The Myth of Teenage Rebellion

The Myth of Teenage Rebellion October 8, 2012

by Latebloomer

Sometimes, as my toddler and I cuddle together to read books on the couch, I can’t help but imagine what our relationship might be like when he becomes a teenager.  On some days, I dread it like a slowly-approaching disaster.  On other days, I feel a sense of hope that, as I deal with my own issues, I’ll be able to give him something better than I experienced.   I’m confronting my old ideas about teenagers head on, and replacing them with healthier and more accurate ideas.

Growing up in fundamentalist homeschooling circles, I heard a lot about “Biblical” parenting–extreme parental authority enforced through potentially abusive levels of spanking.  Because it was “Biblical”, this parenting approach was thought to be the only correct way to parent in any culture and in any time period.  In short, it was supposed to be universal.  I was constantly reminded that the increasing teen rebellion in America and elsewhere was the direct result of parents abandoning these “Biblical” child training principles.

Imagine my surprise to discover that there are entire cultures of people who use exactly the opposite of “Biblical” parenting, yet produce teenagers who are cooperative and contributing members of society.  

One fascinating example of this is in the book “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes,” which is the autobiography of Daniel Everett, a Bible translator who de-converted after spending nearly 30 years living with a remote Amazonian tribe called the Pirahas.  About the Pirahas, Everett writes, “It is interesting to me that in spite of a strong sense of community, there is almost no community-approved coercion of village members.  It is unusual for a Piraha to order another Piraha about, even for a parent to order about a child.  This happens occasionally, but it is generally frowned upon or discouraged, as indicated by the remarks, expressions, and gestures of others watching” (p. 100).  So in the Piraha community, parental authority is not a major part of the child’s experience.  Instead, “Piraha children roam about the village and are considered to be related to and partially the responsibility of everyone in the village.  But on a day-to-day basis, most Pirahas have nuclear families that include the stable presence of a father, a mother, and siblings (full, half, and adopted).  Parents treat their children with much affection, talk to them respectfully and frequently, and rarely discipline them” (p. 98).

Also in contrast to proper “Biblical” parenting, Piraha parents do not use any form of spanking with their children.  Everett explains, “Piraha parenting involves no violence, at least in principle.  But my model of parenting did” (p. 99).  He then describes how his attempts to “Biblically” discipline his child by spanking her led to a huge embarrassing scene in the Piraha village.  Spanking a child is a shocking foreign concept to the Pirahas.  Instead of using physical discipline to achieve obedience, Piraha parents allow their children to make their own choices and learn from their mistakes.  According to Everett, “Piraha children are noisy and rambunctious and can be as stubborn as they choose to be.  They have to decide for themselves to do or not to do what their society expects of them.  Eventually they learn that it is in their best interests to listen to their parents a bit” (p. 97).

So, growing up without strong parental authority or physical discipline  what are Piraha teens like?  Everett explains: “Piraha teenagers, like all teenagers, are giggly and can be very squirrelly and rude.  They commented that my ass was wide.  They farted close to the table as soon as we were sitting down to eat, then laughed like Jerry Lewis.  Apparently the profound weirdness of teenagers is universal.  But I did not see Piraha teenagers moping, sleeping in late, refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions, or trying out what they considered to be radically new approaches to life.  They in fact are highly productive and conformist members of their community in the Piraha sense of productivity…One gets no sense of teenage angst, depression, or insecurity among the Piraha youth” (p. 99-100).

Clearly, this type of parenting approach, even though it is the opposite of “Biblical” parenting, is working out well for the Pirahas in their culture.  Piraha culture, however, is very different from American culture, and there are many aspects of their lives that would be unacceptable in the cultural setting of the US.  It would be foolish to blindly imitate Piraha parenting and expect similar results in a very different culture.

It is also foolish and simplistic to say that the American problem with teen rebellion is due to the abandonment of “Biblical” parenting principles.  In America, the increase in teen rebellion appeared at the same time as American youth culture did; therefore, to find the real answers, it’s necessary to look at the cultural shifts that led to the emergence of the American youth culture almost one hundred years ago.

