Word Magazine April 1974 Page 11-12
ADOLESCENTS IN THE FAMILY
“GET OFF MY BACK”
By John L. Boojamra
Anyone who has tried to teach religion to adolescents in the past years will probably agree that this age group is the most threatening and difficult to face. Whole segments of our youth population have turned off to religion, at least in its traditional and established forms. There have been several reasons for this, and certainly one of them is the various unhappy experiences they have had in their parishes. This rejection is one side of the contemporary religious scene. On the other side, we have what some have called a religious re-awakening among our youth: a search for meaning in un-institutionalized religion, the bizarre forms of which stagger many of us.
This same tension of seemingly contradictory experience is occurring in the American family structure. We are, on the one hand, experiencing the wholesale rejection of the family, children moving out while still in high school or never returning after finishing college and the claims of “generation gap” and “communications gap” in those families that do manage to stay together. On the other hand, a tremendous search for belonging in the peer group, in friends, in communal living. Both the religious and familial expression of this confusion have their roots in a much deeper problem, in a general social turmoil, an alienation which transcends anything which we have thus far experienced.
We must first express a caution. In any discussion of this nature generalizations are difficult, if not impossible. All teens or adolescents cannot be caricatured and neither can all parents: it would certainly be easier if they could. We must expect to see exceptions to what I am saying. It seems to me that many Orthodox parents are alarmed about how their children relate to the traditional family structure, to the Church, the use of sex and drugs.
In this article I would like to deal only with the Church. We don’t need a pollster to tell us that many of our young people between the ages of 18-25 have turned off to religion in its organized form. It is no consolation to me to know that they express interest as I mentioned above in the things of the spirit in the most bizarre form. Certainly, no Orthodox parent that I know would feel comfortable or consoled to see his son or daughter on 42nd Street in Manhattan in a flowing saffron robe chanting Hari Krishna.
It is difficult to discuss this type of problem except in the most general terms. Dealing with the problem of the adolescent and the Church discussion with a priest whose pious words all too frequently confirm the parent’s worst fears that this is a wicked and corrupt generation. It is unhappily very difficult for the
parents or the parish priest to admit that the youngster can actually reject the Church and even Christianity for completely honest reasons and in good conscience. You know, they must have been seduced by some “Commie” teacher in high school or college. I believe that we must first admit that, though adolescents are often excessively critical and just plain wrong, parents and adults make very serious mistakes, all the more serious in the very precarious case of the Church which has been entrusted to us in its purity. It often meets our young people in a form less than pure and whole, less than it was meant to be.
Nonetheless, I can imagine the pain and sadness which must strike the serious orthodox parent who sits in church alone on Sunday mornings. It is hard not to somehow feel that the precious faith and Christian life of two thousand years has been broken and tradition irrevocably severed. No doubt many can still talk to their children about the faith, but we are still in most cases using the wrong form of communication. I have seen too many priests and parents take the old “because I say so” approach and attempt to teach and preach religion rather than demonstrate Christianity as a living faith. It is often taken as a challenge to the parent and the priest whose faith has made them secure.
One of the bitterest aspects of the rejection of the faith by children is the fact that the parents often feel that they have personally failed — “where have we gone wrong?” “God knows we tried.” The general rejection of traditional beliefs is far too universal a phenomenon to be due exclusively to our individual failures. This of course must not lead us to believe that we have done nothing wrong and cannot improve our family, our personal Christian life, or our parish life. The real failure which I see is the manner in which the problem is handled. Certainly the expressions above which demonstrate self-pity more than concern are just pathetic. We must not forget that to a great extent this is a universal and timeless phenomenon, but in twentieth century America it has been aggravated by the growth of a nuclear family structure which has closed the comfortable space that used to exist between the child and the family in the larger extended family of the “good old days.” Nuclear means “close together.” Too often the parents are literally on top of the child, “on his back,” so to speak, emotionally and spatially and the feeling of “possession” is all the more increased by this. A personal and independent life of thought and action is correspondingly difficult to achieve short of a crisis. A slight difference of opinion becomes a revolution and a rejection in the minds of parents. In a larger, or extended, family structure, the parents would not be close spatially to the child and conflicts are mitigated by the fact that their is a good Aunt Jane and Uncle Harry to go to for affection or acceptance. Parents too often try to know more than their children and perhaps the key to relating to this age group for both parents and youth workers is low-key and low-profile, which does not necessarily translate into approval. Allow them to develop and express themselves without facing the burden of the parental pretended perfection. Adults have to fight their own ego needs which often infringe unfairly and unjustly on their children. We have need to be right, to win arguments, and to save face against the loss of the confidence and friendship of our children.
