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The Second FamilyDealing with Peer Power, Pop Culture, the Wall of Silence -- And Other Challenges of Raising Today's Teens
By Ron Taffel
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Ron Taffel
All right reserved.
Most parents don't understand their teenagers. A powerful force--the second family--is wrenching them from their families at home and changing the very nature of adolescence. Teens are angrier, more sexual, and their behavior more outrageous. They value comfort above all and worship celebrity. A new paradigm of parenting is called for, requiring adults to honor and understand this "second family" and to build a bridge so that kids can find their way home.
We don't understand our children. This is a bitter pill for parents and educators to swallow--adults who look for answers in today's headlines as much as in books about child psychology. They read about violence in schools and about kids who kill, and they become preoccupied. "Will my child be next? Can a child in my classroom be the next to explode? Is this child or that capable of murder?" But they're asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places for answers. This book isn't going to ponder the question, "Why do kids kill?" It isn't going to explain why violence occupies front and center stage in America (despite the ironic fact that, statistically, the incidence of violence is actually down). In contrast, this book is about the vast majority of kids in the middle, the kids in your home, your classroom, or on your playing field, who will probably never even touch a gun, much less put a bullet through anyone's heart.
Make no mistake: The kids in the middle are getting into trouble, too--often, serious trouble, with sex, drugs, vandalism, extreme risk-taking --but their outrageous acts rarely make the headlines. Sometimes, their own parents won't even find out. And those teens are the ones I'm most concerned about.
Adults are aware that children are somehow slipping away. They search for solutions in books about boys, in books about girls, in books about morality. They point fingers at each other, blaming themselves for not being strict enough. Or, they level charges at schools for not being more strict or at the media for serving up images to their kids that cause them to spin out of control. In truth, though, the real problem is quite simple:
Although most parents love their children, they aren't able to pay the right kind of attention to them. As I will explain later, we have seen the demise of so-called undivided time. No matter how hard they try, many parents don't really hear their children. They don't really see them. They don't know enough about the world their children inhabit, their interests, their motives. They know even less about adolescence, because too many of their children, as young as twelve or thirteen, have already drifted away from them.
If you've read this far, you might be inclined to put this book back on the shelf. As a parent, I can understand why. I don't want to believe that I don't know my own children, who are now fourteen and a half and almost ten, one a budding adolescent, the other soon to be. The notion that we have lost touch with our kids is, as a parent, painful to feel. And, as a professional, it's painful to write. To be sure, most magazine and book editors would prefer my putting a more positive "spin" on this story, lest I scare readers away. But I simply can't gloss over what's happening with teenagers today.
In my previous books, in fact, my tone has always been reassuring. I've acted as a guide to childhood, offering parents pointers that will help them navigate the terrain. Ten years ago, when I wrote my first book, Parenting by Heart, my goal was to help parents connect with their children. In the intervening years, however, the road has taken an unexpected turn, and we have now reached a critical crossroad in history, which has literally made obsolete most of the tried-and-true notions about families. Today, there's no hope of connecting unless parents first get to know who their kids are.
Hence, we must begin at square one. It's time to look at and listen to what's really happening in kids' lives. Acquaint yourself with what I call "the new adolescence." Today's teenagers aren't the disaffected hoods of the 1958 classic, Blackboard Jungle, or the rebellious hippies of the '60s. These kids--boys and girls--have a completely different mind-set from their forebears, an elastic live-and-let-live sense of morality that governs how they behave. Peer pressure, as we once knew it, is dead; teens don't get into trouble because friends put them up to it. Celebrities are the new deities.
Adolescence has also gotten younger. As early as first or second grade, children are influenced by the tyranny of cool, a standard bearer of the pop culture that we formerly associated solely with teens. By the time kids do reach adolescence, their key motivation is not rebellion, but comfort. Adolescents today don't rebel out of revenge or anger toward their parents. They are merely drifting away, desperate to find a place--where they're known and where they feel comfortable.
