You know how missionaries used to run around the globe forcing everyone to be a Christian? And in the process, they destroyed native cultures and traditions?
Well, the same thing is happening today with Western “teen culture.” It is being exported around the world with disastrous effects.
Preindustrial societies mostly exhibit a continuum from childhood to adulthood. There is generally no random cut off age where suddenly teens are given rights and expected to become adults. Children seamlessly and gradually integrate into adulthood, with puberty rites being the only major benchmark.
These societies were “free-range parenting” before it was cool. Even toddlers have a large degree of autonomy. The child is allowed to explore, and the mother provides the nurturing, feeding, and love at the child’s initiation. Young children participate in the work of their parents and elders and interact and learn from people of all ages.
Children are raised from infancy alongside adults, instead of being segregated into peer groups of the same age. They slowly learn from adults and take on more responsibilities by emulating what they see.
What do kids see in the USA? A bunch of other kids with whom they have been grouped by government and industry working in tandem. Instead of emulating adults, they act like their peers. They want to dress the same, impress others with their technology, and keep up with the same tv shows.
This creates an artificial sub-culture based on age. And it creates a new market.
As of 2011, teens spend over $200 billion per year. Disney and all its many subsidiaries bring in about $45 billion a year. It is not surprising that these industries now spend several billion dollars each year advertising to teenagers. And the most effective form of advertising is to create a sub-culture through which to sell products.
You can trace the roots of this phenomenon way back to the industrial revolution when social structures got a big shakeup. Kids worked less alongside adults in family work and apprenticeships. Instead, they were shipped off to compulsory public schools. They were grouped by age and sex, and “educated” to be factory workers.
By contrasting Western adolescence with people of the same age in societies that are just recently modernizing, we see that “teen turmoil” is not a natural phenomenon or an issue of hormones. It has been created by Western culture and is now infecting industrializing societies.
Imperializing Teen Culture
According to Robert Epstein in his book Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence, exporting this Western teen culture is undermining the social structures of developing nations.
A similar story has played out for Kenyans, Moroccans, Australian aborigines, Canadian Inuits, and many other preindustrial societies recently integrated into Western culture. Their ways of life led to few social problems like unwed pregnancy, the breakdown of the family, drug use, depression, violence, and general teenage angst and rebellious destructive behavior. But that changed upon the introduction of Western television, schooling, and teen culture.
What is it that preindustrial teens are seeing on those television programs? Answer: teens being treated like, and behaving like, irresponsible children.
When teens in preindustrial society are forced to attend Western-style schools, how are they affected? Answer: they’re cut off from adults and from the centrality of adult culture; they’re prevented from working, or at least making work the center of their lives; they become controlled by adults instead of part of adult life; teens, rather than adults, become their role models.
When Western mechanisms delay marriage, what is the outcome? Answer: because marriage is the hallmark of adulthood in virtually all cultures, the delay of marriage also means the delay of adulthood. It’s no coincidence that Tom Smith’s recent survey… showed that Americans now think adulthood begins at age twenty-six; the median age for first marriages in the United States is now 26.8.
Pros and Cons of Western Culture
This is not a pro-tribalism post. I am absolutely not saying that society was better off in a pre-industrial age. This is not a black or white issue. It is not like we have to choose between being ignorantly blissful hunter-gatherers or isolated bitter consumer-robots.
Many cultures have benefited from industrialization in that the standard of living has increased. But industrialization does not have to be imported 20th-century style. Modernization can be introduced without causing the collapse of the old ways of life, which kept social problems to a minimum.
We have the ability to see both extremes, isolate the biggest detrimental factors, and mitigate them.
While the issues are all integrated, the main three problems are:
Public schooling is the most glaring catalyst to the perils of Western teenage culture. It is where the groupings by age begin, and the arena in which teens compare themselves, compete and copy each other. They are also a major contributing factor to the oppression many teens feel.
Exporting Hollywood around the globe is another major problem. Teens are indoctrinated with the creepy Hollywood executives’ ideas of what it means to be a teen. They are sold sex, drugs, and irresponsibility as fun, on the silver screen. And of course, there are plenty of real-world products that they can buy to fast-track their emulation of the TV stars.
And finally, like it or not, families are a historically effective regulator of social behaviors.
When it comes to teens around the world, just what kinds of practices and problems are we exporting? The answer, it seems, is crime, ennui, anger, premarital sex, pregnancy, abortion, drug and alcohol abuse, and family conflict. Consider just one of our more subtle exports: according to a recent book on teens by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Barbara Schneider, American teens are almost completely isolated from adults. Teens typically spend more than thirty-five hours per week surrounded by their peers in school and an additional thirty-five hours per week with peers outside of school. That’s two-thirds of their waking hours. This is, according to the researchers, twelve more hours per week than teens in other industrialized nations such as Italy and South Korea spend together, and it is probably sixty hours a week more than teens spend together in many preindustrial societies.
