The razzle-dazzle of technology and media has captured the hearts and minds of teenagers, far outpacing parents’ and teachers’ ability to hold the attention of youth. If parents are worried about how to raise children and provide for them in a fast changing technologically savvy world, teachers in schools are equally concerned with what to teach children, how to engage them while competing with iPhones and how to help them distinguish between information and knowledge. The automatic response to any question ‘I’ll look it up on the internet’ is a case in point of taking information to be knowledge. If schools look to parents for support, parents in turn trust that schools and teachers will educate their child and provide the best environment for their growth. However, the two groups are positioned differently. Parents are focussed on their child while teachers teach an entire group of similar age students. If we accept as truth that the child is at the centre of the inquiry for both parents and teachers, it is important that we not wait for a problem to surface to put out fires. We need to find out now – how can we as parents or teachers communicate better with each other and with teenagers? How can schools support parents and vice versa? What do parents need from schools and what do schools and teachers need from parents? One way to begin this inquiry is by examining parenting and its pressures in light of what it means to be young in the twenty-first century. While it is true that the challenges teachers face at school may in some respects be similar to what parents face, in this essay I focus on parents. I lay out the new pressures of parenting, discuss the relationship between parent, child and peers and end with laying out what parenting might look like in the context of holistic philosophies, in particular the teachings of J. Krishnamurti.
The term ‘generation gap’ is just one among all the gaps we hear about today, information gap, technological gap, knowledge gap, you name it. The ‘gap’ appears as a yawning chasm that everyone, especially the older generation, is racing to leap across as we play an everlasting game of ‘catch up.’ Like chasing a mirage, just as we think we are nearing our objective or capturing the meaning of some mutual experience, in the blink of an eye, it disappears, eluding our grasp and leaving us once more on this side of the gap—breathless, anxious and feeling just a little left behind. Instead of chasing this mirage in our quest to communicate with youth, perhaps we should take issue with the whole approach, and certainly with the media for characterizing an entire generation as different from previous generations—Gen-Y for example. The ‘generation gap’ approach casts adolescence as separate from adults, and ignores the many commonalities youth share with adults and parents in particular, for example, culture, language, family ties and shared experiences. Further, this approach conveys the impression that adolescence is a dangerous time for youth. The generation gap approach fixes youth in the present while a second approach, the ‘social change’ perspective, casts youth as paving the way for the future. From this perspective youth are seen as whiz kids, tech-savvy and citizens of the future. However, while the two perspectives cast adolescence differently, both paint two-dimensional pictures of youth and leave parents anxious about not knowing what to provide for their offspring so that their children are not left behind in the race for meeting the future.
Parents face a growing conflict between the demands of home life and their careers. The language they use to describe daily life reveal the stresses they face. Terms like the ‘juggling act’ or ‘crunch time’ illustrate time as a source of anxiety for parents. Market forces favor parents who spend longer hours at work. Employees who are willing to give up weekends and evenings with little notice are referred to as having ‘zero drag’—a compliment that puts them at the top of the favored list by employers. Some parents are increasingly finding balancing work and home life hectic and want to escape back into the office, thereby exacerbating the problem. The phrase ‘quality time, ’ has misled parents into thinking that the amount of time spent with their children matters less than what they do with that time. Studies show that the amount of time spent does matter. Moreover, the less time parents spend with their children, the more money they tend to spend on them. Parental guilt acquiesces to the child’s demands for the latest in gadgets, clothes, music, toys or gaming videos. Buying the latest gadget or fashion accessory for their children reinforces the hype created over things and plays a role in adolescent peer relationships.