Although I will offer strategies and solutions later in the book, my primary goal here is to encourage you to start thinking differently. Just as the business world is shifting from an "old economy" to a new paradigm, so are our social lives and our children's. Rather than applying "old-think" principles, then, you need to shift your perspective, see who kids really are, what they're dealing with, and what spurs them in their day-to-day existence. Ultimately, my hope is to help you to increase your capacity for empathy, but to do that, you have to see things as they are, not as you want them to be. And I warn you, what you're about to learn is not for the faint of heart.
Consider, for example, Jessica, the child of middle-class professionals living in suburbia. She has just been told by her mother to stop watching TV and to clean up the table for dinner.
"Not now," Jessica says, without bothering to look up.
"No, Jessica," counters her mother sharply. "I mean this minute."
"Later," Jessica responds, almost absentmindedly.
Mom stiffens and threatens: "Stop it now or there won't be TV tonight." Finally, she's got her daughter's attention.
Jessica looks her mother squarely in the face and says, "Fuck you, Mommy."
Jessica is eight years old. And she is far from unique.
Adults who encounter kids today--parents, teachers, counselors, therapists--are confused and angered by similar outbursts in their own homes and schools and offices. Exchanges like this, along with far more serious infractions, have become entwined in the fabric of everyday family life. The father of another eight-year-old tells me that when he asked his son for the fourth time to turn off the computer game and straighten his room, the boy shot back, "Leave me alone, Butthead!" I hear the "flailing tantrum" story over and over, too: a parent directs a child not to chew gum or to stop playing and get ready for bed. The child responds by hurling him- or herself at the parent, thrashing with small, angry fists.
It's not just the anger. It's the disdain for adults. It's the disconnection from their own families. It's the incomprehensible disregard for anyone who isn't in their world. It's the sliding moral scale, which allows kids to rationalize and disengage. Of course, I see the casualties in my office. But it's not just boys and girls in therapy. I've interviewed hundreds of children, heard about thousands more through parenting workshops and school consultations. And I'm not only referring to those who are guilty of garden-variety youthful infractions--kids who pick on the class geek or the ones who are constantly rude to their teachers. It's also the kids who set fire to or vandalize buildings without an ounce of guilt or remorse. It's the high school kids who are into day trading on the Internet, already consumed by a corporate warrior mentality. It's the fourteen-year-olds who are having sex with each other in the school bathroom and don't care who walks in on them. It's the thirteen-year-old girl on the way home from a class trip who gave a boy a blow job in the back of a school bus while her fellow eighth-graders watched. It's the boy who became a pimp in seventh grade and the girls who worked for him. It's the group of kids who've broken into an abandoned warehouse to hold "x-treme" wrestling events--which don't end until one of the participants is left unconscious.
The teenagers I meet have made me aware that parents--all adults--must change their thinking and how they deal with today's kids. Sure, teenagers have always set themselves apart, broken the rules, irritated grownups. But these kids are a mystery to most parents--and our demands are equally mysterious to them.
Patricia, for example, a mother in Chicago, recently told me about an exasperating moment with her thirteen-year-old daughter. Julie hadn't been involved in any major difficulties except for early signs of an eating disorder that seemed a year later to be under control. But then Patricia found out that Julie was hanging out after school with a group of kids whose parents were never home. "I told her that I wouldn't permit it, and that she simply wasn't allowed to be unsupervised in mixed company," Patricia recounted. "And she just stared at me in disbelief, as if she didn't understand why I would even lay down such a rule--almost like it wasn't any of my business." Patricia went on to explain that Julie didn't seem angry, nor did she try to argue or start bargaining. She just looked at her mother and said, "That seems so stupid. I can do anything I want, go any place I want. What's the difference if there are no adults around?"
Julie's lack of comprehension about her mother's "right" to lay down a rule resonates a universal trend. It is clear to me that teenagers today are flying farther from the family than any generation before them, redefining adolescence in the bargain. Witness this conversation:
Boy: Do you want to hook up?
Girl: No, I'm not interested.
Boy: Yeah, well you can go lick my balls instead.
Girl: Listen, where your balls should be, someone ought to put up a "vacancy" sign.
