Parents: Why Teens Rebel

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Parents: Why Teens Rebel

From the June 1998 Trumpet Print Edition

“Clarissa, would you please take those dirty glasses into the kitchen?”

“Why? They’re not mine.”

“I don’t care if they’re not yours, Clarissa. You live in this house and I am asking you to take those glasses out into the kitchen.”

“But they’re not mine. I don’t have to do it.”

“Clarissa, you’re asking for it.”

“You’re asking for it.”

Ah—parents and their teens. Who else would share such an exchange? In times past this conversation would have been a rarity (“I never would have talked to my parents the way she talks to me!”); now it is commonplace.

This kind of mouthiness highlights a monumental shift in teen attitudes toward authority. Respect is simply gone. And the problems that creates go far beyond dirty glasses. They fill our homes, our schools, our streets.

Voices that say teens have always been such a matter of concern to adults, that today’s teens are no different, are drowned out by common experience. In fact, today’s teens are different. The world they are inheriting is different. Not only do they confront a different set of problems from previous generations, they present a different set of problems. Look up the statistics on drug use, illegitimate births, teen violence; more and more teens (even the “good” ones) are doing the things only “bad” teens did a generation ago, that no one did two or three generations ago. And none of them seem to be immune from the respect problem. Though the world is more complicated for them than it was in the past, it is also much more permissive. Add to that changes in teen consumer habits, education, social concerns and technology. Statistics are one thing; just spending time with teens tells you as much: teenage life today is unique.

There are a lot of reasons why this is the case. In this article we will focus on one of them, one that has had more impact on the teen scene than any other. It is the single greatest change teenagehood has ever seen. And it has only developed very recently—never a real factor until our current generation.

If you are unhappy with teenage behavior today, especially if you are a parent, deeply understanding this cause will put you on the road to solving your problem.

The world has never seen teenagers like today. And the biggest reason is that we’ve never hadparentslike the parents of today!

Half a Family

Let’s take a good look at today’s parents of teens and see just how their being who they are has made teens who they are.

Consider this. Statistically, of 100 children born today, 17 will be born out of wedlock. A full 48 will be born of parents who divorce before the child is 18, and 16 more will be born to parents who separate. Six will be born to parents of whom one will die before the child reaches 18.

That leaves 13 kids out of 100 who will reach age 18 with two parents and their marriage intact. A mind-blowing figure.

So what about those other 87 teens? They spend an average of about five years in a single-parent household. These kids’ concept of family is being shaped in an environment once uncommon, one that used to be considered unnatural. Single-parent homes, in the numbers we see today, are a distinctly modern phenomenon.

So what kind of parents do they make? Regardless of other factors, they are alone, solely saddled with the responsibility for being the family’s breadwinner, homemaker, caretaker and disciplinarian. They tread a hard and lonely road. Quality family time is at a premium. Some make a valiant effort to maintain high involvement with their kids; many surrender in the face of the demands, and the teens virtually raise themselves.

Another fact about single parents: only 10 percent of them are dads. That’s a lot of kids with no adult male influence or example in their homes; and a lot with a mom who may be openly bitter about men.

Weighed down by responsibility, single parents are very needy for companionship. And today, many of them actively pursue their own boyfriends or girlfriends in a way much like teens do; they may spend nights on the town or have sleepovers. We can begin to see how such affairs may drastically affect teens’ views of parents, of authority in general, and of how to lead their own lives.

This situation gives rise to another fairly new, now common, circumstance in teen life: stepfamilies. Consider these facts: “Because more than 75 percent of divorced parents remarry, the majority of youngsters whose parents separate also experience living in a stepfamily at some time. And, because the rate of divorce is higher for second marriages than first marriages, the majority of youth whose parents remarry will experience yet a second divorce. Moreover, because divorces generally occur faster in remarriages, many children must confront a second divorce before they have finished adapting to having a stepparent” (Lawrence Steinberg, Adolescence, 1990).

In the March/April Trumpet we examined the problem of divorce in the United States and God’s perspective on it as revealed in the Bible. Malachi 2:15-16 says, “Take heed to yourselves, and let none prove unfaithful to the wife of his youth, for I detest divorce and cruelty to a wife, the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, declares. Take heed to yourselves, never be faithless” (Moffatt translation).