Peer relationships are often cast in opposition to family relationships or adult-child relationships. Peer pressure is defined as pressure from peers to do something or keep from doing something whether one personally wants to or not. Peer pressure is a construct often used by adults or youth to explain their behavior. It is natural for young people to try to define their identities as distinct from adults. During this process, youth experience a sense of separation that produces anxiety, and they cling to their group of peers. The influence of peers has changed in structure over time to go beyond a small group of teens around the neighborhood or school to a whole host of teens across the world and the media savvy adults who market to them. However, despite what seems like a large group with a strong influence, it would be a mistake to assume that peer influence and pressure are one-sided, leaving the individual with little or no agency to assert their own judgment. While at the beginning stages of asserting their identities, youth may try out different labels and characteristics, as they develop they exercise more choice. Indeed, youth development research argues that as young people develop a strong and stable identity, they may adopt the behavior and appearance of peers as a conscious strategy to enhance personal and social power. They may also choose to reject one group in favor of another to reflect the activities in which they decide to participate. In other words, we need to put back on the table social processes other than peer pressure to explain why youth adopt certain habits or styles. We need to examine individual motivation, choices and the way like-minded people group together and then develop a style, which may or may not include certain habits (for example, smoking). Teenagers become adept at arguing their case with parents. Usually this involves invoking the power of the group or a comparison with other parents. Teenagers complain: ‘Everyone is allowed to go out and stay late.’ Or ‘everyone in my group of friends owns an iphone except me.’ When children try to wrest authority from the parent by citing the peer group, parents are often bewildered or resigned. It is at this stage they wonder if the rebellion of their children is a signal for a change in relationship. They think about moving from being a parent to the status of a ‘friend’ for their child. Parents wonder ‘am I being authoritarian, old fashioned or worse am I depriving my child of valuable opportunities?’ Parents consider soft-pedaling the parent role in favor of the ‘friend’ role. Parents who make this decision often argue that it gives them an edge, a way to communicate, and prevents them from losing their son or daughter altogether to the peer group. Chances are that children on their part are happy to have the parent as a friend because it means they have more freedom. However, it is important for parents to realize that the relationship between parent and child can never be that of equal friends until the children are adults. Youth need and have many friends their own age. They only have two parents and in many cases, only one. Most young people are looking to parents for guidance based on their greater experience. They also expect parents to be responsible. While youth may find it fun to wrestle with the authority of the parent, they also feel rudderless and uncertain under the weight of added responsibility if it is conceded to them. Another reason for parents to refrain from abdicating their parent role is the lack of adult mentors for youth. Parents can represent an alternative to the adult models widely watched by teenagers on the media who emphasize commercialism, sexuality, substance abuse and violence. It is important for parents to model standards of behavior and thoughtfulness, representing adulthood that stands outside media stereotypes, and reflecting a value system that is a stabilizing factor. Teenagers’ interactions with peers go beyond face to face interaction to the networked world of Facebook and MySpace. In the next section I briefly discuss the new challenges that parents face in this context.
Thirty years ago, experts assured us that technology would bring more time for leisure and more time for our families. The opposite has occurred. Technology has created a change in peer interaction so that while years ago, kids would go out in groups, nowadays they are likely to stay home alone to socialize. Peer interaction no longer requires the physical presence of a group of kids. Social networking sites present the opportunity for interaction with large numbers of peers across the world, while also increasing the vulnerability of the user. A computer or a cell phone is enough to create a situation of harassment or bullying. Even with security settings in place, the temptation for teenagers is to have as many ‘friends’ as possible via such networking sites. Aside from the worries of parents regarding the safety of their child in online interactions, there are now some other documented dangers of constant internet use. It is possible that the internet may be providing a potentially ever-present addictive medium. Unlike other forms of addiction that work on the principle of constant reinforcement, online gaming, especially popular with young boys, works on the principle of partial reinforcement. In other words the attraction for online gaming depends on the possibility of another win being just around the corner. Perhaps for parents, it is most important to consider the effect of decreased social ‘face time’. ‘Face time’ or ‘face to face interaction’ allows us to understand and absorb non-verbal cues and moderate or adapt our communication with each other. The lack of practice in this arena may cause teenagers to be less developed in this skill. What is acceptable in the online environment as polite is often not enough in the face to face world. At least some of what is recognized as ‘disrespect’ from youth has to do with this lack of learning about non-verbal communication. The question is, what can parents do? What wisdom can they draw on that goes beyond the plethora of confusing and contradictory information? In the next section, I lay out what we can learn from holistic philosophers.
According to J. Krishnamurti, ‘parents need to be willing to educate themselves.’ Apart from Krishnamurti, I draw on other holistic philosophers including Rudolf Steiner and Sri Aurobindo to examine what it means for parents to educate themselves.
