by Jay Johansen | May 12, 2007
There seems to be a natural tendency of teenagers to rebel against their parents and other older authority figures. While small children tend to believe whatever their parents or teachers tell them, when they hit their teens suddenly they start to question and challenge everything. My parents comlained about it. Their parents complained about it. Aristotle even complained about the younger generation of his time.
I'm a 40-something-year-old man with two teenage children. Most people in my position find teen rebellion to be somewhere between annoying and a threat to civilization. I think it's a great and wonderful thing.
Some teen rebellion is about growing up and independence. Young people reach a point where they don't want to be treated as children anymore. Other rebellion is about customs and style. Young people want different music and clothing than their parents. This is just symbolic. The important rebellion is when teenagers challenge their parents' most fundamental beliefs, their religion, politics, morals, and social conventions. This is where teen rebellion performs a valuable social function.
Suppose that every generation tended to accept whatever their parents told them without question. Then any stupid or evil idea would be passed down from generation to generation for eons. It is often very difficult for people to change their minds, to admit that they were wrong about something. At least the next generation should get a fresh start.
When I was in college in the late 1970s, even as a kid I was amused to see how my professors couldn't deal with teen rebellion. Or rather, they couldn't deal with the sort of teen rebellion they actually encountered. When they were young in the 1960s, their parents were very conservative in their politics and morals, so they rebelled against that by becoming very liberal. Because they were more liberal than their parents, they assumed that the next generation would be more liberal still. When I mentioned in class once that I was more conservative than my parents, the teacher expressed absolute disbelief. Another teacher made statements in class indicating that he expected our generation to carry the liberal ideas of his yet further, and he wondered if he would think we were going to far in the same way that his parents thought his generation went too far to the left. Apparently these highly educated men took one example -- their generation was more liberal than their parents -- and immediately leaped to the conclusion that every generation to come would be more liberal than the one before.
They couldn't deal with the fact that we were rebelling against them, when they expected us to join them in rebelling against their parents.
You may think the liberal generation was right. You may think the conservative generation was right. Either way, it's natural to think that when people who agree with you are the ones in control, that the next generation should accept what they say and carry on; but when people who disagree with you are in control, you hope that the next generation will rebel.
Of course not all teen rebellion can be described in terms of conservative versus liberal. And of course teen rebellion doesn't always result in each generation going to the opposite extreme from where their parents were. The generation of the 90's and 00's is moving further to the right than mine did. Whether the next generation will move yet further right, swing back to the left, or stay in pretty much the same place, I don't know. That's because teen rebellion is not a simplistic, reflexive adoption of the opposite of whatever their parents say. (Much as it may seem like that to their parents.) Rather, teens question what their parents believe. They demand explanations and reasons and justifications. During this questioning phase, they are extremely distressing to their parents. But as they reach the end of their teen years, most young people come to conclusions. Most end up concluding that what their parents taught them is pretty much true after all. Others conclude they were more or less wrong and adopt different ideas, in one direction or another.
Sometimes the children are right, and society is better for the rejection of their parents' bad ideas. Sometimes the children are wrong, and society is the worse for it. Most of the time, whether they are right or wrong remains a subject of debate for generations. People often describe their ideas as "modern" and their parents' ideas as "out-dated". This is ironic, as these issues go back and forth constantly. Like, when I was young, people considered themselves very "modern" because they defended free love. Yet this was an idea that was popular in the 1920s, rejected in the 1950s, and which they then revived in the 1970s. As I write this, the "modern" idea is to support gay rights. Yet this was an idea popular in ancient Greece and rejected in the Middle Ages.
Each generation thinks that they are right and that their conclusions are the last word on the subject. Then their kids come along and say no, those old folks had it all wrong, we now have the right answers. And so it goes.
© 2007 by Jay Johansen