It has been more than a half-century since James Coleman and his team surveyed students in ten high schools to determine their values and interests and attitudes toward learning. The conclusion was that a new social formation was upon us: the adolescent society. That was the title of the book summarizing the findings, with the subtitle “The Social Life of the Teenager and Its Impact on Education.”
When questioned about what they like to do and what they care about, the kids made it quite clear that their minds and desires were absorbed in a world all their own. They had their own music and movies, speech and dress, heroes and role models, hangouts and activities, the whole amounting to an adolescent subculture forbidden to grownups. The ambitions were similarly social. Being good-looking, well-liked, active, and athletic counted more than being smart and hard-working. That’s what their peers valued, and that’s what they answered to.
Where and how did this trend originate? Curiously, though their attitudes weren’t oriented toward school, school was, in fact, the cause of the adolescent society. Over the course of the twentieth century, adolescents were staying in school longer and longer. Early in the 1900s, only one out of ten American teens finished high school. Most of them left the classroom in fourth to eighth grade and went to work, passing their teen years under the supervision of adults and spending limited time with peers. For the average 15 year old, there was no such thing as a “social life.”
By 1950, though, most of them stayed through twelfth grade. High school attendance exploded. For seven hours a day (not including after-school activities), five days a week, 185 days a year, teenagers were packed into tight quarters by the hundreds, moving from room to room, eating lunch together, hanging out in locker rooms.
The natural thing happened. This population developed its own mores, values, manners, tastes, interests; Cliques and tribes formed. A ladder of prestige was erected, with select youths assigning others their place upon it. The voice of teachers, employers, and parents was bound to become less influential as the subculture matured. Youths spent more time with one another, and youth materials prevailed. The peer-based stakes were too high (popularity, bullying, shunning, courting) for youths not to heed vigilantly the norms of their fellows. It was a matter of desire, as well as survival, for them to engage in what social scientists term “age segregation,” that is, the immersion in one’s own age group and avoidance of other age groups.
Coleman’s study was prescient. (Coleman’s subsequent project, now called “The Coleman Report,” has been regarded as one of the most important education studies of the century.) The age segregation process has only intensified. Social media, in particular, have accelerated youth contact, serving mainly as a vehicle of peer pressure and adolescent culture.
This is why family physician and psychologist Leonard Sax in his latest book, The Collapse of Parenting, emphasizes its opposite, parental authority. “In many families,” he writes, “what kids think and what kids like and what kids want now matters as much, or more, than what their parents think and like and want.” In disputes over whether kids can do this or that, go here or there, get this new gadget or not, the kids prevail. Parents face two forces that persuade them to comply, or simply wear them down, one, the insistent demands of kids (reinforced by youth media and consumerism), and two, the opinions of other children. All the weight falls on the younger side: “In American culture today, same-age peers matter more than parents.”
This is particularly distressing, Sax says, because the culture youths learn from one another is one of disrespect and indignity. Sax finds it in popular TV shows such as Dog with a Blog, Jessie, and Liv and Maddie, which display adults as clueless and incompetent, as well as hip-hop music and pornography (which boys view avidly).
The situation calls for parents to add a new burden to their list of duties. Feed and clothe and shelter your kids, make them do homework, talk to them and have fun with them . . . AND keep peer pressure to healthy levels. Parents must realize that they are in a competition. Youth culture has designs on every young American with an iPhone, a tablet, TV, Facebook page, and friends. Every 15-year-old in the back seat with buds in his ears tuned in to Fetty Wap, not to his father at the wheel, is a misplaced focus. The girl who gets a tattoo because all her friends have one is on the wrong track. Parents are in a dubious battle, and with mobile technology it never stops except when youths disconnect and have direct exchange with grownup people, books, music, art, ideas, and values.
This is, Sax acknowledges, an exhausting responsibility for mothers and fathers, but it’s unavoidable. There is an army of pop psychologists, educators, journalists, young adult novelists, film and TV producers, and youth advocates advising parents to hold back and allow children the freedom to discover themselves and socialize with one another. They frame the strict parent as a tyrant and a loser. They treat religious and moral restraints on youth as unjust.
They’re wrong. Parents must be the most influential figures in children’s lives, rearing them with conversation, fun, schoolwork, discipline, and their own general deportment. If they aren’t so disposed, they shall hand their children over to the powers of adolescence.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.