Literally volumes have been written on the polarization of parents and children in the family and on how to increase communication between the two often hostile parties. Most of these books are geared to help the parents understand the needs of the teenagers better. Very little is directed at helping adults understand themselves and their role as parents, alienated, living with loneliness and rejection from the children they have given birth to and nurtured. Many of us may feel this as we watch our children growing up in an almost totally different manner from that which characterized our youth. It is particularly painful as you watch them reject your values whether it be the family to which we have devoted our entire life or the Christian faith, which has been the source of our strength. Perhaps even greater than this experience of loss and alienation is the terrible burden of guilt which many parents feel. The terrible paradox is that the more conscientious we are and have been in their upbringing in the faith, as good Orthodox parents, the greater is our sense of failure as we watch our children seemingly trampling on our ideals and sacred cows, mocking the institutions which have fed us and our way of life — business involvement, our concern for money and the security it could bring to us and our children. With regard to Christianity we often see them rejecting the things which we have taken so seriously as “old fashioned,” not only the practices — fasting, prayer, church attendance — all of the things which were woven into the fabric of our faith, but the very content of the belief itself.
First of all, we must put our efforts and the world in the proper perspective. The nuclear family is in my opinion but one aggravating factor in the overall dilemma we face. The age we live in is like all ages
peculiar, but the peculiarity of this age is its uncertainty, its instability, its mobility, its tenuousness — the world for many of us and certainly for our young people is no longer as certain or as sure as it used to be. Certainly a “generation gap” and a “communications gap between generations is normal, to be expected, and perhaps even necessary and we should not fool ourselves into believing that it is anything new or that it can be done away with. Nonetheless, it is aggravated by these uncertainties. Knowing this, that turmoil both internal and external are our lot as twentieth century men, we ought not to blame ourselves too much for not being able to always foresee the hidden needs of our children. We must learn to weigh, not only as parents but as teenagers, what is good and true and beautiful and
permanent from what is temporary and dispensable, what is superficial and what is essential, what is morality and what is mere cultural convention. We must allow our young people to work out their own relationship to the truths we have received and passed on. If the truth is truly theirs then their own expression can be found for it. We do not want parrots. We must as parents believe in ourselves, but we have to go on believing in our children even though we do not necessarily understand them or agree with them. We must be secure enough in ourselves and in our Christian faiths to continue to love and serve them in their own search.
The common ground must also be the search for truth which in all cases is blessed by God. The search for truth will unite us all. This makes the rejection of our values a little easier. We have taught them to search, to question, and hopefully not to accept something just because we say so. If we have done this, then we have succeeded beyond our dreams. But we must face the fact that they will question and search and there is the possibility that their answers will not confirm our own opinions.
We only have the privilege of forming our own belief; we can only teach our children to love the truth and live in faith, the decision to a life of faith towards God and men must be their own. We cannot form theirs for them. Our life, our faith, our beliefs must be open to them and be clear in our words and actions. The children will know if these things are worth their attention by the seriousness we give to them. We will know if our life and faith flows from honesty or merely fear and convention. In the past we have accepted doctrines and liturgy because we were told to. Faith is not that simple or that easy. Faith is not teaching religion, it is living a life with God, a response to the truth in every aspect of our lives. This is not easy and all we can do is present it honestly as a difficult struggle of the mind and the spirit.