either because, as Hymowitz argues, it has led to nothing more than self-indulgence in a self-obsessed culture or because we are queasy about the influences to which our children are everywhere exposed. What we see on television and hear in contemporary youth music stretches the limits of our tolerance. When teenagers bring their rambunctiousness to school in the form of automatic weapons, our tolerance disappears altogether.
Who are these children anyway? How do they influence our children? Can all adolescents really be alike? In the space between fears about what our teens will learn from other teens who may be very much like them, and the hopes that they are really very different, the once powerful assumptions about the common needs of all adolescents has disappeared.