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Do all teens have to rebel, or is that a modern fiction?


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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 05/15/22

According to one expert, teenage rebellion isn't a common phenomenon around the world -- it's actually considered unusual.

My two oldest daughters are currently teenagers. This fact, once revealed, elicits sympathy and knowing looks from new acquaintances and strangers at the grocery store. They tell my wife and I how brave we are, laud our superhuman endurance, assure us we just need to hang in there and everything will be all right. There’s a sense of solidarity, like we’re in the same military unit tightening the laces on our boots before descending into trench warfare.

Here’s the thing, though: our teenage girls are delightful.

My wife Amber says they remind her of living with two super awesome college roommates. They’re fun, quirky, and endlessly creative. They do weird things like bake bread in the middle of the night and paint massive murals on the bedroom walls. They make us laugh, inspire us, and drag us on new adventures. They inject youthful energy into our middle-aged bones. Life is better with them around.

Teenagers are famous for rebelliousness. Filmmakers, for instance, labor under the belief that teens have a propensity to form leather-jacketed, motorcycle-riding gangs of Marlon Brando clones. They run riot through our quiet suburban streets, sneering at the confusion of their elders about what they’re rebelling against by snarling, “Whaddya got?” Or something like that.

The point is, in the United States, teenagers are more or less expected to rebel and reject everything their parents hold dear. They dye their hair, dress in strange clothing, listen to aggressive music, and mock the religion and morals of the previous generation. Parents are reduced to praying that eventually these kids come to their senses and return to the fold. In the meantime, rebellion is expected and tolerated. Sometimes it’s even encouraged as being healthy.

Does it have to be this way?

No, it doesn’t have to be this way. I’m not bragging only about my own teenage children who, as I’ve said, are super great. I’ve noticed that their teenage friends are also perfectly fine, normal human beings. They’re well-adjusted, polite, ambitious, thoughtful people. In our church, the teens are so serious about their faith that I joke about how we should follow the example of the teenage girls.

Sure, teens are at an age where they’re trying to figure life out but it isn’t obvious to me that that means they automatically go through a rebellious phase, let alone that it’s healthy for them. So what’s going on?

Why are our expectations so warped?

Dr. Robert Epstein, writing in Scientific American Mind, debunks the myth that teens naturally turn wild as a result of unformed brain matter and under-cooked emotional maturity. Instead, he says, outside influences and turmoil are what prompt them to react. It’s not genetic; it’s environmental.

In other words, adults are raising teens in stressful environments that cause them to socially malfunction. We’re to blame and shouldn’t blame them for it. The issues may arise from their current model of education and its attendant stresses, over-scheduling, broken family dynamics, or the receding role of religious faith. Who knows? But it isn’t simply because teens are naturally rebellious.

As evidence, Epstein points out that, around the world, teenage rebellion isn’t a common phenomenon. It’s actually considered unusual. Historically, too, teens were more mature. They married earlier, took on work responsibilities, and even made major contributions to society.

Epstein references a study done in the 1980s at Harvard that, “Suggests that teen trouble begins to appear in other cultures soon after the introduction of certain Western influences, especially Western-style schooling, television programs and movies.”

For instance, the study points out, “Delinquency was not an issue among the Inuit people of Victoria Island, Canada … until TV arrived in 1980. By 1988 the Inuit had created their first permanent police station to try to cope with the new problem.”

Whatever the cause, it’s clear that teens aren’t inherently rebellious.

I asked my friend Jennifer who, along with her husband Brian, appears to have raised two perfectly normal, well-adjusted teenagers, if she has any thoughts. She says, “While they tested boundaries, they were a joy during what some see as a turbulent phase.” They weren’t perfect, she admits, but who is? She goes on, “They know we love them and want the best for them. I credit prayer in our home, weekly Mass, firmness, forgiveness and support from my spouse with giving our family the grace it needs to avoid rebellion.”

Jennifer was also extremely attentive to the kind of schools her children attended. Homeschooling, for them, was a lifesaver after bad experiences with a school.

It’s natural for teens to explore boundaries. but there is no reason that as a group they should devolve into full-on rebellion.

Even though my teen-parenting “battle” isn’t over yet, so far I’ve found that they deserve respect, to be treated as individual, unique people and not a scary demographic. I shelter them from infantalizing pop culture, listen to their concerns, respond to their opinions more-or-less on the basis of equality, and provide appropriate parental guidance when necessary. I’ve found it rare to have to pull rank on them.

I also show them my own humanity so they understand what motivates me, what bothers me, what challenges me. We want them fully invested in the process of becoming adults, not escaping it because what we reveal to them about adult life is so off-putting.

I suppose what’s most challenging to me personally is that teens won’t accept compromise. They want to live to the fullest. They seek the very best. Instead of squashing that idealism, I try to channel and nurture it, encourage their dreams and help them develop their passions. In the process, I have to take a hard look at myself, my own dreams and passions. I often look in the mirror and shrug — maybe adults should be more like teenagers.

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