When you examine the profound effects in the lives of the kids (let alone the parents), you begin to understand why God is so intent against it. Just think about the difference between teens with strong parents with a solid marriage as an example and a stabilizing force in their lives, and teens with a parent who has been wounded by a divorce, has no mate to go to for support, and is working the single scene. Think about kids who have to choose between living with mom or dad, who may regularly hear one complaining about the other. In times past, even in a family where dad was shipped off and killed in war, a teen’s attitude toward authority would not be so severely rocked as it would with parents who just “couldn’t make it work.” America’s second President, John Adams, said, “Children learn the meaning of morality, religion, and respect for law from the habitual fidelity of their parents to one another.” These words have never been more poignant than they are today.

The Vanishing Homemaker

In 1955, 60 percent of U.S. households had a working father, a stay-at-home mom and two or more school-aged kids. A “model family.” Most 14-year-olds could expect mom (or their grandmother, or at least their neighbors) to be home during the day. These kids had full-time moms. Obviously there was a lot of parental involvement in their lives.

That was only 43 years ago. Soon such families virtually evaporated—within a single generation. By the 1970s, both parents worked in 50 percent of families with school-age children. In 1986 the 1955-family model made up only 7 percent of our homes. Today, three of four moms with school-age kids have left home to join the work force.

Sociologists studying this trend plainly state how this change has affected the lives of today’s teens. Many cite it as one of the most drastic changes in modern times. But they will not say this is a bad change. In fact they tend to highlight the positive effect on teenage girls of having a working mother. (They do not note a positive effect in teen boys, however; in fact it tends to lower their academic performance.) The criterion they use for defining “positive” effect? That the girls have higher career aspirations!

The real effects on teens, again, go back to parental involvement and monitoring. A family with two working parents, in one way, has the same problem as a single-parent home: the adults are so caught up in providing for the family that caring for and actually rearing the family get neglected!

“The Carnegie Corporation points out that 30 percent of eighth graders are on their own after school, some as long as five hours a day, which gives them much more private, personal space than their postwar predecessors ever enjoyed. Seventy-five percent of sexually active teenagers cite their home (or their boyfriend’s home) as their usual meeting place, since the coast is inevitably clear. ‘Unsupervised time after school,’ the Washington Post reported in 1992, ‘is the most common occasion for adolescents to have sexual intercourse, often at a boy’s house while his parents are at work’” (Grace Palladino, Teenagers: An American History, 1996).

When teenagers spend a full day at school packed in with other teenagers, and then spend most of their spare time either alone or in completely unsupervised social situations with other teenagers, there are bound to be problems. Again, God has given us plain instruction that largely goes unheeded: “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Prov. 29:15). Later we’ll go deeper into the instruction contained in that verse.

Parents have traditionally been very present in their kids’ daily lives. It hasn’t been until recently that teens have been, in many cases and for a lot of the time, cut loose. What unhappy results this self-governance has yielded.

Now let’s step away from the present for a bit. We will be able to learn a lot more about the parents of today’s teens by looking back at the time when they themselves were teens.

Where Did Teens Come From?

Did you know that 100 years ago, teenagers did not exist? The term “teenager” didn’t come into common use until about 1940. And there is a reason for that.

Kids worked. In 1900 only 6 percent of 17-year-olds in the U.S. graduated high school. Public education just wasn’t a priority. Most kids spent the bulk of their time with family or in the adult world. There was no “youth culture.” No movies, MTV or malls.

In the 20s, high schools revamped to attract more students (they adapted their traditional, scholarly education to include practical classes like bookkeeping and home economics), and it paid off. By 1930 almost half the teen population were high school students, and the trend continued upward. More than ever, teens were ripening in an environment composed almost entirely of their peers. High school was now a full-out teenage social experience.

