A story in USA Today reported that 38 percent of high school dropouts claimed that they were given too much freedom by their schools and parents. It implied that if the adults in these teens’ lives had taken a greater interest in them before “they were on the verge of dropping out,” things might have gone differently. This result might seem surprising (teens want more rules!?) but I think it provides an important insight that needs to be put in perspective.
In his book Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, sociologist Chap Clark offers a glimpse into the “world beneath” the shiny façade of high school life. On the surface, many teens appear genuinely happy and carefree, but underneath hides a constant struggle for identity in an adult-run world that rarely cares about them as individuals. Clark suggests that it is this “systemic abandonment” that has forced today’s youth to create an alternative culture, and lead to the indefinite postponement of adulthood that has become such a hallmark of our society.
He argues that this feeling of abandonment is also what has pushed youth culture towards rebellion and irresponsibility, and shows that what teenagers need and want most are adults who truly take an interest in their lives. Thus, while the study reported in USA Today might seem to imply that if only adults would be clearer about their expectations, teens would follow along; the truth is that rules will only be accepted from adults that they trust, and trust is built on personal involvement.
I’ve been a youth leader at our church for about five years now and I’ve consistently found this to be the case. It is startling how many teens are desperate for someone–anyone–to take an interest in their lives, and it completely changes them when you do. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true, and the world is full of kids whom no one ever takes the time to care about, with sometimes tragic results.
This theme is well-illustrated by the 2002 indie film Better Luck Tomorrow, which depicts the slow but steady collapse of the lives of four Asian-American honor students. Despite their outwardly perfect lives, their boredom leads them to ever-increasing rebellion, including drug abuse, petty theft, sex, violence and finally murder. The film has been criticized for its amoral tone as it asks many questions while offering few answers, but it gives a powerful (if emotionally draining) glimpse into the alternate cultures teens create for themselves.
It never directly explains why four successful honor students would pursue such a destructive path, but the answer seems to lie in a conspicuous absence: Almost no adults appear in this film, and those that do are distant, self-serving and disinterested. As the central character Ben Manibag (played by Parry Shen) observes: “as long as our grades were there, we were trusted” – they could get away with anything, and they did. It’s a graphic picture of the “systemic abandonment” Clark describes, and the result is clear: nihilism, and a growing disrespect for all rules and standards, leading to self-destruction.
This is a disturbing film that deals with a number of adult themes and includes a couple of brief scenes of nudity (it’s rated R for good reason). It is not for everyone, but it tells a thought-provoking story that should not be dismissed lightly. Together with Clark’s book, I think it goes a long way towards explaining the surprising finding that many teens actually want more structure. More importantly, it is a firm reminder that the only way we as a society can break the cycle of rebellion is if are willing to take a much more proactive role in caring for our youth on a personal level. Only that will provide both the stability and the love that teens crave.