For as long as I can remember, it’s seemed to me that something is different about children today — and not in a good way. I know that children and teens have always teased one another, talked back to their parents, yearned for independence, etc….but it seems that over the past couple of decades those behaviors have gotten worse, and become somehow darker, more sinister.
When we lived in Littleton, Colorado, at my junior high I would frequently see some group of kids corner one of the awkward, shy, “weaker” children in the class and torment him or her mercilessly (sometimes physically) as the teachers looked the other way. Kids were angry, hostile and cruel. There was an unnatural, “Lord of the Flies” type feel to the culture that went way beyond the type of behavior you’d expect from young adults. (Many of the kids from that junior high went on to a high school called Columbine, which you may have heard of.)
I see teenagers sulking through the neighborhood as they walk down our sidewalks, usually alone, many of them dressed in a manner to present themselves as hostile, reclusive, or threatening. I would certainly know about that — in high school and college I wore all black (including black lipstick), had a nose ring and dyed my hair various crazy colors, and listened to angry, dark music like Nine Inch Nails, Alice in Chains, Korn, and Ministry (no, Ministry is not a religious band…at all). I frequently felt depressed, and had a sort of inner angst that just didn’t seem natural, even by teenaged girl standards.
For a long time I’ve tried to articulate what exactly I think is wrong and what might have caused it, but I could never quite seem to hit the nail on the head. Then I came across the great book Hold On to Your Kids (recommended highly by commenter Steve G.), and I think I finally understand it.
In the book, authors Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate describe this dark new peer culture, and lay out their theory that the problem is “peer orientation”: meaning, children use peers instead of parents and families as their compass point, their guide for discovering their identity, morals and values. The authors write:
As children grow, they have an increasing need to orient: to have a sense of who they are, of what is real, why things happen, what is good, what things mean. To fail to orient is to…be lost psychologically — a state our brains our programmed to do almost anything to avoid. […]
What children fear more than anything, including physical harm, is getting lost. To them, being lost means losing contact with their compass point. Orienting voids, situations where we find nothing or no one to orient by, are absolutely intolerable to the human brain.
The authors go on to explain that various conditions in our culture have combined to leave children with a huge orienting void — that, unfortunately, they fill by orienting themselves to their peers:
In adult-oriented cultures, where the guiding principles and values are those of the more mature generations, kids attach to each other without losing their bearings or rejecting the guidance of their parents. In our society that is no longer the case. Peer bonds have come to replace relationships with adults as children’s primary sources of orientation…Children have become the dominant influence on one another’s development.
And what happens when children no longer orient themselves to their parents, their families, and other adults? The authors offer a perfect description of modern youth culture when they write:
“Hey” is the universal greeting. “Sup” substitutes for “what’s up” as the replacement for “how are you” or “how’s it going”…Such “conversations” can and do go on at length without anything more meaningful being said. It’s tribal language, foreign to adults, and it has the implicit purpose of making a connection while revealing nothing of value about the self.
“Today’s teens are a tribe apart, ” wrote the journalist Patricia Hersch in her 1999 book on adolescence in America. As befits a tribe, teens have their own language, values, meanings, music, dress codes, and identifying marks, such as body piercings and tattoos. […]
Although we have lulled ourselves into believing that this tribalization of youth is an innocuous process, it is a historically new phenomenon with a disruptive influence on social life. It underlies the frustration many parents feel at their inability to pass on their traditions to their children.
In the separate tribe many of our children have joined, the transmission of values and culture flows horizontally, from one unlearned and immature person to another. This process…is eroding one of the underpinnings of civilized social activity. […]
“Children throughout Western civilization, ” declared an MTV announcer not long ago, “are coming to look more like each other than their own parents or grandparents.”
The results of this are disturbing not just because of the implications for society as a whole, but for the individual child. I found myself nodding vigorously as the authors described the defense mechanisms that peer-oriented children are forced to adopt. I moved around a lot, and in the schools I went to where there was a higher level of peer orientation, I saw these behaviors a lot more:
If many kids are damaged these days by the insensitivity of their peers it is not necessarily because children today are more cruel than in the past, but because peer orientation has made them more susceptible to one another’s taunts and emotional assaults. Our failure to keep our children attached to us and to the other adults responsible for them has not only taken away their shields but put a sword in the hands of their peers. […]
No wonder, then, that “cool” is the governing ethic in peer culture, the ultimate virtue…It connotates an air of invulnerability. Where peer orientation is intense, there is no sign of vulnerability in the talk, in the walk, in the dress, or in the attitudes. […]
Peer-oriented kids will do anything to avoid the human feelings of aloneness, suffering, and pain, and to escape feeling hurt, exposed, alarmed, insecure, inadequate, or self-conscious. The older and more peer-oriented the kids, the more drugs seem to be an inherent part of their lifestyle. Peer orientation creates an appetite for anything that would reduce vulnerability. Drugs are emotional painkillers.
So how did we end up in this situation?
This was the part I found particularly interesting. When I read the author’s description of a small town in France that has a traditional, multigenerational, family-oriented culture (the type of culture that always existed in America until the breakdown of lifelong communities over the past 60 years), it became glaringly obvious that our society is nothing like that today, and that that is not a good thing:
[In Rognes, France] children greeted adults and adults greeted children. Socializing involved whole families, not adults with adults and children with children. There was only one village activity at a time, so families were not pulled in several directions…Even at the village fountain, the local hangout, teens mixed with seniors. Festivals and celebrations, of which there were many, were family affairs. The music and dancing brought the generations together instead of separating them…One could not even buy a baguette without first engaging in the appropriate greeting rituals. […]
The attachment customs are the village primary school were equally impressive. Children were personally escorted to school and picked up by their parents or grandparents. The school was gated and the grounds could be entered only by a single entrance. At the gate were the teachers, waiting for their students to be handed over to them. Again, culture dictated that connection be established with appropriate greetings between the adult escorts and the teachers as well as the teachers and the students…When the children were released from school, it was always one class at a time, with the teacher in the lead…Their teachers were their teachers whether on the grounds or in the village market or at the village festival. There weren’t many cracks to fall through.
I don’t think I need to detail the differences between this and our own culture today. The difference is striking, and it’s clear which one is more natural and facilitates healthy bonds between children and their families.
So what should we do?
The authors have a wide variety of suggestions that all basically come down to putting structures in place to help foster kids’ “attachment” to their parents, as would have happened naturally if they lived in a traditional village setting (e.g. eat dinner as a family, seek activities that include the whole family, don’t let kids spend all their free time with their friends, etc.) I actually didn’t get as much out of this last part of the book because I didn’t agree with all of their suggestions, particularly concerning discipline. But that didn’t really matter — for all I care, they could have skipped the entire section on solutions — because this is one of those cases where by being able to name the problem you’re half way to solving it.
Now that I understand the concept of peer orientation, I’ll never see our society the same way again. So many things make so much more sense now. I finally understand what’s going on with the kids who sulk around the neighborhood in their black baggy clothes, why I did that myself when I was younger, why so many kids at my high school committed suicide over petty difference with friends, why I get a really bad feeling every time I watch MTV, and so on and so on.
I apologize for the length of this post, I usually try to keep them much shorter, but I found this topic so interesting and enlightening that I wanted to share it in case others find it helpful as well.
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