Children’s stories talk about characters “becoming real” like in the Velveteen Rabbit or the Indian and the Cupboard. We use the vernacular phrase “get real will you?” We shun people who we deem to be “fake”. But what is “becoming real” in the human sense?
Look at any adolescent and you can see the struggle of “becoming real”. They live in a world of uncertainty. They have so much confusion over their identities, confusion over expectations, and confusion over sexuality. Parents have expectations for them. “You can be a great pianist.” Society has expectations for them. “Your generation will have to figure out the global warming dilemma.” And the sexual expectations – you have to be blind not to see those. How does any adolescent today manage through this confusing morass and “become real”.
Let’s try to tease out all the confusion. Expectations and identities go hand in hand. Children learn a “basic child self” through the early years with their parents. Through praise and their accomplishments children realize they have some skills that perhaps they can build on. By setting expectations and setting ideals for the future, parents form for their child what I call an “expected self”. This is an identify the parents expect their child to conform to or become in the future.
Children naturally develop over time some deep-seated expectations for themselves. This forms their “essential self” that can often be in conflict with the parents “expected self”. This sets up the dynamic often played up in movies. Have you seen the one where the parent expects their child to be a baseball or soccer star and the child wants to star in the musical?
Wait. I am not finished yet! We have our teens pressured by society’s expectations as well. Society expects success from our kids in the long run. Yet in the short run there is enormous pressure “to fit in”. These two things in society are in conflict and each teen has to deal with this conflict. The most common way is to conform. This is why teens dress the same and act the same. The less common reaction is to openly rebel. If a teen is “counter culture” they “confirm” to a different group. It is an open rebellion to the expectations thrown at our kids.
No. I am not done yet. Finally, quietly inside our kids a sexual being emerges. It is likewise under social pressure. And this is so unfair since ultimately this sexual being should be a truly personal choice. Yet society weighs into this struggle for teens in big ways. How many sexual messages do you see everyday? How do these messages effect teens? Have you watched a PG 13 movie lately? Have you looked at the magazines in the checkout aisle?
Wow, what a mess. How can anyone “become real” out of this mess! Becoming real for teenagers is about resolving these conflicts. Kids need to become secure in themselves by fusing together their “basic child self”, the parents’ “expected self”, their own “essential self”, their “sexual self” and societies expectations. Only then does a teen become a mature and stable individual. I feel for them. I firmly believe that it has never been harder. But we can support them through this time.
Teens need a “chaperoned freedom”. They need responsible adults around but need their space at the same time. They need to be respected for the least this horrible process that they need to go through. They also need to be respected for their skills. They need rules and guidance. They need really good examples both in society and at home. They need adults who are true to their adult selves so they can be inspired to be true to their teen selves. With this, teens may ultimately achieve the security, confidence and ability to meld all these expectations and identities into one solid true self – they will have become
When we see problems with teens in society – violence, drugs, and teen pregnancy – there are problems for these teens in this process of becoming real. Some blame parents. Some blame society. Some blame teens yet, in this complex process, many factors affect teen development. It is up to all facets of society, parents, schools, coaches, health providers, churches, & leaders to take their responsibility in their contribution to teen development seriously. I have said for years, if all adults looked at what they were doing in their lives and honestly assessed what impact it had on teenagers and kids we would form a world of support for them that would empower them (the teens) to change the world. I wish it to happen soon. We need to support our next generation in “becoming real”. In the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of parenting articles about parenting teens. Most of the articles will be based on the theories I outlined above and that I have presented in parenting workshops in the Northshore. I hope they help parents during these troubling times.