A very thoroughly-researched and interesting history textbook by Paula Fass, recommended by Libby Anne, covers the major cultural changes in the US in the 1920s.  The book, called “The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s”, focuses on how these cultural changes led to the new influential youth culture during that time.  Here are some of the key ideas:

1.  For most of history, and even in many third-world countries today, the family had a very specific purpose: to work together to ensure the survival of all of the members.  Family members’ time and energy were spent on basic survival, with little time for deep conversation or affection.  However, leading up to the 1920s, huge improvements in technology drastically improved the quality of life for many American families.  As Fass explains, “advances in industry and the effects of technological progress in labor-saving procedures made this conservation of youthful energy socially feasible.  The labors of the young were not immediately needed for social survival or progress” (Kindle location 619).  In other words, child labor was no longer necessary for most families in American culture.

2.  The decrease in youth work requirements was replaced by an increase in educational expectations.  Because of the technological advancement of society, the youth suddenly needed more education in order to successfully enter society.  High schools and colleges at the time saw an shockingly huge and sudden increase in enrollment.

3.  Extended education meant that the youth had to remain dependent on their parents for much longer, as Fass explains: “Both parents and children must be willing to accept the parent-child bond for longer periods of time and not to chafe under the terms. Parents must accept the burden of costs, but children must bear the constrictions of continued dependency” (Kindle location 906).  Although they were biologically ready for independence, the youth were not mentally ready for the complex and technologically-advanced culture, and thus had to continue living as dependents for far longer than was comfortable.  This created the opportunity for far more parent-teen conflict than in previous generations.

4.  To adapt to the new educational and vocational reality, many people at the time moved away from small communities to larger urban centers.  This urbanization had unexpected effects.  The social role of the small friendly community, where everyone knew everyone, was replaced by the impersonal anonymity of the bigger city.  In this new impersonal urbanized setting, family dynamics had to change to fit the new needs.  Family relationships became much more affectionate, deep, and personal, qualities which had been lacking in previously rural family life. Fass says: “In a rationalized and depersonalized society, the family became an agency of individual nurture and an environment for the development of intimate personal relationships” (Kindle location 1026).

5.  Additionally, the increased school enrollment and extended educational time meant that youth spent increasing amounts of time with their peers.  Peer influence began to play an important role in the lives of the youth, a role that had previously been played by the tightly-knit community.  According to Fass, “the impersonality of the city made families autonomous and anonymous, cut off from the eyes and ears of community control. No longer could community pressures ensure conformity and order” (Kindle location 1176).  In this new setting, youth peer culture provided a transitional middle ground from the affectionate and personalized family life to the depersonalized and performance-based adult society.  Fass explains, “the effect of peer activity within the expanded student population was to promote wholesale conformity among ever increasing numbers of adolescents and young adults. Peer pressures and peer groups thus counteracted the individualizing and personalizing trend that had become marked in the family” (Kindle location 1362).

Since the 1920s, the pace of social and technological change has been even more rapid, and in many ways, it is the ever-flexible and adapting youth culture that has enabled so many changes in such a short time.  Youth today are more connected to each other than ever before, thanks to social media, smart phones, and entertainment; and they have access to far more information through television and the internet.  Is it better for a parent to try to reverse all of this social change, or is it better to learn to work with it?

Authoritarian parents, who have the goal of preventing teen rebellion, find that they must resort to oppressive totalitarian controls to repel the influence of the youth culture.  Theirs is a heavy-handed attempt to wind back the clock on teen rebellion while keeping all the good cultural changes that came  side-by-side with it.   In their attempts to eliminate the influence of the youth culture on their teens, they must avoid so many crucial aspects of our culture today that they greatly damage their teenagers’ ability to eventually enter the wider culture in adulthood.  Additionally, all of the parents’ efforts to isolate and control can be erased as their adult son or daughter enters that society and begins to make their own decisions.

