Catholic Activity: Practical Problems of Adolescents
It is easier to state a principle than to apply it. Many parents know all the answers provided in books, yet seem unable to achieve satisfactory results in training their adolescents. What is wrong? A review of problems recounted by mothers and fathers reveals several recurring and fundamental causes.
The first is the unwillingness or inability of parents to recognize that there is some truth in teen-agers' assertions that conditions have changed. As we noted earlier, the modern youngster faces a greater variety of pressures, all applied with a greater intensity, than modern adults were exposed to. The modern parent probably is shocked to think that a fifteen-year-old boy attends movies at night unescorted and is on the city's streets at 11 P.M., or that the high school girl of seventeen smokes cigarettes while doing her homework. Such incidents, almost unthought of twenty-five years ago, are commonplace today. A generation ago, parents could instruct their fifteen-year-old boy to be home at 9:30 P.M., and could forbid their daughter to smoke until she reached twenty-one, if at all. The modern parent who sets up rules based on his own experience and contrary to the common custom, can expect to encounter resistance.
A second area of difficulty stems from parents' unwillingness to give responsibility. They sometimes overlook the fact that youngsters have the same human failings to which adults are prone. This is evident in the frequent complaint, "My son won't take responsibility." What the complaining parent overlooks is that the son — like his father and most other human beings — will not assume a burden if it is unnecessary for him to do so. Like the rest of us, he is inclined to laziness. But if you give him the responsibility and make it plain that it is his to succeed with, or to fail, you will discover that he is capable of carrying heavier burdens than you imagined.
One sees vivid proof of this fact when the family is suddenly deprived of the father or mother. The youngsters pitch in and do work that would have been considered impossible for them before the emergency arose. In one home with five children, the mother became seriously ill and was required to spend several months in a sanitarium. The father could not afford a housekeeper and distributed many of the housekeeping chores to his two daughters — one fifteen and the other thirteen. When their mother was home, the girls had seemed to lack every shred of responsibility. They had to be prodded continually even to make their own beds and keep their room neat. They resisted all efforts to get them to help wash the evening dishes and to keep the main rooms clean. They knew that if they did not do this work, their mother would do it ultimately.
With the mother hospitalized, however, they realized that they would have to do the work — or it would not get done. Now that they could not avoid the responsibility, the change in their attitude was striking. They performed their tasks with enthusiasm and vied with each other in preparing tasty meals for the family. The house was as neat as it had ever been.
When the mother returned, however, it soon became obvious that she would do any work that her daughters neglected. And so they too soon reverted to their former ways. Many parents who have found "seven-day wonders" in their homes when emergencies arose, can recognize the importance of thrusting responsibility upon youngsters.
This principle — that parents must give responsibility if they wish adolescents to take it — is often strikingly evident in the way that youngsters respond to school assignments. As we have noted, a high school student should be mature enough to carry out his homework assignments without prodding from his parents. If they must correct his work every night, they probably have not instilled proper study habits — and a sense of personal responsibility — during his formative years in elementary school. If you canvass parents of students in the upper quarter of their class, you will probably be unable to find one who finds it constantly necessary to prod his child to study. The reason is that the good student has been forced to accept personal responsibility for his work.
Parents of an irresponsible student find themselves squeezed by pressures. They realize that he will lose an important advantage in his adult years if he fails to obtain a college education or, at the very least, a high school diploma. On the other hand, they note his apparent unconcern over his lack of scholastic achievement. What should they do?
They may try to nag him to scholastic success, but whether this procedure ever works is doubtful. Instead, they should make certain that he is fully aware of the disservice he does to himself by neglecting his opportunities for education, and they should remove any conditions standing in the way of his achievement. Does he seriously worry over his health or that of other members of the family? Is there a tense or troubled family atmosphere which makes study difficult? Does he have too easy access to distractions like television, radio or phonograph, or reading matter not related to school work? Does he lack a suitable, quiet place for study? You should change this and similar home conditions which may be responsible for poor schoolwork. You should make certain, after talks with the school principal or teachers, that there are no difficulties of a psychological nature in his relations with the school itself. Then you should put responsibility for scholastic achievement directly upon your youngster — and let him know it.
Adolescents also must be taught to accept responsibility for their spiritual welfare. You must keep a vigilant eye over your youngster's conduct, of course, but it is also wise to extend the area of his personal responsibility in spiritual matters, so that as an adult he will not need others to tell him when to perform his religious duties. When he reaches his mid-teens, for example, he should be fully responsible for all of his basic religious obligations — attending Mass on Sundays and holy days, observing the laws of fast and abstinence, saying morning and night prayers, obeying regulations covering the sacraments, etc.
While you must correct him if he does not faithfully perform his duties, it is usually more desirable to operate on the assumption that he will meet his responsibilities. The parents in one suburban home developed a habit of attending the last Mass on Sunday. Their eighteen-year-old daughter rode the two miles to church with them. But each Sunday she slept later and later, resisting her mother's efforts to awaken her, until the parents themselves were reaching Mass late because they waited for her. Finally, one Sunday, the father told his daughter that if she was not ready at a specified time thereafter, the parents would leave without her; if she missed Mass, the sin would be hers alone. The first Sunday that this procedure was followed, she refused to arise in time. The parents kept their word and went to church without her. She arrived in a state of disarray while the priest was delivering his sermon. The parents were naturally embarrassed but determined to hold their line. It took a few more weeks for the girl to realize that attendance at Mass was her entire responsibility. And once she learned that lesson she was ready to leave with her parents every Sunday.
When you give responsibility, you must reconcile yourself to the thought that your youngsters will make many mistakes. Some, like that of the girl arriving late at Mass, may prove embarrassing. Some, like that of the high school student who spends his entire allowance on entertainment and is forced to eat peanuts for lunch all week, may be foolhardy or stupid. Other steps toward independence, such as your child taking work in an office where he will be exposed to unknown influences over which you have no control, may involve a possibility of danger. But all of these risks are necessary. We all learn by making mistakes. Only by actual experience can most human beings acquire the confidence to assume greater responsibility. The parent who says, " I don't want my son to make the mistakes I did," may truly wish to protect his youngster from harm. But in quarantining him from mistakes of any kind he may also be stunting the growth of a personality.
Activity Source: Catholic Family Handbook, The by Rev. George A. Kelly, Random House, Inc., New York, 1959