Boy: You sound like you're reading from some soft-core porno script, you skank-bitch.
Girl: Listen, dickhead, the answer is still "No!"
That this discussion occurred between heartland twelve-year-olds--honor students to boot--speaks volumes about the new adolescence. It certainly is not surprising that their parents often can't reach these teenagers; that their teachers have trouble teaching them; or that their coaches and counselors don't really understand them. They rarely seem part of our world. Instead, our adolescents are the willing inhabitants of Planet Youth--which, to outsiders (read: adults), seems no more than a materialistic, kid-centered universe where instant gratification reigns. It isn't quite that simple. In fact, teenagers feel supported by their private universe. It is a place where they're given a kind of understanding and succor that they don't always find at home.
Jared, for one, fits the profile of the new adolescent. A fourteen-year-old, he wears his hair long and unkempt, his army-issue T-shirt frayed at the edges, and his too-large jeans slung so low that his underwear peeks out. Jared has been courting expulsion from eighth grade because of his obvious, but heatedly denied, pot-smoking. To his parents' horror, his fashion statement also includes multiple piercings. A skull and crossbones dangle from his left earlobe, a dagger penetrates his eyebrow, and an Egyptian ankh projects from his lower lip--"for good luck," he explains. Despite appearances, Jared is no street kid. The only child of affluent, caring parents, he attends a school that could be anywhere in Suburbia, U.S.A. But everything he does--painting his room black, his low-rent look, the piercings--seems to shout to his parents, "Stay away! I'm not part of your world and I don't want you in mine." It's no wonder that Jared's ability to use, sell, and distribute all manner of illegal substances remained a mystery to the adults in his life.
Every day, in my office, I see boys like Jared, or their female counterparts--a girl like thirteen-year-old Sara, who dresses in scanty knit tops and microminis and teeters in chunky heels. Unbeknownst to her parents, she has a "GRRRL" tattoo on her right hip--the result of a secret outing with her girlfriends last summer at camp. And, she has recently pierced her nipple, a fact she divulges with great joy and self-satisfaction. It is one of many steps she's taken in her young life that her parents are absolutely clueless about--and that, more than the tattoo or the piercing, is the real source of my alarm. Sara is flying solo in a cosmos that includes few adults. Her frail frame and baby-soft skin notwithstanding, she has the mien of a young adult, someone who's seen it all. That she's doing poorly in school concerns her far less than her popularity. Like teenagers of old, she talks on the phone endlessly. What is different, though, is that while Mom and Dad are successfully baricaded out of her private domain, Sara can talk to seven people simultaneously--juggling two friends on call waiting, five others in private chat rooms on-line. Meanwhile the TV and her CD player drone on as background noise--a cacophony of deep base rhythms and casually obscene lyrics.
Let loose in their own world, which is both driven and supported by technological forces unlike anything we've ever experienced, young people have no reason to stage an uprising or to rebel against family values. They are, in many ways, already gone, immersed in what I call the second family--the aggregate force of the pop culture and the peer group.
Having been raised on movies and sitcoms that reinforce the idea that parents are, for the most part, dorky and, therefore, must be tolerated, they are often too impatient with their elders if not downright rude. "What an asshole!" mutters a ten-year-old under her breath, when her mother instructs her to finish her homework before turning on the TV. How striking and how different from the days of Father Knows Best--a time when adults were obeyed (at least superficially) simply because they were adults. Today younger-than-ever kids seem to ask their parents and other adults in their life to let them be. They want the freedom to hang out with their friends and to heed the call of the pop culture.
What is amazing--and different now--is this: Parents of teens and even many preteens rarely know much about their kids' involvements and less about their misdeeds. This is both because parents bury their heads in the sand and because there's an unwritten code on Planet Youth, a conspiracy of silence, whereby kids manage to keep from most adults just about everything they or their friends do. The only exception is a life-and-death situation, when a peer is literally teetering on the brink of disaster; then kids may turn to a grownup.
"Isn't Dawn worried about her mother's reaction?" I naively wondered out loud when eleven-year-old Amy told me that her friend had had her belly button pierced and a ring inserted.