Parent education involves looking inward, at one’s own image as a parent. It means questioning oneself. For example, what are the expectations that parents have of children? What are the pressures that parents face that they in turn impose on children? Looking inward also means examining our own thought processes and limitations. It includes looking at our inward psychological, emotional and spiritual states of being. The welfare of the child is therefore connected to the well-being of the parent.
Educating oneself includes learning about and understanding the relationship between oneself and the child, between oneself and society. For this to occur, the adults in the child’s life—primarily the parent and the teacher—need to co-operate and develop a relationship of mutuality. In such a relationship, neither is above the other and they meet as equals to learn from each other for the welfare of the child. Parents and teachers can awaken confidence in each other and themselves, so that they can stand outside or as an alternative to the messages of the mainstream. They can work together to find a quality of wisdom that endures.
Inquiry entails dialogue between the parent and the teacher so that the school and the home do not contradict each other in spirit or intention. Parents and teachers must take care to facilitate such dialogues so that the meetings do not devolve into digressing, details or a ‘blame game’. In other words, the big picture of the welfare of the child needs to be central to the inquiry. More important than inquiry and dialogue between adults is the communication with children and teenagers. Inquiry necessitates inquiry with the child. Parents and schools need to centralize their communications with youth in their inquiry together about the best ways to serve their needs. Teenagers are the best experts to consult regarding their own experiences and what affects them well or adversely. In the next section of this essay, I lay out a few practical strategies for communicating with teenagers that emerge from holistic educators and from research with teenagers.
Parallel communication: One way to put teenagers at ease while discussing important issues relating to their everyday life is to communicate while engaging in a parallel activity. This could be cooking together or playing a game. An activity allows a parent to move between conversations regarding the activity as well as the problem she or he might want to raise with the child. It keeps the conversation from devolving into an argument and eases the tensions that might surface when there is disagreement between the two. Additionally, it prevents the teenager from feeling attacked when potentially contentious issues are raised. Questions such as ‘How do you feel about that’ or ‘Can you give me an example’ stimulate discussion and allow the teenager to take the lead in a dialogue.
Focusing on the right thing at any given moment may be as simple as listening to one’s teen child and moving away from the temptation of feeling righteous or wanting to ‘win’ an argument.
The most important aspect of communicating and having a dialogue with teenagers involves listening. Parents can try a 60-second challenge by timing themselves to see if they can listen to their child for 60 seconds without interrupting them. Listening requires parents to value the perceptions and experiences of the teenager and not try to talk them out of it.
Since much of the angst of being a teen originates from wanting to please peers and parents while retaining a positive self-image, parents can teach their children how to negotiate these multiple demands on their lives. This involves learning to figure out what works in a particular context and perhaps modeling and making transparent to teenagers the process of such decision making in one’s own life.
Parenting requires a multivariate and dynamic stance. It requires a non-routine, attentive response to children’s needs. Parenting is an opportunity for personal growth. What parents do matters—in talk, behavior and actions. Their day to day interactions impact their children—their attention, expressed pleasure, listening and interest, as well as limit-setting—all nourish a child’s growing sense of self just as food nourishes a growing body. Therefore, the qualities of the parent affect the child the most. The art of parenting is to unfold the potential of the child to evolve not only as an individual but also as a member of the community. To do this, parents need to be willing to step back from the frenetic pace of life. In the words of Krishnamurti, ‘if you want to understand a child, you must love and not condemn him.’ For understanding, there must be ‘complete unity of mind and heart in action.
Parents often succumb to the tremendous social pressure to ensure that their kids are not just being the best they can be but are on par with or palpably better than their peers. Parents struggle with the fact that they are very invested in making sure that their kids get all the right experiences and into the right classes. Tutors, extra classes and enrichment lessons are all part of the plan—even if it means scheduling every minute of the child’s life. In addition, for those times children are at home, there are educational toys and games. Corporate firms have capitalized on parental fears to market toys that claim to teach. Child enrichment themes are used as selling points an example of which is the ‘interactive’ toy promising to counter ‘passive entertainment.’ Educators on their part want children to interact with toys or other objects in their environment, not for toys to become interactive. Along with the pressure of figuring out how to give their children the best learning environment at home, parents also face the strain of balancing family and employment demands.