Goodbye to innocence
ON a train last week I overheard two apple-cheeked schoolgirls in gingham uniforms make polite conversation.
‘Are you a heavy?’ asked one. ‘Or a punk like your friend?’
‘Naw,’ replied the other gloomily, fiddling disconsolately with her satchel strap. ‘I’ve given up being a heavy. Don’t want to be a punk. Dunno what I am now.’
Identity is the key issue for the adolescent. Who am I, now that I am no longer just the child of my parents? It is a perilous time, as all transitions are - like standing balanced on the midpoint of a seesaw. Sometimes the adolescent tips towards adulthood, sometimes lurches violently back into childhood. She doesn’t know where she is - and neither do her apprehensive parents.
Everything about the adolescent is becoming unfamiliar. Her body has started to balloon out into a strange new shape. So have her feelings and fantasies. And even her mind begins to play tricks that get her into trouble. Up till now, for instance, the child has generally accepted unthinkingly the values of her parents as expressed in their morality and lifestyle. But at about ten years old, according to child psychologists, the mind starts to enjoy juggling with abstract, hypothetical ideas. One important consequence is that the adolescent starts to weigh up her parents’ way of life and match it against others’. She also tries on for size several other personae - including a few pre-packaged ones, like being a punk or a part-time heavy. Trying on alternative sets of values rarely goes down well with parents. who see their role as guardians of the child’s worldview under threat. The adolescent’s psychological separation from the parent-figures has begun.
Overt rebellion is not the only way the separation presents itself - withdrawal into a private world is a safer and commoner method. Adolescence is the age of secret diaries; lengthy confidences swapped with ‘best friends’: a pudding-like unresponsiveness in classrooms; deliberate lies to parents concerning whereabouts.
So on the one hand adolescence is about separation - separation from parents; and on the other about union - union with ‘myself’. And that requires building some pretty strong fences to mark the line that differentiates the adolescent from adults.
Not only is adolescence the age of complex codes and cliques, with exclusive languages and fast-change fashions like passwords to keep outsiders out. It’s also the time when deep-rooted family identifications begin to be thrown out of the window. Class, religion, political expectations - they are all under threat. I watched a gentle Buddhist boy from a liberal, middle-class family winding himself up through his early teens to shock his family. I wondered how he’d do it. Joining a radical political party or getting into trouble with drugs wouldn’t have worked - the family would only have been more understanding than ever. At 16, the boy became an ardent. evangelical Christian and spent all his time singing in a working-class church. There’s always a way.
The ardour is no accident. When old moral and spiritual values are junked, a space is created for fresh ideals to pour in like a flood. It’s no coincidence that teenagers go through spiritual crises, hitting transcendental highs and lows; or that they join political parties with extremist ideals. Che Guevara was the perfect hero for the teenager. The media suggested that he was not only a guerilla, but that he had kicked his middle-class background in the teeth when he retreated into the jungle. It sounded as if he’d flouted both family and political conventions - what every radical teenager dreamed of having the courage to do. And Guevara was fighting more than an external battle: his physical disruption - the virulent attacks of asthma and allergies he was plagued with - bore witness to his internal conflict, making him a more appropriate hero than ever for the physiologically chaotic adolescent.
But that was in the Sixties, when you snatched the world from the hands of misguided authorities in order to rescue it yourself. But what have the heroes of the past ten years symbolised’? They come from the world of pop, not politics, and present images of violence and negation - not revolution, but rebellion; not Che, but Johnny Rotten; instead of glowing idealism, there’s cobweb-faced despair.
The punks and skinheads aren’t voting for more change - they’re voting for racism and the Right: a hapless plea for stability, jamming on the brakes at a time of economic and political disillusionment. Where are the heroes and heroines - individuals or groups - that we offer the young today as models for inspiration? Who stands for the young?
Teenagers feel lost - and their parents, however willing, don’t know how to help. They feel they ‘know’ how to respond to small children: basically, they offer love and protection. But mothering of adolescents (by either parent) is now rightly regarded as smothering. The separation from the childhood relationship, though painful, has been initiated and needs to continue. A new relationship needs to be struck. But what’?
Traditional societies usually responded decisively when they saw adolescence on the horizon, turning a potential crisis to social advantage. At puberty the adolescent was taken firmly out of childhood innocence and given clear responsibility: he or she had a definite role to play in society. Usually the girl was given a nurturing, domestic role, and the boy a spiritual guardianship - like a hen that sits on the eggs while the cock scours the perimeter.
Not that children don’t have responsibilities before puberty, but there is a qualitative shift: before, a child in training has responsibilities; after puberty the adolescent is morally responsible. The age of innocence is over. A five-year old Nepalese girl, for instance, will look after her baby sister: but at puberty she will marry and by fifteen she will be looking after another baby - but this time her own.
She has no individual choice in the matter - society has decided it all for her. But at least she is sure of who she is and what her role in life is to be. As Margaret Mead wrote in Culture and Commitment, questions of identity and purpose in the modern sense would have been meaningless to preliterate man: He was what he was: one of his own people - … inalienable, sheltered and fed within the cocoon of custom until his whole being expressed it.’
But what about modern society? Our rites of passage are a shambles. We offer the adolescent neither choice-less security, nor a firm base from which to make good individual choices. Instead, we offer a muddle of repression, anxiety, inequality, disempowerment - and a nervous wish that it weren’t so. What we’re not prepared to do is to make the structural changes necessary to make adolescence an opportunity rather than a crisis.