"Of course not. Her mother will never know," Amy told me confidently.
Six months later and still counting, Dawn's mother is none the wiser. This, sadly, is often the case--unless something absolutely disastrous occurs, which is precisely what happened at a recent Midwestern suburban junior high school graduation. For the past several years, without any adults being aware of the tradition, graduates had taken to celebrating their passage into high school by jumping off a fifty-foot bridge into a river below. This particular year, though, among the graduates was a girl who was secretly anorexic, and when she jumped, she broke her back.
Perhaps you're thinking, My child would never do such things. Many parents are dismissive when I share such stories. "My child would never lie to me," they insist, or "My child tells me everything." Or perhaps you're like some of my own friends, who claim that I "worry too much," when I question whether there will be adult supervision at a party that my thirteen-year-old daughter is pleading to attend.
"What could go on?" they challenge.
What indeed! I have firsthand knowledge that proves how wrong my friends are. Maybe it's an occupational hazard--I'm paid not to be an ostrich--but one adolescent after another comes to me, relating stories that make my hair curl. I know that children tell prodigious, bold-faced lies to their parents. I know that most teens today are capable of saying and doing things their parents would never in their wildest dreams imagine. When, for instance, kids talk about "hooking up"--a term that sounds innocent enough to us parents--they don't mean hanging around or going steady. They may just as well mean sex. And at so-called make-out parties, where once the daring acts included copping a feel and French kissing, now kids as young as eleven or twelve are giving "hand jobs"; in junior high, they're having oral sex and a surprising number even engage in group sex. In one such group sex "club," early adolescents engage in anal as well as oral sex--all in the name of maintaining the status of "virgin."
Admittedly, I hear stories from kids that I don't want to believe about other people's children, much less about my own! For instance, I flash on Steven, the fifteen-year-old boy who schemed so elaborately with his friends, so carefully laying one bit of subterfuge on top of another, that he was able to travel all the way across the country to visit a girlfriend. Only because he missed his flight home did his parents ultimately find out that Steven wasn't where he said he'd be. I recall fourteen-year-old Liz who had her tongue pierced--of course, without her parents' knowledge--and explained in a nonchalant tone, "So that I can give better head." And I think of the group of nameless thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds in the Southeast whose parents sponsored a religious retreat in the wilderness and never found out that their kids had sneaked off en masse to smoke pot and drop acid. It didn't occur to these kids that their behavior was counterproductive to the goal of the retreat, which was to increase their spiritual connection. It just happened--no big deal.
Teenagers' exploits don't shock me quite as much as they did a few years ago, when I first began listening to such stories. Then I was at my professional wit's end. I kept trying the old methods of "getting through"--asking the right questions and suggesting possible causes for kids' acting-out behavior, whatever form it took. My goal, typical of most therapists, was to somehow find a common ground and make a connection with the teen. But more often than not, my probing was met with either uninterested stares or disbelief. I might just as well have been talking in tongues.
I was not alone in my confusion about kids' behavior. A widow living in Florida was aghast when, during a routine call to her granddaughter, the child interrupted her, saying, "I'm not finished talking yet, Grandma--just cool it!" In her day, even in her daughter's day, no child would have dared to talk to a grandparent in such a disrespectful tone. In interviews with other therapists as well as important adults in kids' lives--teachers, coaches, principals, community leaders, camp owners--I've heard the same disturbing patterns of anger toward adults, manifested not by hulking high school wrestlers or grunge kids, but sometimes by the tiniest, most innocent-looking tykes. One fellow clinician told me that a preteen girl he had been seeing expressed her jealousy of an unborn sibling not by the usual array of anticipatory anxieties, but by smashing a baseball bat into her mother's pregnancy-swollen belly.
