Excerpt from The Philadelphia Trumpet,
Volume 13, Number 6, pp. 21-24.
Why Teens Rebel
By Joel Hilliker
"Clarissa, would you please take those dirty glasses into the kitchen?"
"Why? They're not mine."
"I don't care if they're not yours, Clarissa. You live in this house and I
am asking you to take those glasses out into the kitchen."
"But they're not mine. I don't have to do it."
"You're asking for it.*
*Taken from Get Out of My Life by Anthony E. Wolf Ah-parents and their
teens. Who else would share such an exchange? In
times past, this conversation would have been a rarity ("I never would
have talked to my parents the way she talks to me!"); now it is
This kind of mouthiness highlights a monumental shift in teen attitudes
toward authority. Respect is simply gone. And the problems that creates go
far beyond dirty glasses. They fill our homes, our schools, our streets.
Voices that say teens have always been such a matter of concern to adults,
that today's teens are no different, are drowned out by common experience.
The fact is, today's teens ARE different. The world they are inheriting is
different. Not only do they confront a different set of problems from
previous generations, they PRESENT a different set of problems. Look up
the statistics on drug use, illegitimate births, teen violence; more and
more teens (even the "good" ones) are doing things only "bad" teens did a
generation ago, that no one did two or three generations ago. And none of
them seem to be immune from the respect problem. Though the world is more
complicated for them than it was in the past, it is also much more
permissive. Add to that the changes in teen consumer habits, education,
social concerns and technology. Statistics are one thing; just spending
time with teens tells you as much: Teenage life today is unique.
There are a lot of reasons why this is the case. In this article we will
focus on ONE of them, one that has had more impact on the teen scene than
any other. It is the single greatest change teenagehood has ever seen. And
it has only developed very recently-never a real factor until our CURRENT
If you are unhappy with teenage behavior today, especially if you are a
parent, deeply understanding this cause will put you on the road to
SOLVING your problem. The world has never seen teenagers like today. And
the biggest reason is that WE'VE NEVER HAD PARENTS LIKE THE PARENTS OF
Half a Family
Let's take a good look at today's parents of teens and see just how their
being who they are has made teens who they are.
Consider this. In the U.S., statistically, of 100 children born today, 17
will be born out of wedlock. A full 48 will be born of parents who divorce
before the child is 18, and 16 more will be born to parents who separate.
Six will be born to parents of whom one will die before the child reaches
That leaves 13 kids out of 100 who will reach age 18 having two parents
with their marriage intact. A mind-blowing figure.
So what about those other 87 teens? They spend an average of about five
years in a single-parent household. These kids' concept of family is being
shaped in an environment once uncommon, one that used to be considered
unnatural. Single-parent homes, in the numbers we see today, are a
distinctly modern phenomenon.
So what kind of parents do they make? Regardless of other factors, they
are alone, solely saddled with the responsibility for being the family's
breadwinner, homemaker, caretaker and disciplinarian. They tread a hard
and lonely road. Quality family time is at a premium. Some make a valiant
effort to maintain high involvement with their kids; many surrender in the
face of the demands, and the teens virtually raise themselves.
Another fact about single parents: Only 10 percent of them are dads.
That's a lot of kids with no adult male influence or example in their
homes; and a lot with a mom who may be openly bitter about men.
Weighted down by responsibility, single parents are very needy for
companionship. And today, many of them actively pursue their OWN
boyfriends or girlfriends in a way much like teens do; they may spend
nights on the town or have sleepovers. We can begin to see how much
affairs may drastically affect teens' views of parents, of authority in
general, and of how to lead their own lives.
This situation gives rise to another fairly new, now common, circumstance
in teen life: stepfamilies. Consider these facts: "Because more than 75
percent of divorced parents remarry, the majority of youngsters whose
parents separate also experience living in a stepfamily at some time. And,
because the rate of divorce is higher for second marriages than first
marriages, the majority of youth whose parents remarry will experience yet
a second divorce. Moreover, because divorces generally occur faster in
remarriages, many children must confront a second divorce before they have
finished adapting to having a stepparent" (Lawrence Steinberg,
The Vanishing Homemaker
In 1955, 60 percent of U.S. households had a working father, a
stay-at-home mom and two or more school-age kids. A "model family." Most
14-year-olds could expect mom (or their grandmother, or at least their
neighbors) to be home during the day. These kids had full-time moms.
