Yesterday, I listened to this radio broadcast interview with Dr. Robert Epstein, author of Teen 2.0. He argues that teens are too isolated from adults, especially in school, and that they aren’t given enough real responsibility which would help them learn how to be adults. He claims that childhood has been extended in this country to at least 18 and perhaps even 22, and he thinks this is not a good thing and is one of the reasons for poor behavior among teens. He’s an advocate for home schooling and for providing opportunities for teens to work alongside adults.
I also just finished reading A Tribe Apart by Patricia Hersch, which is an ethnographic study of teens in Northern Virginia, completed during the 90s. Her message is similar to Epstein’s. She points out how many of these teens are largely fending for themselves, with no parents at home after school. Teachers and administrators often don’t take the teens seriously and make rules aimed at the most grievous offenders, but which have the effect of making all the teens feel like criminals. The book is an eye-opening look at the lives of teenagers.
I have a teen and so far, while things have not been smooth sailing, we haven’t had any major trouble. But I worry a lot. And these two authors have made me think about ways I might change how I’m parenting my teen. Ever since I had my first child, I’ve worried about the teen years. My own teenage years were not pleasant, in large part because my parents were not as involved as they could have been. What Epstein and Hersch say rings true to me. We were, to some extent, headed down that same path with our son, largely because we thought it was the only path, and we felt we had few options.
I’m now home in the afternoons with both of my kids since I work from home, but that wasn’t always the case. My husband and I had challenging work schedules which made it difficult for us to be home to meet our son after school. And I honestly think that it had an effect on his grades in middle school. He had no direction during those hours. There were no after-school programs available for kids his age. He did play sports, but when he didn’t have sports, he was often left on his own. And like many teens, he didn’t always use that time effectively.
In the past, families often lived close by relatives, so that kids had access to aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, and while this is still true for some families, it’s not true for many. Besides my husband and myself, we have no adult relatives nearby whom our kids could spend time with. We do our best to visit relatives a few times a year, but it’s not a day-to-day thing. Besides his soccer coaches, I think my son has little contact with adults at school. Epstein suggests having teens work with adults, and I’m now thinking about arranging an internship for my son or even just a few weeks of him working with someone this summer. I worked in a bank starting when I was fourteen and I think I really benefited from being around adults in that environment. But that’s the summer. Right now, I’m having a hard time coming up with other opportunities for multi-generational activities, in part because as parents, we don’t participate in many such activities either. Our lives are busy with work and other obligations, leaving little time to socialize.
As I think through what I can do to provide a supportive environment for my teen (and my soon-to-be teen), I realize that it’s more difficult than I thought to provide different opportunities for him. The world seems structured to keep teens and adults separated. But my thinking has shifted from being suspicious and worried about him all the time (while remaining vigilant) to really listening to him and taking what he says seriously. We have no reason not to trust him and we’ve usually listened to him, but now we’re even more aware of the importance we may have in his life. The media, especially movies and TV, have painted teens as always rejecting their parents and not wanting parents or other adults around. Now I don’t think that’s true at all, and I’m working hard to remain an important and supportive part of his life.