Other therapists point out that it is becoming commonplace for middle schoolers or even younger kids to look them dead in the eye, say, "Who do you think you are?" and then march out of the session. A longtime camp director says that the biggest concerns of his fellow members of a national camping association were no longer issues of homesickness, but of wild acting out--flagrant disrespect toward counselors and public sexual behaviors by even preteens. At nationwide symposia, this new adolescence occupies center stage in workshop presentations. The clergy are not even immune. One group of young teens, boys and girls at a religious camp, "mooned" the stunned minister as he rode by. An eminent children's theater director said that in twenty-five years of producing plays, he has seen increasing disrespect for him and his colleagues by his young charges. "I can't describe the enormity of change in the way children behave. I can no longer count on having their respect and attention merely because I am the adult and a teacher. Now half the struggle is just to get them to begin to listen to my directions."
Nothing in my training prepared me to deal with children raised in today's world--children who, in large part, have defected from their own families and sought refuge in the pop culture and in their peers. As a parent I was alarmed, knowing that a major shift was happening in our culture, which would eventually affect my family as well. Way before school violence exploded across America, I began a search for answers. Why, I asked myself, are kids so angry and distant? What is going on that is so wrong between adults and children, often making it seem as if we are walking in a minefield? Despite the many solutions that I and other parenting authors have come up with over the last decade, are we missing something?
I initiated a three-pronged search. First, I combed the professional literature of the last thirty years for clues, hoping to ascertain what, if anything, has been consistently regarded by child researchers as critical for raising emotionally healthy children. Next, I reviewed my own twenty-five years' worth of work with families, doing therapy, teaching, supervising other therapists, presenting at more than a thousand workshops, and, not so incidentally, writing for parents themselves in my books and in columns for Parents and McCall's magazines. Finally, and perhaps most important, I talked to the kids themselves. Initially, I interviewed 150 preschool through middle school children. As the cumulative effect of listening to what was really happening in kids' lives began to weigh on me, I then broadened my study to include more than a hundred adolescents. Although there was a massive convergence among all the sources, in my search for answers, the children themselves were the ones who gave me the greatest insight about their needs and how parents--in fact, most adults--were failing them.
Coincidentally, around this time, I had already started offering teenagers the chance to bring their friends to therapy with them and most willingly agreed. After all, as a family therapist, I had been trained to view individuals as part of a "system." Seeing parents and siblings was standard practice, but, now, realizing how important peers were, I knew I had to see friends as well. I realized that a kid's friends comprised a kind of extended family.
Listening both to kids who came to my office with specific problems and to the schoolchildren I interviewed, I began to see that before adolescence, starting in late elementary school, youngsters tend to move away from their own siblings and parents. They surround themselves instead with friends, forming a second, separate but equally important, system. As kids become more and more attached to their friends and to the common interests they share, by early adolescence, it is a natural, easy step to divorce themselves not only from their first families but, often, from other significant adults as well.
That even young kids share a world outside the one at home should not be surprising. Modern kids' time, their passions, and their conversations are shaped en masse by media-inspired messages. According to a 1999 Kaiser Family Foundation report, Kids and the Media, "Children's bedrooms are rapidly becoming 'media central,' offering most kids the chance to consume many kinds of media in the privacy of their own rooms." A majority of all children, the report notes, have radios, tape players, TVs or CD players in their bedrooms; a third have videogame players and VCRs as well. These figures rise when you look at children eight and older; two-thirds (65 percent) have a TV and 21 percent a computer in their bedroom. And parents are almost never involved. In the diaries of kids seven and older who kept track of their media use, when they are engaged with media, 95 percent of the time they're not with their parents. It's no wonder that middle school children and teenagers repeatedly tell me that their parents have no idea what they're up to. For as long and as late as they like, they listen to music, watch programs, or visit Internet sites that their parents know little or nothing about. This leaves them in their own universe, where loyalty is less to their own families than to the kid culture and the closed society of their peers.
Sitting with their friends, teenagers are surprisingly willing to talk about their world; I guess there is safety in numbers. Meeting with groups of kids in this way helped me begin to grasp the idea that "a second family," as I labeled this collective force of peers and pop culture, was capturing children's attention and allegiance at earlier and earlier ages. Unfortunately, parents weren't providing much resistance. After all, it's hard to resist what you don't recognize--a phenomenon that doesn't have a name.