Perhaps a better model of parenting is to realize that total control in this new cultural context is impossible.  Maybe what teens really need from their parents is a few protective boundaries and a lot of openness, approachability, and affirmation.  Maybe they need unconditional love from their parents as they experience both social success and social failure with their peers.  Maybe they need a deeper relational connection with their parents as they experience the anonymity of life in our urban culture today.

Luckily, I have a lot of time before I’ll have my own teenager to deal with–a lot more time to process this information; a lot more time to hear from others about their positive and negative teen experiences with their parents; a lot more time to hear from parents about their positive and negative experiences with their teens; and best of all, a lot more time to cuddle and read with my toddler.  I’m only certain about one thing: “Biblical” parenting is not for me.

Comments open below

Read everything by Latebloomer!

Latebloomer is on a journey away from the ideals she was raised with in the conservative homeschooling culture. Becoming a wife and mother has prompted her to re-evaluate her childhood experiences in an effort to avoid repeating those mistakes.  Her blog Past Tense Present Progressive is her place for sorting through her thoughts.

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  • wanda

    I’ve thought for a long time that a lot of “teenage rebellion” could be prevented if teenagers spent about half the workday being trained for and eventually doing serious, important work in the company of adults. A lot of academic stuff can be accelerated, I feel, to the early ages, allowing teenagers to spend time working. That would give teenagers the sense of purpose and independence that all people need while reducing exposure to their peers, who simply because of age and inexperience are going to be less mature than older people.

    Incidentally, the term “teenage rebellion” is a horrible one- it conflates the kid who using drugs and breaking into houses with the kid who merely holds different opinions than his or her parents. (I know there were one or two occasions where my mother and I had an argument about something that seriously impacted my future, and I turned out to be *right*- but arguing was still “rebellious behavior.”) People are correctly trying to prevent the former but do so by oppressing the behavior shown by the latter. Parents can be left thinking that their children are much worse than they really are and be disappointed about how badly their parenting failed, while children don’t learn how much worse some offenses are than others, since they receive maximal punishment for the smallest offense. Even normal parents who are not following Biblical rules can confuse these two things, since the same terms are used for both.

  • SAO

    The teenage years are when humans become less focused on their families and more on their peer group. If a parent has confidence that their teen has absorbed their values, then they can act as guides, helping the teen make better decisions, but recognizing that making mistakes is part of growing up.

    If you don’t trust that your teen has developed a good set of values, then parents fall back on monitoring behavior. It strikes me as clear that the Biblical parenting is focused not on developing values and the ability to make good choices, but controlling behavior so no unacceptable behavior or views are ever seen or heard.

    Frankly, I find it hard to imagine that the Bible’s words on child rearing are detailed enough to figure out which approach is “Biblical.” My observation is that society changes and reads into the Bible what reflects the values of the day. Before the Civil War, many Americans found words in the Bible that assured them that buying, selling or owning slaves isn’t a sin. No one would find that in the Bible now. The Bible actually talks a great deal more about how wrong divorce is (Mark 10:11, for example), than it does about, say, Gay relationships as a sin. However, divorce is not uncommon in even fundamentalist circles and very few devout Bible readers will view it as a bigger sin than being gay.

  • Carol

    Yes, I completely agree. My universe is centered around my kids, but theirs is not centered around mine, as I feel it should be. I don’t push my cultural preferences or anything else on them, the way my parents did to me, I appreciate what they like and they grudgingly like what I like. Sometimes. I don’t expect them to love everything, or even care about what I care about, it just doesn’t work that way, and it’s totally normal. It’s not easy sometimes, but that’s my problem, not theirs. They do things their own way and if it doesn’t work, we fix it. No problem. Also, we approach everything with a sense of humor. I just can’t stress that enough.

    They are just delightful people, get great grades, they have nice friends, what more could I possibly want. it’s a privilege to be their mom. Like yesterday my 16 year old daughter and I drew still lifes together and she thanked me afterwards for doing that with her. She is so thoughtful of me and please, the pleasure was all mine!