Many American teens–perhaps half or more–also grow up with little access to their father, and “for those lucky enough to have a father, the average teenager now spends less than half an hour a week alone with his or her father.” Half of this time is spent watching television, “a situation that does not readily lend itself to quality parent-child interactions.” Father-teen interactions in the United States are certainly “not enough to transmit the knowledge, values, attitudes, and skills that adult males should pass on to their children.” The child-adult continuum about which Jean Liedloff wrote is almost completely absent in the united states, and we’re sending our broken model of family life to each and every village on earth.
Through our films, television programs, laws, religious beliefs, and schooling and marriage practices, we’re exporting a wide range of mechanisms that extend childhood well past puberty and that isolate teens from adults. We’re creating prolonged, turbulent, Western-style adolescence, with all its inherent problems. We’re creating generation gaps and family conflicts where none existed before. And because we ourselves have no idea how to deal with those problems, we’re offering no solutions to the cultures we’re corrupting.
Sure, pre-industrial cultures have their weak points, but so does the new way of life. You can’t objectively say one is better without specifically defining what makes it better.
Is increased teen depression and suicide worth having access to cell phones and internet? Is increased violence and alcohol abuse worth an overall extended lifespan because of modern medicine?
Luckily, we don’t have to choose.
You can modernize without Westernizing. The three main contributors to the torment of adolescence, and all the social problems which accompany them, are not necessary factors of modernization.
I mentioned “free range parenting” earlier. It is catching on in America. In a global world with more information at our fingertips than ever before, we can cherry pick the best parts of each culture, and apply those lessons to the modern world.
We don’t have to live in a tribal-commune with no access to modern technology in order to give young children autonomy to roam and explore the world.
We don’t have to hunt in loin clothes in order to impart fatherly wisdom to our sons and daughters.
But we may have to reorganize our lives and get our priorities straight.
If you’ve read my articles before, you know that I am not a big fan of “top-down” solutions. That is, the best way to deal with something is on a grassroots, individual level. Trying to change a whole society is difficult and not at all guaranteed to succeed. If it does, you have to guard the progress against undoing.
Better to make the changes at the individual level, where you don’t have to ask permission or get a majority to agree.
Clearly, some broad reforms would help the situation. It is not about the government “doing something” about the problem, it is about the government undoing some of the harm they have caused.
For instance, abolishing public schools, or at very least compulsory schooling would be a good start. Since that probably won’t happen anytime soon, parents can homeschool, send their kids to alternative schools, or team up with friends and neighbors to form a co-op arrangement for education.
Removing age-based restrictions on rights, or at least moving to a competency-based model of gaining rights and privileges would also help. Again, petitioning the governing is mostly a waste of time. Better to work with the freedoms you can give your kids. So they still can’t drive until 16, but at least they can cut their hair how they want, and maybe even have a glass of wine with dinner.
But as with most problems, the largest barriers to improvement are in our heads.
Why not give your kids freedom from an early age? Why not let them participate in household work from an early age? Hell, why not let them participate in your career if they are into it?
The cool thing is that the modern economy seems to be reorganizing to accommodate this way of life, without sacrificing modern comforts and efficiencies.
It is easier than ever to work from home. Imagine a setting where mom and dad do their work while the kids independently learn, or work on easier tasks. Older kids–neighbors or family members or even a tutor–teach the younger kids. Certain work tasks and household chores can be done together as a family, as many hands make light work.
The whole point of this method of parenting is that you offer a continuum from childhood to adulthood.
And without even noticing it, life lessons, love, and kinship will be passed on. You don’t have to sit a kid down at a desk to teach them how to become an adult. If you interact with them daily, they will learn from you. You just have to allow them to participate and encourage them to pursue whatever they get excited about.
If you can’t teach it to them, the internet can.
For some parents, this might sound like a disaster attempting to work from home while teaching kids. But it is the transition that is difficult. Once children understand the new structure of freedom, they will occupy themselves. They will learn more and be more independent. And when they do come to you with a question or problem, it will be a rewarding experience for everyone to work through it.
Of course for kids and teens unaccustomed to freedom, an immediate withdrawal of authority could have disastrous consequences. Think about the 18-year-olds with strict parents who go off to college and go crazy with parties and alcohol. But you can gradually give your child more freedom whatever their age. Just be honest and upfront about what you are doing and why.
The issue of extended childhood, manufactured adolescence, and the harms of teen culture are missing from most public debates.
School shootings, teen suicide, and low-achieving youth are products of the artificial extension of childhood, the oppression that teens face. But with this issue, is it easy for individuals to take control of the situation, and refuse to be part of the problem. You can solve these problems for your family in one generation.
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