Sample text for The 7 best things (smart) teens do / John C. Friel, Linda D. Friel.
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The Agony and the
Ecstasy, the Power
and the Glory
The Parrot, the Appalachian Science Student, the Suburban Lawyer, the Media Rep, the Murderers and the Vandal, and the Grace in South Central L.A.
No plan is perfect. At any time we may have to abandon ship and jump into the unknown.
¨Joan Borysenko, A Woman's Journey to God: Finding the Feminine Path, 1999
Out of Tension and Conflict, Respect
The Parrot and the Appalachian Science Student
A young man gets on a crosstown bus. He has spiked, multicolored hair that's green, purple and orange. His clothes are a tattered mix of leather rags. His legs are bare, and he's without shoes. His entire face and body are riddled with pierced jewelry, and his earrings are big, bright feathers. He sits down in the only vacant seat, directly across from an old man who just glares at him for the next ten miles. Finally, the young man becomes self-conscious and barks at the old man, "What are you looking at! Didn't you ever do anything wild when you were young?" Without missing a beat, the old man replies, "Yeah. Back when I was young and in the Navy, I got drunk in Singapore and had sex with a parrot. I thought maybe you were my son."
This joke has been circulating on the Internet for years, and is, in fact, so old and so corny that we should be embarrassed to pass it on to you. We aren't, however, because on further reflection it becomes obvious that we could design an entire university course based on sorting out the infinite levels of developmental and family dynamics contained within this fascinating little story.
Are there universal themes contained in this tale? Do all older adults feel this way about younger adults? Could there be a faint hint of warmth and playfulness in the old man's comment? If the younger man chooses to respond to the old man's sarcastic comment as if it might contain bits of warmth rather than just hostility, could the two men develop a friendship? Could their balanced confrontation¨their squaring off as they did¨allow them to attain a level of intimacy that is unimaginable had both of them sat silently in discomfort and contempt for each other? How is this scenario nearly identical to the poignant 1950s dynamic between Homer Hickam Jr. and his West Virginia coal-mining father in the autobiographical film October Sky? In that movie, the father remained angry, disappointed and distant for almost too long as his high school son, with equal stubbornness, pursued his seemingly impossible dream of building a successful model rocket and qualifying for the national science fair. Is there wisdom in humor, or only anger and contempt? Is strong conflict a key ingredient to the kind of deep relationships for which we all long?
Well, as we just said, it would be a piece of cake to design an entire university course around the themes and dynamics contained within this corny tale.
The Suburban Lawyer
"I think there ought to be a place to send kids when they're thirteen¨a holding camp or workhouse of some sort¨and then when they're twenty, they can come home." Thus spoke a successful suburban attorney who happened to be the next-door neighbor of one set of our parents a few decades ago. Was it angry and cruel? Judging from the care that he had for his teenage daughters, from their inner balance, and from the twinkle in his eye that accompanied the very real exasperation in his voice, we think not. Living in paradox and loving with depth go together, an idea that Confucius succinctly captured when he said, "Only the truly kind person knows how to love and how to hate."
The End Results of Growing Up¨Or Not
Lynn Ponton, M.D., is the mother of two teenage girls, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do. In a May 1999 commentary in Newsweek, she wrote that, "Keeping kids on the right track means maintaining parental involvement, encouraging them to take healthy risks instead of dangerous ones, listening instead of lecturing. Parents also have to watch their own risk-taking behavior¨because teens are."
Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert wrote that
In survey after survey, many kids¨even those on the honor roll¨say they feel increasingly alone and alienated, unable to connect with their parents, teachers and, sometimes, even classmates. They're desperate for guidance, and when they don't get what they need at home or in school, they cling to cliques or immerse themselves in a universe out of their parents' reach.
And then there is this quote:
Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants. They no longer rise when their elders enter the room, they contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.
[This passage is attributed to Socrates, who lived from 470 to 399 b.c. The more things change, the more they stay the same.]
The most common question asked of us by radio and television interviewers is: Do you think it is harder for kids to grow up nowadays than it has ever been? Our answer: It's different. After all, history tells us that in centuries past it was considered culturally acceptable and not the least bit unusual to beat, torture, mutilate and sexually abuse children. Even in this century, the plight of children in decades past had serious shortcomings.
In the 1950s when many moms were at home full-time, serious problems like child sexual abuse carried so much shame that even mental health professionals buried their heads in the sand. This left children to suffer silently and doomed them to carry their secrets into adulthood where they played them out with their children. Still wounded by the Great Depression and World War II, many parents wanted so badly to create the perfect suburban family life that they instead created a hollow external shell that masked all the depth and richness of being fully human. This eventually resulted in a nationwide revolt, from which we are still reeling in some ways.
Things may be confusing and difficult for parents and children right now, but surely current problems have solutions just like past ones did. In our work with families, we have found that the solutions to so many human problems are ultimately found by looking both at the extremes and at what constitutes depth with balance. When it comes to the goals of growing up, this approach is especially important. Kids want parents who have the guts to be parents, and kids want adults to whom they can look up, not away. We continue with a few more stories for your consideration.