Savvy businessmen were quick to pick up on this emerging demographic. In the 40s, advertisements aimed directly at the teen market, mostly middle-class, began to appear for household furnishings, hope chests and fashions. The products were wholesome, an extension of, say, home economics in school, preparing youths for adulthood. But money was clearly bottom-line: marketers promoted to advertisers a picture of the “copy cat” high schooler: “and what a break for you”! they said. Teens “speak the same language, wear the same clothes, eat the same foods…. You’ll see them shopping together, sipping Cokes at the corner candy store, going to the movies… together”—clearly an impressionable consumer target. The onset of the “teenager” had everything to do with their increase in buying power.

The teen market burgeoned in the wake of America’s post-World-War-II prosperity. Suddenly even working-class teens had the chance to cast their dollar votes. “Once a mixed group of teenagers were encouraged to speak in their own, distinctive voices, they shifted the market’s focus to an uncharted world of teenage passion and excitement in the form of rock ‘n’ roll, leather jackets, fast cars, and drive-in movies” (Palladino, op. cit.).

Hence, the world flipped upside down within a generation. As teen numbers and economic clout swelled, so did an onslaught of rock ‘n’ roll culture and delinquency. The 50s and 60s saw an unprecedented upsurge in youth’s spite for authority and parental control; the war between parents and teens came into full swing (it was in the 60s that the term “generation gap” was coined). Youth culture rocked the entire world: the entertainment industry, the universities, the government. The atmosphere of protest gave rise to gangs, beatniks, rockers and hippies, bent on casting off all constraint, high on the heady fumes of hedonism.

Parents who turned in their Bibles to scriptures like Romans 1:30 and II Timothy 3:1-2, which describe disobedience as being a sign of the end of the world, had a pretty good case to make. While these youths spoke out against the mistakes of the previous generation (which had only succeeded in bringing the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation), the only alternative they seemed to offer was a self-destructive one.

But by that time, the economic value of the teen market had silenced all but the most determined critics; it had become the center of commercial attention. And it would continue to be stoked and exploited in the decades that followed.

Now, we are a full generation beyond the development of modern youth culture. The students who protested at colleges around the country were absorbed into the system and are now the professors and administrators. The teens who once declared war on parental control are the parents of today.

Consider that: the average parent of a child entering adolescence is between 35 and 45 years old, which means they were born in the 50s or early 60s; and that they went to high school roughly between 1967 and 1981. Pretty tumultuous—and influential— years in the history of American youth.

So, what do you do if you’ve grown up rebelling against authority, against parents and everything they stood for, and suddenly realize one day that you’re a parent?

The answer is very telling.

Parenting Today

“I feel better knowing where my child is, so I decided that his room is his territory, his privacy.” That is one mother’s explanation, as printed in a New York Times feature (April 4, 1991), of why she allows her teenage son to entertain girlfriends in his bedroom—overnight.

Just a generation or two ago parents were trying to keep their teens from dating the wrong people; now some parents’ biggest concern seems to be the comfort of the bed their teens fornicate in! If such a degree of permissiveness seems rare, just think of the movement within school systems to distribute contraceptives to students. The attitude of, “Well, they’re going to do it anyway so they ought to do it right,” pervades not only modern parenting, but modern education in general.

Perhaps it’s too easy to overlook just how very new this development is. Where the previous generation’s authorities violently resisted letting go of their control over teens, with youth fighting bitterly for every freedom, today’s authorities seem to be bending over backwards to avoid confrontation with youth. Fear of confrontation is not a helpful quality in authority figures. It leads to parents with no control. It leads to youth able to have whatever they want by intimidating adults.

This problem was prophesied very specifically. “And I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them…. the child shall behave himself proudly against the ancient, and the base against the honourable…. As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths” (Isa. 3:4-5, 12).

Modern books on parenting and education will speak frankly of how out-of-control most teens are, and will even link the problem directly with laxness in modern child rearing. A typical assessment: “This is the era of ‘permissiveness.’ As a result, the most effective weapons have been taken out of a parent’s arsenal…. It’s inevitable that without these harsher forms of enforcement, children’s behavior has changed. This is just human nature. The new teenager does feel freer to do as he or she pleases, especially at home…. Old-style respect is gone. We have entered a new era in child rearing. Perhaps the old way was both easier and more pleasant, but it is gone” (Anthony E. Wolf, Get Out Of My Life, 1991).