Obviously there was a lot of parental involvement in their lives.
That was only 47 years ago. Such families virtually evaporated-within a
single generation. By the 1970s, both parents work in 50 percent of
families with school-age children. In 1986, the 1955-family model made up
only 7 percent of our homes. Today, three of four moms with school-age
kids have left home to join the work force.
Sociologists studying this trend plainly state how this change has
affected the lives of today's teens. Many cite it as one of the most
drastic changes in modern times. But they will not say this is a bad
change. In fact, they tend to highlight the positive effect on teenage
girls of having a working mother. (They do not note a positive effect in
teen boys, however; in fact it tends to lower their academic performance.)
The criterion they use for defining "positive" effect? That the girls have
higher career aspirations!
The real effects on teens, again, go back to parental involvement and
monitoring. A family with two working parents, in one way, has the same
problem as a single-parent home: The adults are so caught up in providing
for the family that caring for and actually REARING the family get
"The Carnegie Corporation points out that 30 percent of eighth graders are
on their own after school, some as long as five hours a day, which gives
them much more private, personal space than their postwar predecessors
ever enjoyed. Seventy-five percent of sexually active teenagers cite their
home (or the boyfriend's home) as their usual meeting place, since the
coast is inevitably clear. 'Unsupervised time after school,' the
Washington Post reported in 1992, 'is the most common occasion for
adolescents to have sexual intercourse, often at a boy's house while his
parents are at work'" (Grace Palladino, Teenagers: An American History).
When teenagers spend a full day at school packed in with other teenagers,
and then spend most of their spare time either alone or in completely
unsupervised social situations with other teenagers, there are bound to be
Where Did Teens Come From?
Did you know that 100 years ago "TEENAGERS" DID NOT EXIST? The term
teenager didn't come into common use until about 1940. And there is a
reason for that.
Kids worked. In 1900 only 6 percent of 17-year-olds in the U.S. graduated
high school. Public education just wasn't a priority. Most youth spent the
bulk of their time with family or in the adult world. There was no "youth
culture." No movies, MTV or malls.
In the '20s, high schools revamped to attract more students, adapting
their traditional, scholarly education to include practical classes like
bookkeeping and home economics. It paid off: By 1930, almost half the teen
population were high school students, and the trend continued upward. More
than ever, teens were ripening in an environment composed almost entirely
of their peers. High School was now a full-out teenage social experience.
Savvy businessmen were quick to pick up on this emerging demographic. In
the '40s, advertisement aimed directly at the teen market began to appear
for household furnishings, hope chests and fashions. The products were
wholesome-an extension of, say, home economics in school-preparing youths
for adulthood. But money was clearly bottom-line. The onset of the
"teenager" had everything to do with their increase in buying power. The
teen market burgeoned in the wake of America's post-World War II
prosperity. Suddenly, even working-class teens had the change to cast
their dollar votes. "Once a mixed group of teenagers were encouraged to
speak in their own, distinctive voices, they shifted the market's focus to
an uncharted world of teenage passion and excitement in the form of rock
'n' roll, leather jackets, fast cars and drive-in movies". Hence, the
world flipped upside down within a generation. As teen numbers
and economic clout swelled, so did an onslaught of rock 'n' roll culture
and delinquency. The '50s and '60s saw an unprecedented upsurge in youths'
spite for authority and parental control; the war between parents and
teens came into full swing (it was in the '60s that the term "generation
gap" was coined). Youth culture rocked the entire world: the entertainment
industry, the universities, the government. The atmosphere of protest gave
rise to gang, beatniks, rockers and hippies, bent on casting off
constraint, high on the heady fumes of hedonism. While these youths spoke
out against the mistakes of the previous
generation (which had only succeeded in bringing the world to the brink of
nuclear annihilation), the only alternative they seemed to offer was a
By that time, the economic value of the teen market had silenced all but
the most determined critics; it had become the CENTER of commercial
attention. And it would continue to be stoked and exploited in the decades
Now, we are a full generation beyond the development of modern youth
culture. The students who protested at colleges around the country were
absorbed into the system and are now the professors and administrators.