The Media Rep
"I kicked their ass!" Sandra Hart gloated in April 1995. A renowned public relations executive, she had been picked up by the Minneapolis police who thought they had run across a "slumper," that is, a drunk driver who had pulled over in her car and fallen asleep or passed out. When her case came up before Judge Myron Greenberg, he regretfully dismissed it because of technicalities. Hart had a long history of alcohol-related driving arrests and convictions, but claimed that they had all occurred in the 1970s. Of course, the record showed otherwise. She had actually been arrested for drunk driving in 1981, 1983, 1984, 1988, twice in 1990, and again in 1993. When she commented on the judge's reluctant decision, she crowed, "I kicked their ass! I was never afraid or fearful. I had two things on my side: God and the justice system."
God is on her side? Is she out of her mind? The Nazis thought they had God on their side. The Ku Klux Klan thinks they have God on their side. We thought we had God on our side when we tried to carpet-bomb Vietnam into oblivion. Now this woman thinks that she has God on her side? When a parent slaps a child across the face and blackens his eye, the parent will often explain it by saying that he had to do it "for the child's own good." This may sound plausible to some people at first glance, but, of course, it is pitifully implausible. No research, experience or wisdom supports the goodness of such an act. We humans have a peculiar habit of believing that what we do must be right by the simple fact that we did it. We tend to be pretty narcissistic.
Another strange thing that many of us have a strong tendency to do is to actually pity¨to feel sorry for and protect¨people who do cruel, terrible things. At some level, we detect how damaged a person must be to treat others that way, and so the compassionate part of us tries to take over from the wise part of us.
When we recount the details of the above incident involving Sandra Hart to audiences of professionals who are attending a training seminar on working with victim-perpetrator dynamics, their immediate reaction is shock and disgust. As we interact more with the audience by asking questions and probing a bit beneath the surface, what everyone discovers is their inner reactions to things are not always the same as their surface reactions. For example, people who are angry with the law or with bureaucrats or with their parents or with the government may find themselves secretly applauding this woman's actions. People who are alcoholic or drug addicted¨yes, there are psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and counselors who are¨may feel unconsciously protective of this woman because they share an addiction in common. People who were intimidated and hurt by abusive or neglectful parents may either find themselves wanting her crucified or wanting to protect her out of the symbolic fear of getting hurt again, or because of misdirected pity.
By way of an update, Sandra Hart was convicted of her tenth drunken-driving offense in December 1999 (shame on the State of Minnesota for letting it go this long), and she was finally sentenced to some jail time in January 2000.
The Grace in South Central L.A.
In 1990, Myrtle Faye Rumph's son was killed in a drive-by shooting. Within hours, friends and relatives had gathered to plan revenge. They watched and waited, put the neighborhood under surveillance, and planned to kill his killers. Myrtle Faye intervened, stating quietly that she didn't want to avenge her son's death, she wanted to memorialize his life. With no money and no government assistance, she set up the beginnings of a storefront teen center in his name. The center was to be a safe and supportive place for teens to congregate away from the violence and death that they experienced regularly. When she ran out of money, she sold her house and kept the center going. Five years later, her center had a yearly budget of $200,000, and had 125 teenagers gathering there on a daily basis. She summed it up when she said, "I didn't want to wait around for the city, the county or the state to give me the money to do it. It's up to black people to change our own destiny. That's what I'm trying to do."
As the author of a Los Angeles Times article on Rumph pointed out, Rumph "had an unlikely manner and scholastic background" for someone who wanted to start a teen center. She had to drop out of high school in her junior year to help support her family, and later came to Los Angeles as a single mother with five dollars to her name. What a remarkable woman she must be. We have been reading her story to audiences since 1995. Each time we do, we have to hold back the tears in order to finish reading it. She is an awe-inspiring model for us and for everyone in our audience. We are especially grateful for a person like her because her wisdom is so profound and her humility so deep that we are forced to admit how far we have to go just to come close to her emotional and spiritual competence. Without people like her to remind us of how limited and limitless we are, we would certainly be lost. Myrtle Faye Rumph is one of the clearest examples of unmitigated power that we have encountered in the contemporary press. Her life is nothing less than an invitation for us to improve ourselves.
The Murderers and the Vandal
Lyle and Erik Menendez murdered their sleeping parents in cold blood a little after 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 20, 1989. During the shootings, which took a good deal of time, they ran out of ammunition. They had to run back to the car to reload their shotguns so that they could go back and finish off their mother, who was already bleeding to death from multiple gunshot wounds. Their first trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict because attorney Leslie Abramson had made such a convincing case of the fact that the brothers had endured terrible abuse at the hands of their father, and the brothers were therefore justified in killing their parents. They are now serving life sentences in prison because the judge in the last trial did not allow the presentation of their childhood histories.
Michael Faye, an American teenager living in Singapore, was caught vandalizing property. He was sentenced to the brutal, violent punishment of caning. At first, people in the United States were outraged, but when polled as to whether he should be caned or not, a majority of Americans said "Cane him!" Many Americans felt that caning was a barbaric, inhumane custom¨it apparently turns the recipient's buttocks and legs into something akin to raw hamburger¨but they seemed to be so impotently outraged at the lack of respect displayed by young people in the United States today that they were willing to let another country do their dirty work for them in this case.