Having pinpointed the problem, these “authorities” (“they which lead thee”) will never say the solution lies in returning to those methods that once worked. Instead they look for answers in new, progressive forms of parenting, “cooperative discipline” and the like. These new methods have been around for several decades; what’s different now is that they are 100 percent mainstream. A handout given to teachers in an Oklahoman junior high school on “Tips for Anger Management” includes this point: “Acknowledge the student’s power—the more we try to control, the more the student resists. When we give up control, the student has nothing to resist. Once their resistance is lowered and the confrontation calmed, we can use a consequence [which may be something like depriving the student of tokens for good behavior which can be cashed in for free candy] to influence them to choose a more appropriate behavior” (C.A.F. Associates, Anger Management: Developing Options to Anger, 1997).

Do these strategies work? Are they easing teen problems? Are they stabilizing out-of-balance lives? Are they producing peaceful, character-driven adults? Not at all! The only “good” that comes from these parenting “options” —if we would just be honest about it—is that they demonstrate beyond doubt just how mixed up things get when our understanding of and respect for authority is ambiguous and topsy-turvy.

Grasp this point! We have set up a grand experiment to see what will happen if we take a bunch of kids who “knew better than their parents” and shucked off every restraint imposed upon them—and give them their parents’ jobs. Now we are seeing these parents with their hands tied! They can see that their “solutions” are not working. But because of their past they don’t feel they have any right to say anything; they don’t want to be “parental,” for fear of feeling hypocritical. They have never been taught the way an active, loving, authoritative parent should act. And they are too absorbed in their own selves (just as they were taught to be by the youth culture they embraced) to do anything significant about it!

Truly, the parents of today’s teenagers are totally unique in history!

A Parent’s Responsibility

What’s wrong with these methods of modern parenting we’ve been discussing? They completely deny the way of truth God explains to us in scripture!

Remember the proverb we read earlier. It talked about the importance of “rod and reproof” in raising a child who will not bring shame to his parents. God says that a proper level of control must be maintained over children. This verse is talking about discipline—corporal punishment—and instruction. God commands that parents use both!

Proverbs 13:24 says that parents who fail to physically discipline their children actually hate them. That their concern for themselves exceeds their concern for the long-term well-being of their children. That may rankle modern parents. But remember, it is GOD—the Creator of heaven and earth, of mankind—who gave these instructions. Rather than dismissing it offhand, shouldn’t we try to understandit?

Unlike so many raising teenagers today, God has keen interest in maintaining parents’ authority over their kids. “Honor your father and mother” is Commandment number five—just above “Thou shalt not kill.” Teens break it routinely without second thought. You may think the fault lies with the teens themselves, since the law is directed at them (it is not written, “Make sure kids honor their father and mother”). But who teaches kids the sanctity of the law? No teen will respect Commandments they were not brought up by their parents to respect.

In fact this is a towering expectation God has of parents. “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart. And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:6-7). A parallel passage in the New Testament is found in Ephesians 6:1-4.

Logic tells us that, regardless of the world’s state of affairs, parents’ example and instruction to their teens still do have considerable influence on their character in the long run. Recent studies back this up. “Many surveys…show that while youth tend to value their peers’ evaluations over parents’ on things like music, clothing and what’s ‘cool,’ they continue to look to parents for basic values and guidance in the more important areas of life, such as life and career goals” (“Is There a Generation Gap?”, MSUCommunications Services).

So parents must be very cognizant of the example they set. Very deliberate in the choices they make in their own lives. And very clear in the instruction they give. There are so many appealing and destructive “lifestyle alternatives” out there for teens, parents must ensure they are offering something genuine—offering the truth.

This is a point that was made in a Plain Truth article 32 years ago. It should convict us today all the more. The article stated, “Today’s leaders failed their duty—they did not teach the younger generation the real purpose of life. Why? Because they themselves did not know the purpose of life. Society never taught them. Their teachers never taught it in school because they in turn had never learned it. People simply don’t know why they were born!” (“The Beat Generation,” March 1966).

Later the article said, “The trouble is society has taught its ‘children’ directly or indirectly that there is no real purpose to life”!

What about you?

Do you understand the purpose of life well enough to teach and convict your children of it? Are you willing to learn? It will be the most important thing you could ever give your teenager!