    I feel that other than providing love and a support foundation for them, there isn’t much else I can do to prepare them for this high speed and challenging environment, I wish I could do more. I don’t expect them to have all the answers and I will be there for them if they need to return home as adults. I din’t see why people have kids and feel like the kids owe them something. I feel the opposite. And I feel like they’ve given me more than I could give them.

    Fighting contemporary culture is a fool’s game, a waste of time. Better to learn to find the good in the bad, like you said, kids are way more connected, more tolerant and wiser in their world than ever before.

  • My teenagers are showing no signs of rebellion. I’ve tried to never give them anything to rebel against (unless they want to rebel against love, reason, fairness and kindness).

  • Karen

    Nah, we all rebel. I think it’s necessary, in a way. My mother was afraid of failure — almost paralyzed by the concept. She wanted me to choose an easy path through life so I could excel at it. So I chose a difficult path instead, and excelled at it.

  • I’m a new subscriber, and first time commenter.

    Great post….I was terrified that my two kids would duplicate the wild teen years that were mine and also my husband’s. We did not grow up in Christian homes, but because we were never highly charged “biblical parents” (whatever that meant!!) I was secretly scared that our kids would rebel and end up making dark choices like we did.

    They are now 18 and 15. Neither one is interested in the Bible and one of them is a self-proclaimed agnostic. But they are such well-rounded, trustworthy teenagers that I can leave them and their friends without fear of a drunken orgy breaking loose. They have not lived up to the American rebellious youth ideal. I like to think that the many conversations we had surrounding culture and television shows helped curb this. Not only by keeping open communication with my kids and allowing them to disagree and even defy me, but also by pointing out to them from the onset of adolescence that kids rebelling is not a given and in fact we know many families where the teen years were navigated with normal squalls and conflicts rather than Armageddon meltdowns.

    I appreciate the book that you cite, the missionary who observed an indigenous culture of parents and teens. American teenage rebellion is not a rite of passage for families and it is not a result of a lack of “biblical parenting.” My husband and I are proof of that as our kids are quite tame and they cannot recite a single Bible verse. Yet they are great kids with admirable traits (when they’re not squabbling over the remote).

    Love your blog’s theme. I do not have a ultra conservative background, but I know many women who do and I have been affected deeply by the patriarchal teaching of the churches I have been a part of for most of my adult life. I spend a lot of time and energy speaking with women about how the church has shaped and informed our identities as women. I am appreciative of blogs like yours which helps provide space for women to unravel distortions of ourselves, of men and especially of our Creator. Kudos to you!

  • Is choosing a different path than the one your parent wants, rebellion? I would not define it that way, nor would I consider the path I want for my child to be more than a suggestion. Maybe there’s a difference in the way we’re defining rebellion.

  • suzannecalulu

    I suspect you are right, it all boils down to how we define rebellion. Some parents would see choosing that different path as rebellion while others would not. Some would consider a child with a differing opinion than a parent rebellion while others parents would see it as a natural growth and maturation away from the parents. It all depends on definition.

  • I have two teen boys who have also decided to skip the teen rebellion thing. In our case, I think it helped that we talked – a lot. And we talked about the culture and what’s good and bad about it openly with them, so they feel confident navigating it. Probably most importantly I always made it clear when we were discussing life that ultimately it was going to be up to them to decide what to think and how to behave. As long as they are living in our house, we have rules we will enforce because it’s our house. But their futures and opinions and even their bodies belong to them and are their own responsibility. I think that by planting this idea early and often, they were encouraged to take that responsibility seriously. They don’t agree with us on everything, but have largely chosen to accept our values as their own. But only because they have looked at the world and found our explanations and values credible enough to adopt themselves. Which could all change later, but so far so good.

  • Yeah. But there’s something tragic about teaching a parent to be so afraid that their child might actually turn into a full human being, by defining that as rebellion.

  • I worded that wrong. I didn’t mean that children weren’t full human beings! Just that it’s actually good for a child to develop his or her own goals, desires and plans, and to become a full adult who is not an extension of the parents.