The Demise of Undivided Attention
It's an old story by now that massive changes in society--divorce, increased mobility, and economic pressure forcing both parents to work--have chipped away at the foundations of the family. But from the kid's eye view, the damage in real-life terms is even worse than we'd like to believe. Parents struggling to find enough hours in the day to meet the competing demands of work and parenthood often let everyday routines slip by the wayside. It's no wonder that almost every one of the children and teens I interviewed for my second-family study told me that they missed the mundane rituals that make up family life--dinner together, pancakes on Sunday, regular trips to the playground. "I want my mommy to lie down with me every night," said one child. "Last week my mom and dad took me bowling and it was great!" said another, wishing that such special times could happen more often.
Listening to these children, it is relatively easy to understand why the second family has become so much more powerful than the first--a child's family of origin. Many of my young interviewees told me that their parents simply weren't around or they were preoccupied. "We don't spend time together in my family," a fifth-grader told me, succinctly echoing a condition that almost every child I've ever interviewed has described. It became obvious that it's not just that parents are out of the house more often--it's that even when everyone's home, "shared" family time is not what it used to be.
This is devastating for parents to hear, especially working parents who care deeply about their children and try to put them at the center of their universe. Oddly enough, studies indicate that we aren't actually spending less time with kids than we did in the '60s. The problem is that for all our child-focused intentions, we're spending "divided time." In a typical evening, Mom and Dad watch television in the living room, while Junior is watching his own program in his room--often, with his music blaring as well. Sis is playing with her Little Mermaid toy while she watches Sabrina, The Teenage Witch on her television set. You may think I'm exaggerating. Yet, the Kaiser Foundation study found that 32 percent of two- to seven-year-olds have their own TV sets. Parents who kept diaries about these younger kids admitted that 81 percent of the time when their kids are watching TV, the adults are doing something else.
Even worse, everyone nowadays--including parents--seems to do ten things at once. You've seen kids doing homework with headphones on, or talking on the phone while they fold socks? But before we criticize our kids, we ought to look in the mirror. In most American homes it's not unusual to see Mom diapering the baby while cradling a receiver between her chin and neck. In another room, Dad "multitasks," to use a catchphrase of the last decade (originally intended to describe computer functioning): he simultaneously checks his E-mail messages and his stock portfolio on the computer while yelling out to the children, "Start cutting the vegetables for tonight's dinner!" It's not surprising that a 1997 Family Circle report found that fathers spend only eight minutes a day talking to their children and working mothers, eleven.
There is nothing inherently evil about any of this--it's normal family life in America--but it's no way to get to know your own children, or each other. Kids understand this. In my conversations with them, children from kindergarten to age twelve overwhelmingly indicate that what they want most is more time, as in undivided attention. I repeatedly hear comments such as, "I want my mom to stop being so busy and just play with me" and I love when my dad sits next to me and we watch movies together.
Interestingly, although almost all kids recognize this loss, their reaction to it changes as they get older. At first, they are sad, even angry, because they're not getting undivided time. They yearn for it. But by the end of elementary school, as the second family slowly begins to take a firmer hold on a child's interests and values, I hear a defiant acceptance. "That's just the way it is ..." many kids say, "my parents are busy ... it's okay ..."
In part, harried parents aren't making or taking the time. In part, they're worried about not doing enough to enrich their kids' lives and to give them the edge they'll need in a changing world. Unconsciously competing with the fast-action, high-tech offerings of the pop culture, modern mothers and fathers are desperate not to "bore" children with so-called old-fashioned activities, like arts and crafts, or "impose" on them an unexciting trip to Grandma's house. So, instead of playing a game of catch with his daughter on Saturday afternoon, Dad chauffeurs her to a soccer club. The sad irony is that although parents believe they're enriching their kids' lives, they're actually depriving them of what the kids want most in elementary school: one-on-one time with Mom or Dad.
Excerpted from The Second Family by Ron Taffel Copyright © 2002 by Ron Taffel. Excerpted by permission.
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