The teens who once declared WAR on parental control are the parents of
Consider: The average parent of an adolescent in his mid to late teenage
years is between 35 and 45 years old, which means they were born in the
'50s or '60s; and that they went to high school roughly between 1971 and
1985. Pretty tumultuous-and influential-years in the history of American
youth. So, what do you do if you've grown up REBELLING against authority,
parents and everything they stood for, and suddenly realized one day that
you're a parent?
"I feel better knowing where my child is, so I decided that his room is
his territory, his privacy." That is one mother's explanation, as printed
in a New York Times feature (April 4, 1991), of why she allows her teenage
son to entertain girlfriends in his bedroom-overnight.
Just a generation or two ago, parents were trying to keep their teens from
dating the wrong people; now some parents' biggest concern seems to be the
comfort of the bed their teens fornicate in! If such a degree of
permissiveness seems rare, just think of the movement within school
systems to distribute contraceptives to students. The attitude of, "Well,
they're going to do it anyway so they ought to do it right," pervades not
only modern parenting, but modern education in general. Perhaps it's easy
to overlook just how very NEW this development is. Where the previous
generation's authorities violently resisted letting go of their control
over teens, with youth fighting bitterly for freedom, today's authorities
seem to be bending over backward to AVOID
CONFRONTATION with youth. Fear of confrontation is not a helpful quality
in authority figures. It leads to parents with no control. It leads to
youth able to have whatever they want by intimidating adults.
Modern books on parenting and education will speak frankly of how
out-of-control most teens are, and will even link the problem directly
with laxness in modern child rearing. A typical assessment: "This is the
era of 'permissiveness.' As a result, the most effective weapons have been
taken out of a parent's arsenal. ... It's inevitable that without these
harsher forms of enforcement, children's behavior has changed. This is
just human nature. The new teenager does feel freer to do as he or she
pleases, especially at home. ... Old-style respect is gone. We have
entered a new era in child rearing. Perhaps the old way was both easier
and more peasant, but it is gone" (Anthony E. Wolf, Get Out of My Life).
Having pinpointed the problem, these "authorities" ("they which lead
thee") will never say the solution lies in returning to those methods that
once worked. Instead they look for answers in new, progressive forms of
parenting, "cooperative discipline" and the like.
These new methods have been around for several decades; what's different
now is that they are 100 percent mainstream. A handout given to teachers
in an Oklahoman junior high school on "Tips for Anger Management" includes
this point: "Acknowledge the student's power-the more we try to control,
the more the student resists. When we GIVE UP CONTROL, the student has
nothing to resist. Once their resistance is lowered and the confrontation
calmed, we can use a consequence [which may be something like depriving
the student of tokens for good behavior which can be cashed in for free
candy] to influence them to choose a more appropriate behavior" (C.A.F.
Associates, Anger Management: Developing Options to Anger).
Do these types of strategies work? Are they easing teen problems? Are they
stabilizing out-of-balance lives? Are they producing peaceful,
character-driven adults? Not at all! The only "good" that comes from these
parenting "options"-if we would just be honest about it-is that they
demonstrate beyond doubt just how MIXED UP things get when our
understanding of respect for AUTHORITY is ambiguous and topsy-turvy.
Grasp this point! We have set up a grand experiment to see what will
happen if we take a bunch of kids who "know better than their parents" and
shuck off every restraint imposed upon them-and give them their parents'
jobs. Now we are seeing these parents with their hands tied! They can SEE
that their "solutions" are not working. But because of their past they
can't feel they have any right to say anything; they don't want to be
"parental," for fear of feeling hypocritical. They have never been taught
the way an active, loving, authoritative parent should act. And they are
too absorbed in their own selves (just as they were taught to be by the
youth culture they embraced) to do anything significant about it!
Truly, the PARENTS of today's teenagers are totally unique in history!