Into the Power Zone
Is everybody a victim of something? Sure. Some of us are victims of war, terrorist bombings, child abuse or neglect, rape, beatings or other kinds of domestic violence. Certainly those of us who fall into those categories qualify as victims. Then there are the many of us who have suffered the ravages of hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods or fires. It would certainly be reasonable to say that you were a victim of a terrible earthquake. Then there are terrible diseases that can strike anyone at any time, such as cancer, AIDS, neurological disorders and crippling diseases. If we had cancer, we could certainly say that we were victims of cancer.
But there's a difference between acknowledging that one is a victim of something on the one hand, and taking on the victim role on the other. To acknowledge that one is the victim of something is to acknowledge a part of our own reality, and it is therefore good for our souls do so. To take on the role of victim is another thing. To do that is to become helpless and powerless, and to blame everyone else for whatever difficulties we encounter. Being in the victim role means that we don't make decisions and we always have excuses why we can't do or try something. We react passively to life instead of actively engaging in the struggles that life sends our way.
For at least a decade, we have bemoaned the trend of Americans to confuse victim and perpetrator, and to somehow equate one or the other with being a mature, accountable adult. In our opinion, it is the simplistic black-and-white thinking considered normal in a five-year-old that accounts for this confusion. Five-year-old thinking in an adult body is a scary thought. Lyle and Erik Menendez undoubtedly suffered some kind of abuse or chemical imbalance, or both. Regardless of how the media sensationalizes tragedies like this by "going dumb" and ignoring the obvious, the simple fact is that people from healthy families don't go home and shoot each other.
The first jury in the Menendez brothers' trial apparently confused why someone perpetrates with what consequences should be meted out for the offense. Aside from organic brain damage, it is pretty safe to assume that most people who murder, rape, steal, batter or commit emotional violence were once victims of some kind of abuse or neglect in childhood. The solution to being a victim¨the repair or fix for the painful aftermath of having been victimized¨is not to become a perpetrator; nor is the fix for being a perpetrator to become a victim. The solution is to become an adult who is accountable. In other words, you face a choice: Do you act like Sandra Hart or like Myrtle Faye Rumph?
What of America's less than measured response to Michael Faye in Singapore? We adults fail our children by being absent, abusive or "pals" to our kids. When our kids display the resulting behaviors that one would expect from such lack of leadership, we become outraged and have extreme responses. What a mixed-up mess of motives, feelings and irresponsibility parents give their kids. Being a teenager has always been a challenge, but nowadays it seems at times as if it is a bigger challenge than ever because everybody¨parents and teenagers alike¨appear to be confused about this issue of personal accountability.
From Victim and Perpetrator to Powerful
The title of this book implies that there are some specific things that smart teenagers do. The stories and examples that we have used thus far were chosen to set the stage for the remainder of the book. They suggest that there is some inherent tension between teenagers and adults, which, if handled well, can result in unparalleled respect and understanding between them. They hint that there are certain ways in which adults are supposed to help adolescents move into adulthood. They demonstrate what happens when power is distorted and how confused we can all become when it comes to holding someone responsible. And then one story in particular shows the extraordinary things that happen when a person who has little reason to hope or care decides to take an incomprehensible risk, despite the wishes of everyone around her.
Human beings are imperfect by nature. Our flaws are what cause so much hurt in the world. They also are the very things that ultimately allow us to experience humility, which leads to gratitude, which in turn leads to the experience of grace, and then to the true holiness that springs from struggling with our own ordinary limitations. Mother Teresa said, "It is nothing extraordinary to be holy. Holiness is not the luxury of the few. Holiness is a simple duty for you and for me. We have been created for that."
The struggle to pull ourselves out of the victim role and out of the perpetrator role is actually the struggle to become powerful. In The Soul of Adulthood we wrote that power without graciousness becomes perpetration, while graciousness without power gets us stuck in the victim role. The struggle to grow up and become truly powerful is not a challenge just for teenagers. It may manifest itself with special intensity during adolescence, but it is one of the universals that connects teenagers to middle-aged adults, old men and women to little children, infants to the terminally ill, and everyone in between to each other.
We chose this struggle to join grace and power as the centerpiece for this book because it captures all that is confused and painful about being a teenager today, all that is confused and painful about being a parent today, and all that is wondrous and holy about being human. The Power Zone is not a Pollyannish fantasy that is found only in self-help books. The Power Zone is a real, concrete and very attainable state that lies between being a victim and being a perpetrator. As has always been the case throughout human history, our struggle to discover and care for ourselves while discovering and caring for each other is the ultimate challenge and the ultimate high afforded to human beings.
Parents who remain vigilantly mindful that their teenagers are human beings, and teenagers who struggle to find the exhilaration that comes with combining grace and power, will each be rewarded, in the long run, with the respect and love that they each desire.
(c)2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The 7 Best Things (Smart) Teens Do by john C. Friel, Ph.D. and Linda D. Friel, M.A. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.
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Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Success in adolescence.
Self-management (Psychology) for teenagers.
Conduct of life.