Take school, for instance. That’s our chief rite of passage, the place where we take the child and pretend to teach him the skills and principles he needs in order to confidently carry out his role in society. In fact, school empowers a few at the expense of many: literally, it marks the majority for life as failures. The principle of ‘them that has, gets’ is constantly reinforced at school: US studies show how the white child gets praised by the teacher for initiative, where the black child gets smacked down for showing off. Similarly, teachers reward girls for docility, but boys for assertiveness.
After 12 years or more of expensive, specialist education, the lucky pupil leaves school with neither the specific skills to get a job nor a set of wise principles for understanding how the world works nor a mature sense of responsibility for himself and others.
The unemployment rate for the under 25s is double that of adults in the UK. And the situation in the developing world is even more desperate. So what is society doing? We push pupils up the educational ladder for years on end (working the studious teenager longer hours than trade unions would allow adults to work) - and at the top of the ladder we push them off.
Cohn Ball, now of the Centre of Employment Initiatives, is fierce about adult hypocrisy. Everyone, even trade unions, goes on about youth unemployment being so bad,’ he says. But where is the factory that goes on strike because not enough young people are employed there?’
He puts his finger on the bruise. As long as we see young people as threatening to us, we won’t change society to include them. It’s the same problem women came up against in the first decades of their liberation movement - the old ‘if you win, I lose’ dilemma. Men feared that if they allowed women more space they would have less space themselves. But, in a few circles at least, men are beginning to see that more freedom for women to choose the pattern of their lives can also give men more freedom to do the same: if a woman is less tied to hearth-and-heart the man is less tied to bacon-hunting. As a Californian might put it, win-win instead of win-lose.
Something similar needs to happen in the way adults see young people. At present we keep them disempowered because we are afraid that they will disempower us. When they are the adults in power, we will be the pensioners grateful for the free bus passes they’ve kindly donated. But we may as well face the fact that they are going to be the powers-that-be of the future: men may think they can keep women down for-ever, the rich may think they can keep the poor down forever, but Death will remove us from power over our children, whether we like it or not. Why not make the inevitable shift gracefully - and see what it is that adolescents are trying to offer us? The transition could be a gain for both groups, rather than a gain for youth at the expense of adults. We could even celebrate adolescence - when we sink into resignation, it is the adolescent challenge that wakes us up.
For adolescents hold a mirror to society: what we blame on them is what we refuse to look at in ourselves. Rather than get to grips with what’s wrong with society as a whole, we focus down on what’s wrong with the adolescent. It’s not school that doesn’t fit - it’s kids who don’t fit the school. It’s not society that drugs itself into oblivion - it’s kids on heroin. But for every adolescent who takes the rap for drug addiction, there are ten fathers ‘socially’ on alcohol and twenty mothers ‘medically’ on Valium. The adolescent crisis is a social disease - and like with any other disease. the usual social response is to get rid of the discomfort with a quick fix rather than to see it as a symptom of a malfunctioning organism. The patriarch-doctor suppresses the pain. What was the pain there to tell you - that you need to change something in your life? You’ll never know, now that the pain is blotted out.
What society is as king for now is another - bigger, better - pain-killer, to take away the pain that is evident through adolescents being so nakedly in trouble in modern society. Where can we find another prescription - a new curriculum, a new employment scheme - that will take the symptoms away?
If anyone doubts that the young are victims rather than enemies they should look at the straight exploitation that millions of adolescents suffer at the hands of their ‘protectors’. That child labour exists we all know: but the issue is not just a matter of a few thousand children in back street sweatshops in Thailand. The International Labour Office (ILO) reckons that 50 - 10(1 million children are involved. Obviously society colludes: if families are so poor they must depend on their children’s wages, on the pittance earned by a four-year-old in an Indian match factory, then all of society has turned its back on its responsibility to provide the young with their basic needs: their fundamental right to physical, mental and emotional nurturing, followed by guidance into a meaningful role in society.
Incest is another example. In every fourth family, a girl is sexually molested or raped by a member of the household or a close family friend. All these adults betray their position as guardians of youth, twice over; they exploit the vulnerable child in their care, and they leave her with no-one to turn to, to make sense of her shattered life. Incest victims turn their horror inwards, take the adult’s guilt on board as their own shame. Often they try to erase themselves out of existence, through suicide or starving themselves into invisibility. Two thirds of anorexic girls in a UK study turned out to be incest victims.
Child labour and incest are crimes against young humanity committed under the noses of a society that purports to disapprove of such behaviour. But who is to stop them? Only other adults, in the form of social or legal pressure, and such counterpressure is rare. Even in the most blatant cases of adult cruelty, there is a huge reluctance to ‘interfere’. After a child is found battered, we safely express high indignation. But children are battered, abandoned, raped, driven to suicide every day and we don’t step in to stop it.
Tinkering around with curricula is hardly the answer, We have to be prepared to hear the adolescent’s need - for a place in society, a responsible role that gives identity and purpose: for empowerment. And that means seeing what it is in society that stops adolescents, and the rest of us, from having that clear sense of choice and control. The factory workers who won’t go on strike for the young because they are (understandably) in fear of losing their own jobs need to ask themselves why they are pitting themselves against the young, when both groups are in the same boat. Why are they fighting over crumbs in a society where there is plenty of bread? The enemy is not the young: the enemy is powerlessness. So the question ‘who stands for the young?’ assumes a new importance. Whoever stands for the young stands for everyone.
This special report appeared in the goodbye to innocence - the making of an adult issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.