Teenagers are physiologically mature beings, rife for sexual reproduction; in most societies (and in ours too, a century or so ago) they are considered ready for adult responsibilities and appropriate recognition. Because our present social arrangements, however, do not provide adequate challenges for the skills teenagers have, they must discover opportunities for action outside those sanctioned by adults. The only outlets they find, all too often, are vandalism, delinquency, drugs, and recreational sex. Under existing conditions, it is very difficult for parents to compensate for the poverty of opportunities in the culture at large. In this respect, families living in the richest suburbs are barely better off than families living in slums. What can a strong, vital, intelligent fifteen-year-old do in your typical suburb? If you consider that question you will probably conclude that what is available is too artificial, or too simple, or not exciting enough to catch a teenager's imagination. It is not surprising that athletics are so important in suburban schools; compared to the alternatives, they provide some of the most concrete chances to exercise and display one's skills.
But there are some steps that families can take to partially alleviate this wasteland of opportunities. In older times, young men left home for a while as apprentices and traveled to distant towns to be exposed to new challenges. Today something similar exists in America for late teens: the custom of leaving home for college. The problem remains with the period of puberty, roughly the five years between twelve and seventeen: What meaningful challenges can be found for young people that age? The situation is much easier when the parents themselves enjoy playing music, cooking, reading, gardening, carpentry, or fixing engines in the garage, then it is more likely that their children will find similar activities challenging, and invest enough attention in them to begin enjoy doing something that will help them grow. If parents just talked more about their ideals and dreams - even if these had been frustrated - the children might develop the ambition needed to break through the complacency of their present selves. If nothing else, discussing one's job or the thoughts and events of the day, and treating children as young adults, as friends, help to socialize them into thoughtful adults. But if the father spends all his free time at home vegetating in front of the TV set with a glass of alcohol in his hand, children will naturally assume that adults are boring people who don't know how to have fun, and will turn to the peer group for enjoyment.
In poorer communities youth gangs provide plenty of real challenges for boys. Fights, acts of bravado, and ritual displays such as motorcycle gangs parades match the youths' skills with concrete opportunities. In affluent suburbs not even this arena for action is available to teenagers. Most activities, including school, recreation, and employment, are under adult control and leave little room for the youths' initiative. Lacking any meaningful outlet for their skills and creativity, they may turn to redundant partying, joyriding, malicious gossiping, or drugs and narcissistic introspection to prove themselves that they are alive. Consciously or not, many young girls feel that becoming pregnant is the only really adult thing they can do, despite its dangers and unpleasant consequences. How to restructure such an environment so as to make it sufficiently challenging is certainly one of the most pressing tasks parents of teenagers face. And it is of no value simply to tell one's strapping adolescent children to shape up and do something useful. What does help are living examples and concrete opportunities. If these are not available, one cannot blame the young for taking their own counsel.
Some of the tensions of teenage life can be eased if the family provides a sense of acceptance, control, and self-confidence to the adolescent. A relationship that has these dimensions is one in which people trust one another, and feel totally accepted. One does not have to worry constantly about being liked, being popular, or living up to others' expectations. As the popular sayings go, "Love means never having to say 'I'm sorry,'" "Home is where you're always welcome." Being assured of one's worth in the eyes of one's kin gives a person the strength to take chances; excessive conformity is usually caused by fear of disapproval. It is much easier for a person to try developing her potential if she knows that no matter what happens, she has a safe emotional base in the family.
Unconditional acceptance is especially important to children. If parents threaten to withdraw their love from a child when they fail to measure up, the child's natural playfulness will be gradually replaced by chronic anxiety. However, if the child feels that his parents are unconditionally committed to his welfare, he can then relax and explore the world without fear; otherwise he has to allocate psychic energy to his own protection, thereby reducing the amount he can freely dispose of. Early emotional security may well be one of the conditions that helps develop an autotelic personality in children. Without this, it is difficult to let go of the self long enough to experience flow.
Love without strings attached does not mean, of course, that relationships should have no standards, no punishment for breaking the rules. When there is no risk attached to transgressing rules they becoming meaningless, and without meaningful rules an activity cannot be enjoyable. Children must know their parents expect certain things from them and that specific consequences will follow if they don't obey. But they must also recognize that no matter what happens, the parents' concern for them is not in question.
When a family has a common purpose and open channels of communication, when it provides gradually expanding opportunities for action in a setting of trust, then life in it becomes an enjoyable flow activity. Its members will spontaneously focus their attention on the group relationship, and to a certain extent forget their individual selves, their divergent goals, for the sake of experiencing the joy of belonging to a more complex system that joins separate consciousness in a unified goal.
One of the most basic delusions of our time is that home life takes care of itself naturally, and that the best strategy for dealing with it is to relax and let it take its course. Men especially like to comfort themselves with this notion. They know how hard it is to succeed in the job, just want to unwind, and feel that any serious demand from the family is unwarranted. They often have an almost superstitious faith in the integrity of the home. Only when it is too late - when the wife has become dependent on alcohol, when the children have turned into cold strangers - do many men wake up to the fact that the family, like any other joint enterprise, needs constant investment of psychic energy to assure its existence.
To play the trumpet well, a musician cannot let more than a few days pass without practicing. An athlete who does not run regularly will soon be out of shape, and will no longer enjoy running. Any manager knows that his company will start falling apart if his attention wanders. In each case, without concentration, a complex activity breaks down into chaos. Why should the family be different? Unconditional acceptance, the complete trust family members ought to have for one another, is meaningful only when it is accompanied by an unstinting investment of attention. Otherwise it is just an empty gesture, a hypocritical pretense indistinguishable from disinterest.
Friday, November 6, 2009
Flow - Families, Teenagers
This is from the section on families, I pulled out the section starting on teenagers with some nice summary comments on the family as a whole. Really powerful stuff in here: